Left thumb position query

July 30, 2023, 2:32 PM · Hi everybody,

This is a question for those who play predominantly WITHOUT a shoulder rest (meaning that the violin is supported by the hand and the collar bone):

What is the usual position and orientation of your left thumb in first position? As much detail as you want to provide is helpful, as well as any insights into how this position benefits your playing (if indeed it does).

I'm interested because I'm in the midst of working out an optimal thumb position for myself, so I'm curious to know what rest-less people are doing successfully these days and why.

I've scoured all the past violinist.com 'left thumb' discussions I could search for (there are many!), so I have a broad picture of the possibilities.


Replies (20)

July 30, 2023, 3:08 PM · I myself play with a shoulder rest, but have you watched how to play without a shoulder rest videos on YouTube? I think those could be more insightful and clear than just text posts. There's some videos by Murphy Music Academy that seem to be particularly detailed.
July 30, 2023, 3:41 PM · Thanks Ella, I've watched Murphy Academy (and practically everything else on the internet). Tobias provides a number of good options, but I'm curious what works for others and why. For additional context, I'm a (way) older adult learner, playing mostly Irish but trying to build a solid core of technique to take me in additional (fiddle) directions.
July 30, 2023, 3:42 PM · Jon,

When I started playing I did not use a SR, but after breaking my left clavicle and an assortment of other bicycle related accidents I now use a SR all the time - cannot play without it now.

Where is my left thumb? Under the neck sticking up but not way up, at the same place where my first finger goes down in First, Third, Fourth and Second positions. (Osteoarthritis ended my playing above fourth position). The thumb and knuckle of the first finger create a cradle for the neck. You should not need your left hand to support the neck of the violin.

The major lesson of this is that when you shift, you don't leave your thumb behind. That is the most common problem I have seen with my students - trying to have their fingers in third position while their thumb stays in first.

Edited: July 30, 2023, 11:06 PM · Jon, let me start out by saying I think you should let your body be your guide. Try to be as comfortable as possible when playing in first position. I assume you want to play for the rest of your life and that means you may change many aspects of your playing posture as the years roll by. You may even add shoulder rest(s) as comfort calls for it.

This can be a complicated area to discuss. It really depends on all sorts of factors concerning your hand size, arm length, shoulder structure, mandible profile, etc. Your violin also plays a part, chinrest, neck (cross section) curvature.

In first position I was taught to rest the violin neck on the joint of my left thumb and when sliding up to third position to allow the neck to drop down into the thumb "crotch." (As you go higher than that less and less of the thumb is able to touch the neck.) I played this way for 80 years. Even as my arms had lengthened to the extent that I had to point the scroll quite far to the left to enable me to bow straight.

Fairly recently I have noticed that many professional soloists play in first position with the violin neck deep in the thumb crotch. "Why not try that?" I thought. It worked well and allowed me to better use hand/wrist vibrato (since I had to forgo the arm vibrato that worked well for me until a neck injury over 30 years ago).

I think it is kind of like shoes - one size does not fit all.

July 30, 2023, 4:40 PM · I play without a shoulder rest, it happened more or less by accident - I used to have one ages ago that slipped from its place every time I put the violin down, so I got sick of putting it back on and adjusting=).

Regarding my thumb, it's approximately opposite C on the A string. It's just where it falls naturally for me. Supposedly, having the thumb closer to opposite the second finger as opposed to the first or even behind the first is supposed to work better for smaller hands, but I never gave it much thought.

You say the violin is supported by the hand and the collar bone. For me it feels like 90% of the weight is on the collarbone, I can let my left hand go entirely, but not for very long, and the rest is actually the palm/crook of the first finger stopping it from sloping down and turning towards my front. The thumb has nothing to do with supporting it, except from counterbalancing the finger pressure while playing, but playing thumb off is also possible.

I hope this helps.

