left thumb pressure

Nobuaki said: Sep 19, 2005
Nobuaki Tanaka
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Mount Prospect, IL
115 posts

Hello everyone

Thank you for so many response in other topics. It really helps me a lot and also good to know how other people teach.

I have a new qustion. When students a pressing a left thumb to a fingeboard with tremendous amount of pressure, how they can release their pressure. If they have a lot of pressure in their left thumb, intonation and tone quality won’t improve at all. I made them to play “twinkle, twinkle little star” with a left thumb on the air and also place it under peg box. Some students improve this way, but it won’t work for half of students. Is there any suggestion?

Debbie said: Sep 20, 2005
Debbie Mi138 posts

I just discovered the answer this week!

If the left thumb is squeezing too hard, it is because the other fingers on the violin are also squeezing down on the strings too much!

Sara said: Sep 20, 2005
 1 posts

Try having them play twinkles in harmonic style barely touching the strings. It sounds terribly squeaky, but it does the job as far as relaxing the left hand. If they play on twinkle that way and then go back and play it again normal, you’ll both find a dramatic difference in how soft the hand is.
Also if you explain the balance between thumb and finger. They both should be working together, not one more than the other.
Good luck

Grace said: Sep 21, 2005
110 posts

At one summer institute, I learned that the FIRST step for teaching shifting is to check that the student is balanced in their FEET. Likewise, the root of the squeezing problem may not just be in the thumb or hand:

Check their overall body posture for balance (check that they are not locking knees, not slouching, standing tall, etc.) Can they “sway” their whole body a little bit as they are playing? or are they rigid, frozen, stiff? (I use the image of a pro tennis player as they are receiving the serve—they sway back and forth on both feet so they are ready to go anywhere.)

Check the shoulder rest and chin rest to make sure everything is set up properly for their body type, neck length, shoulder slope, etc. (they might be squeezing because they feel like they’re going to drop the violin)

Check the bow hold & bow arm for squeezing/tension. Both hands may be squeezing at the same time.

Jennifer Visick said: Sep 22, 2005
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki Early Childhood Education, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
1069 posts

Great suggestions everyone. I’d like to add two “tricks” for loosening the left hand. Like any gimmick, they work better with some students and not others.

One, (from Susan Kempter): place your finger lightly on the top of the student’s fingers (the “table top” part) while they are playing a note. Can you feel the vibrations of the string coming up through the finger? If not, they are probably squeezing the string down too hard. (Teach the parent to feel this vibration too). Talk to the student about it; have them feel your fingers when you play (make sure you can feel vibrations through your left hand fingers as well!) Let the student know that this is one way they can test if they are squeezing too hard—if they can’t feel left fingers vibrating, lighten up!!!

Two, (from Gene Wie, the first violinist in my quartet, who got it from Bill Fitzpatrick): Generally speaking, especially in higher positions (but you can make it work in lower positions by moving the bow a little farther from the bridge than is necessary in order to demonstrate), you need not press the E string all the way down to the fingerboard in order to make a clear sound. (This may not be true on some instruments with low “action” so test your student’s instrument first!. (You need the string slightly closer to the fingerboard on each successively lower note & string). Have a small piece of paper which will slide under your string while you play, say, 3rd finger on the E string. Have the student and/or parent slide the paper under your left hand finger while you are still playing the note, and have them slide it in and out several times. It should slide in and out easily, indicating that your finger is not in a vice-like grip upon the fingerboard…. You can demonstrate how the paper doesn’t move at all when you press the finger all the way down “too hard”. Ask the student to try (they may get a whistle/harmonic tone at first), pressing first half way down, then “a bit more” and “a bit more” till the tone is solid, all the while you (or the parent) slides the paper under their finger. I did this with a 9 year old the other day, and ended the lesson with a ‘paradigm shift’ in his thinking—he used to think you were supposed to press the string all the way down to the fingerboard, but once I got him away from that idea, his left hand was soft, pliable, with nicely curved fingers, etc.

Both of these are “tricks” to get the student to think differently about what it is they’re trying to do. I often let them know that practicing “whistle/crack/harmonic” variations on any piece is OK! Yes, I really DO want to hear that weird sound while they’re working on a softer left hand! We’ll get a clear tone after the left hand is properly trained not to do more work than it absolutely HAS to do.

