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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

How to Start a Beginner, part 4: Setting Up the Left Hand

We’ve looked at several topics about setting up a beginning violin student: how to build concentration and focus, how to stand correctly, how to hold the bow, how to hold the box violin, and how to make a box violin. Now we are ready to move on to getting the left hand set up properly on the violin. Obviously I would wait to do this until the student no longer uses the box violin and now has a real violin.

I believe that parents and teachers should place the child’s violin on their shoulder for a long period of time to help the student build the habit of “what feels right.” This period of time may last as long as a year, depending on the age of the child. When I determine that the child is ready to learn how to place the violin in playing position, I have a procedure that I like to follow that promotes success. But before we move to putting the instrument on the child’s shoulder, there are some preliminary chores that I have to attend to first.

When the child comes to his or her first lesson with the violin, I closely inspect the instrument in front of the child and parent, making comments periodically about how beautiful it is, how careful we must be to keep it in a safe place away from younger siblings, how we must handle it gently at all times, how we must protect it from bumps by other students in group classes, and how we should walk carefully (never run!) when we are carrying it. While I do that, I am getting my supplies ready for the next steps.

  • ·      Colored tape (yellow, red, green, blue)
  • ·      2 rubber bands
  • ·      Wedge sponge or other shoulder rest, preferably wedge sponge in the beginning
  • ·      Dr. Scholl oval-shaped (medicated) corn pads
  • ·      Mole foam (optional)

First I cut off strips of colored tape. I use 3M decorator tapes, which resembles the tape used to wrap electrical wires. It’s called Scotch® Colored Plastic Tape - Catalog No. 191. I find my tape supply at Ace Hardware Stores in the school supplies section, or you may find it here:

I like to use this tape because the width is 1.5 inches, which is about the width needed to wrap around the fingerboard of a student violin. The tape does not tend to slip from its initial place, and when it does (generally when a student is practicing a lot!), then I just replace it. I like to use different colors to represent different fingers:
  • ·      Yellow – index or first finger (B on A string)
  • ·      Red – middle or second finger (C# on A string)
  • ·      Green – ring or third finger (D on A string)
  • ·      Blue – pinkie or fourth finger (E on A string)

These are the beginning notes in Suzuki Violin Volume 1, so those are the notes that I mark.

Next I put on the two rubber bands on the back of the instrument to form a “holder” for the wedge sponge. I stretch a rubber band from one lower back bout across to the other lower back bout. Then I loop the second rubber band around the first, pulling one end of the rubber band through the other so that it knots. Then I stretch the other loop end around the chin rest. This rubber band set up is quite secure.

Then I put a wedge sponge through the rubber band holders, flat side against the violin back and large end of the wedge placed so that it rests on the front of the child’s shoulder when the violin is put into place.

Next I place the violin on the child’s shoulder and check to see whether I have the correct sized wedge sponge. The purpose of the sponge is to make it easier for the child to hold the violin with the chin without having to scrunch up the shoulder to close the gap. Sometimes a small child needs a larger sponge. I keep a basket of sponges of various sizes and interchange them as needed.

After the violin is placed on the child’s shoulder and I have determined that the sponge is the correct size, I put a Dr. Scholl’s oval-shaped medication corn pad (remove the medication!) on the fingerboard where the child’s left thumb should go. This type of corn pad feels cushiony for the child and yet it supplies a little depression so that the thumb feels as if it has a place to be.

The final step is teaching the child how to touch the violin with the left hand. Note that I did not say we would teach the child how to hold the violin. I am very careful to impress on the child and his or her parent that the left hand does not hold the instrument, but that the chin does. So I use the phrase “touch up” to signal that the child is to practice putting the left hand up into place touching the violin. In the beginning, I just put the child’s thumb and index finger on the instrument in the correct place. For an adult student, here is how I introduce the left hand concept.

I ask my adult students to stick their left hand out in front of them as if they were traffic cops giving the signal to “stop.” The thumb should be rigid against the main part of the hand. When the student does that, the thumb forms a natural “vee”. When I turn the hand around in this position, I can then set the violin fingerboard into this vee. I then ask the student to relax the thumb, and voila! Perfect left hand.

Occasionally my younger students will start to place their left hands behind the fingerboard nut, just at the beginning of the peg box area. This is not a good habit to develop because it teaches the hand and fingers to shape themselves much too rounded. The index finger (first finger) needs to be “square” in the initial Suzuki book 1 finger patterns, so that would place the base of the index finger in front of the nut and away from the peg box area. If a student starts to do this incorrect placement, I work with the parent or practice partner to do two things:
  • ·      I cut a small piece of mole foam and put it alongside the nut. I tell the student that this is a guardrail and that I put it there to block the finger from going behind the nut. I tell the student that this is not a resting pillow.
  • ·      When the child places his or first finger on the string, I help to guide the student by gently pushing in the knuckle at the base of the index finger. I make sure the parent or practice partner understands how to do this as well.

That’s just the beginning, and it’s a simplified version too. It’s difficult to cover in one blog post all the various issues that might come up in teaching the left hand setup. Teaching is always a learning process, and this process continues indefinitely.

Please be sure to leave me a comment about the kinds of issues you encounter when setting up the violin with a beginning student.


  1. Paula,
    Thanks so much for all the details. I just got a 5-year old beginner and these small insights help SO much! Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge with us!


  2. You're welcome. Is this the Camille I know and love or a new friend?

  3. Hi Paula,
    What is your favourite wedge sponge? I tried a "mashmellow" but it is too thick for both me and my kids. Any suggestions? I have a hard time keeping a good "tilt" so that the elbow would just hang naturally. Also, does the corn pad for the thumb place just about next to the nut? Many thanks,

    1. I have a box full of the wedge sponges. I picked them up from the local fine stringed instrument shop, although they may be discontinuing them. I also can get them from Young Musicians: http://www.young-musicians.com/search.php?mode=search&page=1. My box has sponges of all sizes, and that way I can switch them in and out with a student as the student grows. Believe it or not, sometimes a student will need a size 6 even though it's a 1/4 size violin. When students go to get the next size violin, I ask them to pick up a songe in the number that I need for my box rather than what the student might need. Then I continue recycling my sponges. Viola musicians have shown me another trick for those students with thick necks who do not need much of a sponge. Those musicians buy a red makeup sponge (they come in different thicknesses), then they put rubber cement on one side. DO NOT ATTACH THIS TO THE INSTRUMENT UNTIL THE GLUE IS COMPLETELY DRY! When it dries, it has a "tacky" feel to it, which will help to hold it to the instrument. Periodically, more rubber cement will have to be applied. Again, DO NOT GLUE

      Yes, the corn pad is basically behind the first finger tape, about halfway to the nut. Every student is different, but that's about right.

  4. How do you cut the tape evenly? Scissors didn't work. I tried a "box cutter" exacto knife- so-so results.

    1. I use scissors. Maybe my scissors is sharper than the one that you used?

    2. You can also use car striping tape found in any hardware store. It is already in a thin strip, and leaves no residue when peeled off.

    3. That's right, Serena, many teachers use that car striping tape. I may have to start using that. I use the other because it has options for wider tape lengths, so I can use it for marking patches on the bow.

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