July 30, 2023, 5:35 PM · Greetings,
In a way it is not quite the right question. The immediate answer is ‘pretty much where your thumb goes naturally if you hold your hand up without the violin. However, the fundamental difference between the two ways of playing is that the thumb is extremely active in anticipating shifts. It will do this more or less naturally since our thumbs are extremely smart. I support the violin a great using the thumb . I do not like the ‘bent back zipper shape’ I have seen on youtube since I feel it causes tension. However, psychologically it is also important to think wholistically. The thumb is the point of contact but the violin is actually supported by the whole body which functions as one unit and just happens to have the thumb as its apex.
July 30, 2023, 9:03 PM · Whot Buri wrote. As another restless violinist ;) I think we all go through phases of trying to figure out where to put the thumb - but its really the other way round, to find out try playing it and look where the thumb goes! That said I found it useful to try playing with the thumb in various positions. Its like training to be an athlete: its not enough to know how to use your muscles for one task or another; you are not trained until your muscles automatically function in any task, learned or not.

One proviso, however, even though its really the thumb that leads there ARE bad habits that you have to avoid such as letting the violin slip deep into the V and not training your thumb to work round the neck as you move into high positions. These need careful attention so that the thumb does not become its own worst enemy. [Voice of experience in both cases.]

July 31, 2023, 10:52 AM · I have done this often with students: Put all four fingers down on one string with one of the finger patterns. Adjust the position of the elbow so that the fingers have the correct posture, landing at about a 60 degree angle to the fingerboard. The teacher then holds the scroll. Release the thumb. Put it back where it is most comfortable. It usually moves forward, opposite the low second finger spot. This orientation of the left arm will be different for the four strings. If you do not use a stabilizing shoulder rest the base of the first finger will stay in contact with the neck to prevent the violin from drifting forward. Without the shoulder rest the thumb does more of the work of supporting the instrument. You will probably use more crawl-shifts or have the thumb move either before or after a shift, instead of moving with the arm during a shift. As you move to higher positions the thumb gradually moves under the neck, eventually hooking on to that saddle block where the neck meets the body of the violin.
July 31, 2023, 11:12 AM · Thanks for all the thoughtful replies.

The way I hold the instrument, my thumb and, to some extent, my index finger, do provide 50% of the support, because as a fiddler I like to be able to look around, glare at the guitar player, etc.
I use a thin neoprene pad (Xeros) which sits nicely on the collarbone and provides a stable platform. I can lean in to the chinrest as needed but don't depend on it.

So far I'm playing in first position exclusively (again - just a fiddler) although in future maybe I'll take the leap to position playing needed for a few tunes in the repertoire. But my hand does need to be mobile for (occasional) vibrato and to reach around to the G string. In all this the thumb has a single point of contact but can pivot slightly.

When I apply the principle of "do what comes naturally" as many of you articulated above, my thumb tends to come in fairly low, slightly behind the index finger, almost straight and, importantly, pointed a bit back towards the scroll-- at least when playing on the top 2 strings. On the G and to some extend D string the thumb articulates and comes around to be more vertical to accommodate the higher hand/elbow position, but the point of contact remains essentially the same. If I used a shoulder rest I'd probably just rotate the whole hand assembly, thumb and all, but as is I need that point of contact.

I've been experimenting with positioning the thumb in a more orthodox way directly across from the index or middle finger position, or alternatively underneath the fingerboard, but each of these options seems to lead to more tension.

So I appreciate the validation (I think?) of the approach I'm taking. I also appreciate Stephen's philosophy that it's the whole body that supports the instrument, the thumb in this case just being the apex. That leads to an awareness that tension anywhere in the "system" that can interfere in the flow of energy into the strings....

July 31, 2023, 12:57 PM · One of the biggest advantages of playing without an SR is that the violin can rotate along its long axis (collarbone-thumb). This allows you to move the violin opposite to string changes and minimize bow 'rotation'. Practice this and make sure your thumb does not impede it for it can greatly facilitate your arpeggio motions.

The biggest challenge to playing restless is that the thumb has to be much more able - not only opposing the fingers and participating in shifting but at the same time playing its role to balance the instrument. The violin should feel as if it is floating on the hand-collarbone axis, not pinned to it. The reason I love it so much is that you get more of a sensation that the instrument is a part of you and not that you are playing it.

August 1, 2023, 11:29 AM · I love Buri's, Elise's, and Victor's posts on this.

For a certain kind of mind, which let's say I empathize with a great deal, there's great appeal to the idea of "setting things right" "from the start". This would be great if you happen upon the right principles, and if you are good at taking rules of thumb (ouch) with a grain of salt. But it can also lead you astray by causing you to focus on some non-essential that sends you off on a tangent in your development.