I also tell the parents to make sure the base of the left thumb is relatively soft and squishy; if I cannot easily move the thumb or “push” the fingers out of tune at any time, they are probably squeezing too hard….


Community Youth Orchestra Of S CA said: May 29, 2006
 Violin, Viola
70 posts

I just had to add to Jenny’s post (and again, this particular concept came from my teacher, William Fitzpatrick).

The justification for not forcing the strings all the way down to the fingerboard, especially in the higher positions, comes from how the physical setup of the modern violin works.

The “old” baroque setup of the violin included a shorter fingerboard with a smaller degree of projection (angle) of the neck to the body. The vibrating string was thus stopped by the force of the fingerboard against the string when depressed by the finger.

Modern instruments, with our longer fingerboards and greater projection (and increased string tension) consequently have strings that are stopped not by the force of the fingerboard against the string, but by the force of the fingers on the string. Notes that are played with the fingers having enough weight to stop the string but not depressing them fully onto the fingerboard have a “ringing” sound (not a harmonic though) that is a lovely element of tone.


Amy said: May 29, 2006
 9 posts

I just have to add one of my favorite tricks: I also use the sliding piece of paper, but not just any old paper: I use money. It’s tough, it doesn’t tear easily, it’s the right shape, and—does it EVER get their attention!

(The older the student, the higher the denomination of the bill. Six year olds think a dollar is cool; for the teenagers, whip out a fifty.)

— and then later it becomes almost a “code word”—I can look over at one particular student and say, “Hey Bill, twenty dollars !” and he loosens his left hand right up.

Rachel Schott said: Jun 1, 2006
Rachel SchottViolin
Harrogate, TN
127 posts

Raine Jen: WOW.

I have been at wit’s end with a couple of left hands in my studio. Finally, I had a fresh arsenal with which to (lovingly, kindly) ATTACK! Thanks for your comments—I know it takes time to write these descriptions out but rest assured folks like me are using them and thankful for your effort.

said: Jun 4, 2006
 10 posts

While the student is playing, try having them “freeze” in the middle of the piece. Especially if you had told them to practice having light fingers. When they freeze, try wiggling their wrist for them. If you can’t move their wrist or elbow (back and forth under the instrument) then their fingers are probably too tight. Having tight fingers and a tight hand will stiffen up the whole arm.

Many of my students enjoy playing this “red light, green light” game durring a piece because they never know when I’m going to say “Freeze!”

When they know this is coming, they will concentrate more on lossening up because they don’t want to get caught with a tight hand.

Gabriel Villasurda said: Jun 4, 2006
Gabriel Villasurda81 posts

Check how strongly the base of the left index finger is being held against the neck of the instrument. Ask the player to make a tiny clearance along the E-string side of the fingerboard. Check by slipping a small piece of paper between the neck and the base of the index finger.

In order to keep this clearance, the thumb will have to go under a little.

BTW: You’ll need this clearance to do vibrato and shifting sooner or later.

I will second what an earlier poster suggested about the use of a shoulder rest or sponge. Tightness in the left thumb comes when the player is relying on the force of the left thumb to hold the instrument up.

Lack of tension in the left thumb will enable greater mobility of the fingers around the fingerboard. Left hand fingers do only three things:

On/off- to stop the strings and shorten and lengthen the string
Left/right- to cross from one string to another
Front/back- to sharpen or flatten the pitch and to make chromatics

Tension in the thumb makes all of these things very difficult.

Another trick: play a scale in whole notes. As each note is sustained, move the thumb along the neck.

The easy remedy for any tension: MOVE

Gabe Villasurda

Gabriel Villasurda
Ann Arbor MI

Cynthia Faisst said: Jun 11, 2006
Cynthia FaisstViolin, Suzuki Early Childhood Education
Irvine, CA
126 posts

Great to find friends from our string seminars with Fitzpatrick in CA on the SAA forum.

When I am working with young students, especially preschool through age 7 the student finds it hard to feel weight in their bodies. I do a lot of preparaion before setting the hand on the finger board. More than we have time for here.

  1. Make sure the student is feeling the weight of the elbows hanging from the shoulders. Swing the arms. grasp the hand and ask them to let the elbow hang like a noodle between the shoulder and the grasp of your hand on theirs.
    Make sure the head is able to carry most of the weight of the violin like a canta leaver over the chin rest. When my students experience slipage in the shoulder area they are more likely to start grapping again in the left hand. We’ve been using pieces of that walflized rubber shelf liner for skid proofing.

