Frustration with left thumb on violin


Erin P said: Apr 1, 2014
23 posts

My daughter, who is 5, has been playing since July (8 months now), and she is finishing up Etude. She plays violin. We practice a lot, so so far she was progressing very rapidly through the songs. But now she has an issue with her thumb that her teacher wants her to fix, before she will be allowed to move on: she tends to bend her left thumb, and when playing on E/A strings, her thumb will even get to be on teh G string. It does go back onto the neck when she plays on G, but the teacher wants her thumb not to peak out and to have it perfectly straight when she plays.

This has been an issue with her for many MANY weeks, and no matter how we practice (rewards, making her go back, small pieces, positive reinforcement), nothing seems to work. Every lesson is focused around the darn thumb! The teacher has now said that she won't let her move on until the thumb issue is fixed. My kid is EXTREMELY frustrated, doesn't want to practice (she used to love practices), and wants to give up violin. (It doesn't help that she has a twin sister, who plays very consistently, and doesn't seem to have that one issue!). She was even talking about switching to cello.

I did bring up to the teacher that she is getting frustrated, and the teacher just encouraged her to work really hard on her thumb.

So I am hoping both parents and teachers will chime in about how to address this issue. How do I fix her thumb? How do I not make her hate music all together? How do I make lessons/practices enjoyable? Might it be good for her to play another instrument (she is very competitive)? Thank you everyone in advance for your input!

Claudia Ferguson said: Apr 2, 2014
Claudia Ferguson
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
San Antonio, TX
4 posts

Here are two easy things I teach to set up a good left thumb or fix problems. They are the "V position" (the letter V from the alphabet) and the "sunset thumb." The first thing, V position, gives the student a tangible way to hold the violin neck. First hold up your left hand without the violin where the left hand would normally go to play the violin. Make a straight line from the elbow up through the fingers, with the fingers and thumb straight up and the fingers and thumb together. Notice how there is a little lower case letter 'V' between the thumb and hand/index finger. Now move the thumb out and away from the hand to the side and say "capital V," then bring the thumb back against the hand and say "lower case V." Repeat this a few times. This helps set up a straight and relaxed thumb. Next make a lower case V and put the violin in playing position. The V should open up a little naturally. When the student is practicing and does something funny with the thumb, say "V Position" and hold up your V position hand to remind her. She should fix it without stopping her playing. The next thing I do is the "sunset thumb." Have the student line up the thumb with the first finger tape, and point it straight up towards the sky, with a small amount of the tip of the thumb showing, like a sunset. The thumb doesn't have to stay there for every phrase or piece, but it is a good place to start the thumb. During practice when the thumb comes up too high by the G string, say "sunset thumb" and tap the tip of your thumb to remind the student to check her thumb. To reduce frustration, choose one piece, phrase, or etude during each practice session to give constant reminders about the V position and the sunset thumb, and let it go during the rest of the practice. Give lots of praise such as, "you did the sunset thumb during Etude, great job." Plan to repeat this kind of practice for months, and one day it will come automatically.

Claudia Ferguson, Violin/Viola Teacher
San Antonio Suzuki Violin School
[javascript protected email address]

Phankao said: Apr 2, 2014
Phankao WanPiano, Viola, Violin
128 posts

I used a "Finger Sack" to remind my son to relax his thumb. Just a "reminder". It worked after a while.

Irene said: Apr 2, 2014
Irene YeongViolin
160 posts

i used to stick one small protruding sticker at the place where she is suppose to put her thumb. put a nice butterfly or smiley face sticker and helps to remind her to keep her thumb there.

Fabio Dos Santos said: Apr 3, 2014
Fabio Dos Santos
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Campinas, SP, Brazil
11 posts

In my experience, most of the time, problems with the left thumb are symptoms of a violin that is not held properly.

  1. Check the Chin Rest and Shoulder Rest. Make sure they fit your child's body. Ask for your teacher's help in checking that the violin is in a good, confortable and correct place. You might need to change one, of both of them. This is really important: if the violin feels like it will fall, the left hand will do its job to keep it from falling and hold on. If that is not possible, it will show that it wants to do it with tension either on the thumb, or on the other fingers.

  2. Help your child do one thing at a time. Holding the instrument is a task. Placing the left hand fingers and working on the thumb is a different one. Playing (making sound) is yet another one. You have to be confortable with all of them separately before doing them sucessfully at the same time!

I hope this helps!

Kirsten said: Apr 8, 2014
103 posts

Hi Erin,

I agree with Fabio about the violin hold usually beiing the issue. If your daughter is 5 and has only been playing for 8 months, she has covered a lot of repertoire for her age: more than average I would venture to guess. Maybe in addition to all of her review pieces that she is playing she can learn a few easy fiddle tunes by ear.
Some fiddle method books come with a CD for this purpose I seem to remember.

