No shoulder rest => High Thumb position

Edited: November 6, 2021, 7:28 PM · Hi to all,

Was wondering if you knew about high left thumb resources - it’s been dawning on me since I’ve ditched the shoulder rest (long road!…) that something wasn’t quite right, and I think I found what it was: the easiest grab of the violin with enough support is a « mandolin grab » a la Dounis horizontally, but in my case the natural position is the first phalanx completely above the fingerboard.

Considering that I see photos of a lot of pre-shoulder rest with thumbs with first phalanx not touching anything (Kreisler, Heifetz, Milstein, Ricci at times, I think I will stop there…), I started wondering if there was a connection between this and the « no shoulder rest approach). Does anyone teach this? Auer does not and I don’t think Massart did either. But I think it makes wrist vibrato very very easy including on double stops.

Any thoughts about this? Or alternatively where did these guys pick this up and why even though they were taught other stuff while growing up?

Thoughts appreciated!

Replies (17)

November 6, 2021, 3:33 PM · Greetings,
one of the best ways to find a natural thumb position is to use what is called the ‘Milstein Exercise.’ Do a search for Julia Bushkova teaching it on youtube if you are interested.
Personally i think that unless you have small hands, the thumb pointing backwards is a mistake. It’s not how the thumb relates naturally to the rest of the hand in the real world.
November 6, 2021, 4:28 PM · Thank you Stephen: I did forgot to mention that. My position IS the Milstein exercise position with the index brought back (« stretching back «  now makes more sense) but the thumb in the milstein exercise (relaxed and natural) is vertical pretty much between fingers 2 and 3, and the neck on the thumb side is touching the base phalanx of the thumb. no thumb tension ever because very unnatural to squeeze from that part of the thumb, plus shifting is easy and instant vibrato is very relaxed (key reason why I was looking for improvement from the « norm » - hard to carry the violin with left hand with no shoulder rest AND vibrate instantly esp. double stops). Only issue is large stretches but I can get a 9th in most cases so problem 99% of the time.

Still puzzled how so many great great violinists drifted into a position that has been regarded as « wrong » by so many post-Suzuki teachers. Others insights are welcome!

Edited: November 8, 2021, 3:19 PM · So much depends on the length and feasable angles of the lower two thumb phalanxes (i.e. down to the wrist). For example I cannot get my thumb to be horizontal while sticking out leftwards. "Hands are as different as noses"..
November 6, 2021, 6:06 PM · Greetings,
one characteristic technique of players such as Ricci is that they don’t change position as much. Rather they anchor the thumb and simply place the fingers on the higher position or lower position notes. This ‘fly off’ technique is extremely efficient and you cant’t really do it with the thumb pointing back.
November 6, 2021, 10:32 PM · I've been playing without a shoulder rest for over two decades, and one thing that is a definite for me is that there is no static thumb position. For the few students I had who have played this way as well, the concept was to put the thumb wherever it needed to go to sound good without excessive tension.
Edited: November 6, 2021, 10:58 PM · You want your thumb to be in a position where extensions with the fingers are easy to achieve. It should be very relaxed as Gene noted. You are correct that those players you listed tended to use a higher thumb position. I’ll add Itzhak Perlman and Oscar Shumsky to that list. There have also been tremendous players, who did not use shoulder tests, such as Leonid Kogan and Aaron Rosand, who played with very low thumb positions. So clearly there’s more than one way to peel the orange.
Edited: November 6, 2021, 11:43 PM · Greetings,
Nate, your point is well taken but I think with Kogan it is actually doesn’t help much to even try to define what he is doing as a single entity. Having looked closely at his vidoes it seems to me that he often plays with a high thumb position but, as you pointed out, on numerous occasions it is extremely low. Those occasions are where he is using the fly off technique and going half way up the violin while essentially keeping his hand in first position (or something like that). Such versatility and flexibility of technique cannot readily be pinned down as anything other than jaw-dropping.
Edited: November 12, 2021, 9:01 AM · Written descriptions can be more confusing by using the word "joint" to mean "bone" or "phalanx". A bit like calling the hand a "wrist"...
Many illustrious violinists make this "mistake"! Needs guesswork..
Edited: November 8, 2021, 8:32 AM · What's interesting to me is that number of students I work with these days who are completely averse to holding the violin even a little bit with the left hand, in the belief that it would limit their movement.

The thumb just has to have a range of positions because it is seeking a place of balance wherever it is, and where it is moving to. I usually play the Flesch arpeggio sequence on their choice of starting pitch to demonstrate otherwise, in the hopes that it leads to more questions!

November 8, 2021, 11:21 AM · I also play without an SR. My conclusion? There is no 'natural thumb position'. The best way is to play with all the possible positions you can think of - train the thumb to use as many positions as possible (without errors such as falling into the notch) and then let it find its own way and forget about it (until something doesn't work of course). Then there are a lot of 'I didn't know my thumb could do that??' moments...
November 8, 2021, 11:27 AM · I also play without SR and no longer think about my thumb. initially though, I noticed that for shifting down it helps to point the thumb downwards, as a kind of stability support. but nowadays this happens instinctively.
November 8, 2021, 2:32 PM · Greetings,
Jean, what you noticed is actually a very significant part of LH technique for no SR users. (also users actually) Flesch stated that the Kreutzer e major etude for shifting (the 321321321 thingy) is actually a study for preparing the turn in dowmward shifting. Galamian also stresse sit in his book. It is worth a lot of conscious practice.
November 8, 2021, 3:13 PM · I also play without a shoulder rest now (finally bit the bullet and fully committed this past summer after going back and forth) and Kreutzer 11 (I think that's the one Buri is talking about) was a huge part of me figuring out how to shift without that support I was used to with a shoulder rest.

Nowadays I listen to my thumb a lot for my playing. It'll tell you when something isn't working, often with tension/pain. Just a couple days ago I found out I needed to change my vibrato technique because it's different from doing vibrato with a shoulder rest. My thumb never stays in the same place anymore since I ditched the shoulder rest. But I feel that my sound has improved because I can now feel the violin ringing throughout my hands and upper body and have found a sense for making sure the violin is always ringing.

November 8, 2021, 3:18 PM · It is also difficult to ascertain from videos the nature of the contact between the base of the index and the side of the violin neck, especially when playing on the E-string.
November 8, 2021, 5:13 PM · Greetings,
Christian, if your violin is always ringing you can always put it in manner mode.
Edited: November 8, 2021, 5:34 PM · High thumb or low thumb? On the side of the neck or underneath? Opposite the first finger, or second finger, or somewhere in between? Pointing straight up or pointing backwards?


Practicing double, triple and quadruple stops will illuminate this just as well as shifting, if maybe in a different way.

November 8, 2021, 6:34 PM · Greetings?
best consult with Little Jack Horner about where to stick the thumb…

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