  2. Do elevators in the knees. Some students lock the knees when making the left side of the body sturdy for holding the instrument on the shoulder. Locked knees mean locked ankles, tilted hips and dropped chest. Strangely enough this tension (locked knees and angles) is reflected in the elbow and wrist on the same side of the body. Observe: extention, retraction and sidedness in the body.

  3. I Hold the end of the scroll and ask the student to let their left elbo to hang from the finger board by the four fingers with out contact from the thumb yet. Ask student to stand fingers up enough on the A string to create that tunnel for the E string as if they were standing on a high wire or birds on a telephone wire. Pluck the E string to check the tunnel. Ask the student to let only the weight from the elbow pull the string down ward. Make them aware that they have more than enough weight coming from the elbow to stop the string. Note that the wrist position will be different for different weights of hands. The thinner hand will have more space and hang more vertically if the violin is not too large. The heavier hand and wrist will come closer to the underside of the neck.

(note) Thicker fingers have an advantage of keeping more of the string surface still with less effort. The more tappered the fingers the more important it is for them to feel energy coming from the weight of the elbow and not from grasping of the thumb. The younger the child and the weeker the joints in the fingers for grasp the more effort they will be putting into keeping those fingers from wobbling and falling over. The temptation is to just squeeze. It will help to keep the wrist more vertical so they can feel the weight coming more from the elbo and the base of the hand. Think of the hand and wrist below the finger board as if it were the ballast under a sail boat which keeps the sail upright and the boat from flipping over.

The wrist needs flexibility so it can adjust to the weight needs of each finger as they are being used. Wider fingers need less ballast (vertical direction) and more tapered fingers need a little more. Tapered fingers may need more time to create good contact points on the pads of the fingers. They may need to lean toward the outside corners of the nail (facing the bridge) to stablize the contact surface and get the string to cross diagnolly across the pads of the fingers for the most contact surface. I liked the Suzan Kempter gives exersizes for lifting fingers off the string one at a time. Practice lifting fingers behind 3rd finger while the elbow is hanging from it to feel the weight move from finger to finger like a tight rope walker (so not all the fingers are working all the time). Continue grasping the scroll so the student can feel this sensation with out the thumb You could easily do the paper slide activity during this time as well.

Kempter also does something called electric fingers which helps the student experiment with the amount of weight that goes into the string starting with the harmonic light touch as mention above in more detail.

  1. Place the side of the thumb on the side of the neck and ask the student to slide it back and forth while feeling the weight of the elbow. I sometimes put a little talcum power on the thumb for students with damp hands so the thumb can be slippery. You are still grasping the scroll for them We want them to realze that the thumb needs to be somewhat adjustable and discourage permanent grasping with it.
    It needs to be thought of as a light lever that assists the elbow in adjusting the angle of the hand and amounnt of weight going into the strings.

We have not even complicated this discussion with the problem of swinging the elbow to each string. But clearly this thread has mentioned that different weights of string need additonal sensitivity and awareness of this mechanism.

Both Kempter in her book How Muscles Learn and Janet Horvath’s Playing (less) Hurt discuss problems caused by using the thumb as a vice or plyers to pinch strings on to the finger board. They discuss using larger muscle systems and gravity to do the jobs that require the most effort. Even some of our brighter students have problems of sensory integration in the use of their bodies. If they are struggling with their posture they are more likely to confuse what they are doing between small and large muscle systems.

As I’m writing this, I’m listening to a researching from Nebraska talking on NPR. He is talking about teaching a machine to feel pressure the way our fingers feel it. Its so complex that he as resorted to nano technology that uses a synthetic skin and a light. Completely different type of detection, which tells you how hard it is to replicate what we feel. The human finger also gets information when moving from side to side not just from pressure.

Mean while on another thread some teachers are talking about the problems they are having with grooming practices of the hands. Not all parents realize how much important information is coming into the brain through the finger tips.

Ms. Cynthia
Talent Education Center: Suzuki Violin
Director of Santa Ana Suzuki Strings located at the
Orange County Children’s Therapeutic Arts Center
Volunteer, bring music to under-served communities around the world. Create Sound Investments and Futures.

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