True fundamental principles are often complicated to understand and difficult to apply. In the case of creating a functional left hand successful finger action is the 'dictator' and everything else facilitates that.

I didn't find comfort and relaxation until I gave myself permission to place my thumb opposite the middle fingers. One of my more important teachers played with his thumb pretty much pointing to the scroll.

Edited: August 1, 2023, 1:19 PM · Rules of thumb, haha! When I started out 2+ years ago I don't think I appreciated how many variables I was going to have to solve in order to succeed, and how long the progress curve would be.

As an update, I have slightly modified my thumb position-- still just behind the index finger position but perpendicular to the fingerboard and bent significantly. I can't explain why this works but it really helps the rest of my hand/fingers find the 'sweet spot' for intonation and to do what they need to do without tension, and my wrist is straighter than it was when my thumb was turned towards the scroll. Well, on I go!

August 2, 2023, 3:30 AM · Jon, when I started playing without shoulder rest, I initially placed the violin neck quite near the end of my thumb. Getting used to it more and more I find that the violin neck now rests on my thumb in the joint. Beware though, like Elise wrote above, to let it rest completely in the webbing of the thumb.
Edited: August 4, 2023, 7:31 AM · I think Joel covered it, but it’s really not about the thumb—it’s about the position of the 4 fingers. The tops of the 1st and 2nd fingers should be about parallel to the strings and be neither scrunched nor extended. So get finger posture correct and let the thumb fall where it may.

The job of the thumb is to simply not get in the way. I cringe when I see that “hitchhikers” thumb with a straight, locked joint. NO joints should be locked. I don’t know how people play this way but they do. It just wastes energy. Try playing tennis with your knees locked. (Same for the pinky, by the way—so many locked pinky joints out there…)

The position for the thumb that seems to work for most is where the fingerboard runs through the joint.
If the neck is way down in the “crotch” of the thumb the fingers are too high. If the neck is held by the tippy-tip, the thumb/entire left arm has a lot of tension.

August 2, 2023, 9:49 AM · Anyone would have thought that all our thumbs and hands are different! Wow, I think I'll write a research paper on that....


August 2, 2023, 9:51 PM · "Not getting in the way" does seem to be a big part of it. If my thumb were positioned right opposite the index finger, I'd have to move it out in order to get a nice A - D double stop. As it is (slightly toward the nut), the two digits just kiss at an angle and this additionally gives me confidence that everything is aligned correctly.
Just played a whole session with this modified hand frame/thumb and it really made a difference to my consistency of intonation in what could only be described as a chaotic noise environment. Thanks for all the advice and commentary from you all!
August 24, 2023, 4:40 PM · Hi all! I am happy to say that I am cured from this obsession about the thumb position which I used to have from 12 until 20. Here are the key elements worthy of being mentioned:

1. Do not let this issue hijack too much time. Right hand thumb - different story! But left hand thumb should be nimble and flexible. Do not get too involved.

2. In Ricci's book about technic, things are simple: "there is no fix position of the thumb"

3. Vadim Repin has a funny story about how he quit the shoulderrest in his youth. And that he suddenly had to deal with the role of the thumb. His conclusion is " drop the shoulderest first of all! Then just practice, don't quit! After many months you will notice that the thumb is more active, more alive and he found his own way, just like babies in the water...they don't know anything about the technic but they find their way to swim"! I can promise.

4. All that being said, find the best way to maximize the efficiency of your 4 fingers and treat your thumb as a servant to that. Let him move amd let him adapta. Intuition is magic, don't worry, it will not curl under the neck :)))


August 24, 2023, 7:57 PM · I've played without a shoulder rest for violin and viola for over twenty years.

The answer is, "it depends." The thumb is part of a balance system that needs to move to best serve whatever the other fingers are doing at the time. It is an active and moving part of the system, and it is neither static, nor locked in one place.

August 28, 2023, 12:46 AM · Is there a possible way of doing it wrong? I heard that you can pick up bad habits in learning violin that are potentially difficult to correct in the long run.
August 30, 2023, 12:16 PM · My problem is that I was originally taught,88 years ago, to rest the neck in the curve of the joint between thumb and hand. Try as I might, I still find myself doing this.

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