The left hand thumb

July 23, 2022, 12:15 PM · I am curious about other's opinions about the use of the left thumb. This can include placement, tension in the ball of the thumb, function in relation to the other fingers, or anything else that comes to mind. Thanks, Bruce

Replies (22)

Edited: July 23, 2022, 2:06 PM ·
There's a video on YouTube about how the left thumb is used. Most violinists keep it low, to support the violin neck a bit.

Others leave the thumb high in a way that it even rises above the fingerboard. Yahudi Menuhin critiqued a young Corey Cerovsek in a MasterClass for having a high thumb.

There are a plethora of YouTube videos on left hand posture. In particular, here's a YouTube video on high vs. low thumbs:

Here's another on the Menuhin' critique mentioned above:

July 23, 2022, 3:23 PM · In Suzuki Book 1 there is a picture of where your thumb should go.

And then you watch Ray Chen, or his teacher Aaron Rosand, or lots of other players and you realize these are not Suzuki kids. They're blitheringly skilled violinists. Ray's thumb comes way up on the other side of the neck, but that could be because he has long hands.

When I was a kid there was a local guy who taught violin lessons -- he was not my teacher but sometimes I wish he had been. Anyway his thumb was double-jointed and the neck of his violin sat on his thumb which formed a right angle at the joint -- it looked so weird to me but he was totally comfortable. That's why I remembered it.

Edited: July 23, 2022, 4:49 PM · I think it can moved forward in relation to the fingers, to assist in a crawl shift (often between 1st and second positions), where the fingers advance in front of the wrist. I like it more opposite (or slightly behind) the 1st finger because it acts as a guidepost when shifting up and fingering a “ghost” note and when reaching back but staying in position.
July 23, 2022, 5:55 PM · Good question, Bruce. There seems to be a lot of variation in what beginners are told and in what you see different professionals do. I suppose like many things, it probably depends on the unique physiology of an individual player's hand, and there may well be variation between different schools of playing analogous to different bow holds.

@Neil I'm not sure Menuhin would be my go-to for the fundamentals of technique.

July 23, 2022, 6:30 PM · Here's my opinion - for what its worth. It was gleaned from playing SRless where the thumb has to do rather more than just oppose the fingers since without it you would probably drop the instrument!

I went through a lot of opinions on thumb use but after studying my thumb itself I came to the realization that that digit is a lot smarter than all the pundits. Obviously, there are basics to thumb use as there are to all aspects of playing the fiddle (I think the main purpose of basics are to help stop you becoming committed to a method that can not be used to build on - that prevents future growth. One example perhaps is letting the neck of the fiddle fall completely into the thumb-index space - I have yet to find a use for that!). However, once you are past that point Elise's method for thumb training is - teach it as many actions as possible - play with it forward, backward, sideways. Teach it to support the fiddle and the fingers using its side, its tip, the sideof the tip and anything else you can think of. And then let it be. For a particular action your thumb will figure out the best option from all the ones you have taught it. Its really like a well trained pet dog - you give it a goal but then it figures out the simplest way to complete an instruction in a particular circumstance...

This place needs some livening up!