Etude can be a rather frustrating piece to stay stuck on, and if she is this unhappy it might be a good idea to ask the teacher if you can just let Etude go for a while so that you can work on the thumb with review pieces and easier new tunes.


Eleanor Bennett said: Apr 9, 2014
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Villa Rica, GA
62 posts

I agree with Kirsten. There may be a battle of Wills going on here. Take a detour with review or easier pieces. Play some games that have to do with the thumb or any other violin technique. It may take a while.
Eleanor Bennett

Eleanor Bennett

Sue Hunt said: Apr 10, 2014
Sue Hunt
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
391 posts

This does sound frustrating, but your teacher is right. It is best to get this sorted before moving on.

A user friendly way of working on a technical problem is to make a lucky dip. Make one card for each practice task and several for different thumb games, e.g. Touch and Drop, Thumb Tapping, Twinkle Challenge etc. Every time you work through the pile, give them a shuffle and start again. The variety of a lucky dip will help refresh the mind, while sneaking in lots of focussed practice on her soft straight thumb.

Rachelle said: Apr 10, 2014
Rachelle Harper
Suzuki Association Member
West Point, UT
1 posts

Something that I have found helpful in fixing reoccurring issues is by playing the "freeze and go game". It works best on review pieces that she already knows well. She starts out playing the song and at any moment of your choosing, she "freezes", fixes her thumb and when it's in the correct position, say "go". This can be repeated numerous times throughout the piece and and be done for every review piece. It can be fun a fun way to learn good playing habits.

Anita said: Apr 11, 2014
 38 posts

As a parent… when my two've had thumb issues, it's been their violin holds. Specifically, strangling the neck of the violin while playing it.

Our teacher taught us that tapping the neck a few times with the thumb, before and during playing, enables the child to be conscious of how s/he is holding it.

Stop during practice frequently to tap the thumb on the neck—a few times, 3-5, does wonders. It causes the child to relax and focus on holding the violin with chin and neck, instead of the thumb. They also tend to release their tension regarding the song they're playing—Etude can require a LOT of concentration.

Make it a game; start playing again but switch to another song, or wildly change the tempo—have fun with practice while focusing on this issue—for a bit.

Then, move on, and don't draw attention to it.

With patience (it seems like your teacher is being very patient, which is good) and time, it won't even be an issue. Little by little. :-)


Sue Hunt said: Apr 12, 2014
Sue Hunt
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
391 posts

Here's something I made and use regularly. Plenty of thumb tapping at the beginning and end. Check soft thumb every 2 measures.

Screen Shot 2014 04 12 at 11

Screen Shot 2014 04 12 at 11

Image by Sue Hunt

Courtney Morgan said: Apr 17, 2014
Smithville, MO
9 posts

I agree with others that say this is probably an issue with holding the instrument. Either the shoulder rest is not giving enough support or the student does not understand that the violin is to be supported at the shoulder/chin end rather than with the left hand. She could be squeezing her violin because it feels like it is falling when she doesn't. There is definitely an age-related communication problem here, and either parent or teacher needs to try to understand how the student sees the problem or if she even knows there is a problem rather than just making her do the same thing over and over.

I also agree that she has made significant progress compared to other five year olds over a period of eight months. Perhaps it has been too much and she needs to review some earlier pieces or play something outside the Suzuki books to work on that basic left hand stuff.

If she does not fix the left hand problem, it will cause pain down her thumb and into her wrist as well as across her palm. If it hurts, she is not going to want to play at all. She also will have a lot of difficulty with shifting and vibrato.

Do you practice with your daughter at home, or do you just turn her loose and expect her to complete her assignments? It varies from child to child, but my mom had to sit with me while I practiced until I was about eight to make sure I covered everything my teacher had given me. Regardless of age, learning proper thumb placement, on either hand, is difficult. You think you have it down, but the fact is it is part of this mental checklist you go through every time you play. It simply is not possible to think about the piece you are playing and the mental position checklist at the same time. The mind cannot actively hold that much in short term memory. She has to get to the point where everything automatically falls into position the moment she picks up the violin and stays there until she puts it down. That way her mind can focus entirely on what she is playing.

This is why the freeze and go game Rachelle described works so well. You have to stop playing and give yourself time to think about how you are positioned. You should play the game with her at home whether or not the teacher does it in lessons. Say "freeze" every time that left thumb bends. Eventually, the right way of doing things works its way into muscle memory so it feels annoyingly uncomfortable when it isn't right. Think of how it feels if you put a pen in your non-dominant hand or your shoes on the wrong feet. That is how it should feel to your daughter when she bends her left thumb: completely foreign and out of place and must be fixed right now. In order to get there, she has to condition herself consciously, and she needs constant help to do that until she gets it right.

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