July 23, 2022, 7:03 PM · I like Elise’s philosophy. I never thought much about hands, fingers, thumbs, until I had a particularly practical and likable teacher who had the most unviolinistic principle...I have ever seen. Her fingers were like chorizos, with thumb to match. She had to move fingers backwards to accommodate the next, even in first position. She was from a highly musical family and played in a major symphony orchestra. While violins are highly standardized, left hands are anything but.
July 24, 2022, 1:22 AM · I got my copy of Carl Flesch's book on the Art of Violin Playing out and had a look at what he had to say about it. He recommends the thumb sticking up on the side but although he is not too comfortable with the idea of having the thumb underneath the neck, he does point out that you have to do that anyway to play way up the fingerboard.
July 24, 2022, 3:55 AM · Like others above I think the thumb placement is largely secundary, i.e., it should be such that you can form a nice classical left hand, and since hands are individual, this will be an individual issue how it comes out to support that classical left-hand shape. The only primary function I find for the thumb is to point backwards prior to shifting downwards, as an aid to provide stability while shifting downwards. But that is mainly important if you play sans shoulder rest, otherwise the shoulder rest can provide the needed stability.
July 24, 2022, 4:34 PM · As a violist with very small hands (I barely reach an octave on the piano), I find that, most of all, the thumb needs to be mobile. Violists with small hands may have to place their thumb high and close to the center of their hand, perhaps opposite the second finger, in order to extend their hand span. The thumb may also need to drop much farther below the neck in order to shift or play with a wide vibrato. It depends on musical context, and I think it's important to be comfortable playing with the thumb in more than one place.
July 24, 2022, 7:17 PM · greetings,
One thing I noticed has not been mentioned so far, is the use of the thumb as a pivot point. So, for example, I can keep my hand in third position and play in fourth position or play very high up the fingerboard, or in some cases play lower than the thumb. This fly-off function is extremely important in showpieces, in particular those of Paganini in my opinion.
Edited: July 25, 2022, 10:06 AM · My father, former pupil of one Shilhavy (I may have misspelled this), started me off with something similar to the high thumb position, but then passed me on to his most recent teacher, Winifred Copperwheat, who taught using Dounis's method (We all used to mispronounce his name: He was Greek, so the "s" IS pronounced, even though the "ou" IS pronounced "oo", as in French - and, as it happens, Greek), which is to have the thumb virtually horizontal, supporting the neck - This was essential for her personally, as she was small, with fairly small hands, playing an Arthur Richardson (Tertis model) viola. I'm not sure what I do, but it's anything that will get my fingers to the string, my wrist twistability being abnormally limited.
July 25, 2022, 11:19 AM · Not sure that this is what you are asking for but here goes:

I learned to have the thumb straight (optically; I have to bend it a bit; otherwise it looks bent backwards), low and opposite the first finger. My main thumb problem in years 3 to about 5 of violin playing was tensing it up. Eventually I got over that.

Only recently I found (inspired by the discussions on this forum) that "liberating" the thumb from its "first-finger lock" helps with extending the hand (which I need to do to play a minor third with fingers 2 and 4 in first position).

Edited: July 25, 2022, 12:38 PM · I was taught that in 1st position the distal phalanx should be in contact with the side of the violin neck and the thumb should slide up as your hand moves to higher positions so that the neck sinks lower along the proximal phalanx into the crotch of the thumb. Of course, the thumbs relationship to the side of the neck will vary as one moves across the strings and possibly varies the tilt of the violin.

Of course this all depends on the size of your hand and fingers and how your muscles work. You want to avoid strain as much as possible. I know violinists and violists with small hands who do a beautiful job and they often play the lower positions with most of thumb under the neck.

The placement of the thumb along the neck will depend on what you are trying to do with the other fingers; opposite 2nd, 1st, 3rd finger??? I think all bets are off in the really high positions and the thumb must go where one needs it to - which really is the "rule" anywhere on the fiddle.

So the problem is to learn what works best for oneself - and that might actually be hard to do without expert guidance - especially if one has already learned to play sub-optimally!

July 25, 2022, 12:49 PM · There will be two groups on this topic. Those that do not use a shoulder rest, or do not have a properly fitted chin rest/shoulder rest combination will need extra support from the thumb, it will be more underneath the neck. For shifting, to maintain that support, they may have the thumb moving independently from the rest of the hand and arm; anticipating the shift or moving after the shift. I have seen a photo in an older method book showing the thumb completely under the neck, pointed towards the scroll!
For the majority of us, that use the shoulder rest, the thumb is passive. What I do in lessons is have the student place all four fingers down in one of the finger patterns, take the thumb away, and then put it back in the most comfortable spot. It usually moves up, next to the second finger. Of course that most comfortable spot will change depending on which string and which position is being used.
Some more clues from other instruments:
Guitarists will have the thumb under the neck, sideways, to support the hand while doing bar chords (1st finger as a manual "capo"). Cellists have the thumb opposite the second finger so that they can do 1st finger extensions. Bass players have the thumb opposite the second finger as a pivot point, for both 1st and 3-4 finger extensions. The half-steps are very far apart.
Edited: July 25, 2022, 3:53 PM · Somehow this thread reminds me of the book "The Panda's Thumb" by Stephen Jay Gould. That's one hell of a good book if you haven't read it.

But coming back to the point of the thread, I agree with Elise even though I use a shoulder rest, whereas she does not. I particularly liked her statement that the thumb is smarter than it looks (or some such).

July 27, 2022, 12:26 AM · I like Rodney Friend’s approach: focusing on most relaxed hand frames when playing different notes and at different positions. If we agree that the key is to minimize tension therefore enabling more efficiency of the LH, the thumb needs to be moved around together with the most natural and relaxed hand-frame. He made some wonderful demonstrations in this masterclass (around 8:00).
July 27, 2022, 9:28 AM · The use of the left-hand thumb is a matter of some controversy in violin playing. Galamian and Flesch advocate its use as a counterpressure to the other fingers while advocating against squeezing and tensing the thumb.
According to a number of well-known teachers the thumb can impede flexibility in the hand. For instance, counterpressure against the other fingers would be counterproductive to putting weight on the string through the arm.
The thumb wants to pull the other digits towards it. However, this is contrary to a facile left-hand technique. What we want is a “disobedient” thumb which prefers to do nothing and keep to itself, or in other words a neutral thumb.

For instance, when shifting up over 4 strings the thumb just follows the hand and goes in a diagonal direction. In shifting downward, though the thumb leads the hand.

Exercise: Play without the thumb touching the violin. (You can place the scroll against a wall to support the violin). However, the thumb will probably still stiffen. So, better yet, while playing move the thumb in circles, still not touching the violin. This assists in making it independent of the other fingers.

Exercise: wrap a band aid around the first joint of the thumb to immobilize it. You will instantly notice when the thumb starts to clutch.

Exercise: “Numb the thumb.” place the thumb so it is behind the index finger and play. This immobilizes it. If you do this exercise for several minutes when you put the thumb in a “normal” position it may feel paralyzed, which is what you want.

Edited: July 27, 2022, 10:19 AM · I agree with AndrewH. I need the thumb's position to mitigate left hand pinky stretching. The thumb is the pinky's slave and should obey and follow at all times.
July 28, 2022, 4:34 AM · Interesting contribution Bruce, thank you!
Edited: August 17, 2022, 10:20 PM · I keep my thumb slightly lower; the tip barely peeks over the fingerboard most of the time.

Early on, I would play with my thumb high and bent as James Ehnes does, but at the time, I was having issues with my pinky collapsing, and I found that my hand being so high over the fingerboard made the problem worse. So I lowered my hand, developed strength in my pinky's PIP joint, and now I have a curved 4 all the time.

Anyway, I think the player should be able to forget the thumb is there most of the time, with it only guiding shifts and providing necessary stability in the hand. The thumb can make or break a lot of left-hand techniques!

August 18, 2022, 5:04 PM · My thumb is under the neck much like Augustin Hadelich. Playing sans SR I find it easy to support the fiddle this way. My first finger does not contact the neck allowing freedom to vibrate widely and preventing a clinch between the thumb and first finger.
August 18, 2022, 7:26 PM · My first teacher has a lot of rules about the thumb: where it should go when shifting up, where it should go when shifting down, where it should go when stretching fourth finger, etc.

But my second teacher told me to scratch those, and just think about the placement of the whole palm. Need more support for pinky stretchy? Whole palm forward to favor it. Shifting? Wherever the palm needs to be, the thumb follows in a neutral position.

I find the second way more intuitive to me.

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