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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Problem of Pocket Fingers

Ever have a problem with a student's left hand hanging down too low when they are playing on the E string? As a young teacher, I encountered this problem repeatedly, especially at the end of book 1 and throughout book 2. It was difficult to correct too. I just knew that the left hand should be mostly on the right side of the fingerboard with the thumb on the left side, as the student held the instrument. However, I noticed that many of my students would hold the instrument in such a way that their left hands would be straddling the fingerboard on both sides. It got to the point that I dreaded the appearance of the "basement left hand" disease. Then I learned about "pocket fingers," and I was able to stop the problem before it began.

Drifting Over to the Dark Side


First, it is helpful to understand why students drift to the "dark" side of the fingerboard -- the underside. To understand it, think about how the bow plays the various string levels. Technically, there are seven levels of string crossings, but for a beginning student who does not yet play double stops, there are basically four bowing levels to match the four strings: G - D - A - E. As the student plays each of the string levels starting with the lowest string G and dropping to the highest level E, the student's right arm drops lower with each successive string. It is understandable that a student would try to match the movements of his or her left side with the movements on the right side.

As an example, think about how a student plays "Song of the Wind," the third song in violin book 1. In the third measure, the student plays a sequence of third fingers across the A and E strings. When I teach this fingering pattern, I am vigilant about watching that the student actually lifts the third finger and jumps from one string to the other to play the perfect fifth interval. Of course, as a professional player, I cover both notes on both strings, but a young beginner is not able to do that until later, maybe even as late as book 5 or 6. I believe that Dr. Suzuki's purpose in this fingering sequence skill was to prevent the student from falling prey to the bow's siren call of matching the drop to the E string. I prefer to instill in my students the feeling that the A and E string left hand finger levels are the same and that the student should continue to hold the left hand up high to play properly on the E string.

To this end I teach the Song of the Wind finger sequence as a "jumping finger," and I instruct the home practice partner to be careful to watch that the student practices the finger jump from the A to the E string and does not try to shortcut the jump by "laying down" the finger across the strings instead. For an adult or older student who is working to strengthen the correct left hand position, I can explain a little bit more. I sometimes trace a marker line at the base of the left hand pinkie along the "lifeline." I ask that students hold this marker line at the same level of the E string when playing on the E string. Another visual-physical tool I use is the curved left hand pinkie. I insist that my students always use the pinkie in the curved position, because I notice that when the left pinkie is curved, then the left hand position is correct as well.

Trying to See the Fingers


A second explanation for the falling left hand is our need to "see" what we are doing. Many students are visual, and those who are not still have a similar issue. We want to see our fingers as we put them down on the fingerboard, and in the beginning we teachers have probably reinforced this need by the use of external visual aids, such as fingerboard tapes or faces drawn on fingertips. Unfortunately, there are times when we cannot really "see" the fingers as we play them. I call these "pocket fingers."

Look at one of your hands. You can see all of your fingers. Now place that same hand inside a pocket of your clothing. You no longer can see the hand, but the hand has not disappeared. The hand is still there; it's just invisible because it is hidden by your pocket. I explain and train my students to be aware of the strong pull to the "dark side" by "pocket fingers" and to be ever vigilant about using the pocket and resisting the urge to "see" the finger at the same tine.

One of the earliest songs that allow me to introduce the pocket finger concept is Minuet 2 in book 1. The first four note sequence brings forth two possible problems, if not in the beginning when first learning the piece, then possibly at a later time as the student becomes more proficient at playing the notes. The bow plays on these string levels to play the first four notes: D - A - A - E. At the same time, the student tries to drop the left hand to follow the same path that the bow arm takes for two reasons: (1) to follow the bow's drop to the E string level, and (2) to "see" the second finger G natural.

I ask the student to hold the third finger note D (the third note of the song) down while playing the fourth note G natural with the second finger. Holding the third finger note down before playing the second finger G natural allows the student to place the second finger into the "pocket" on the E string (behind the left ring finger) and keeps the left hand up in the proper E string position over the fingerboard.

Another later song that has a similar reinforcing concept is "The Two Grenadiers" in book 2 in measure 1. In this case the pocket finger is the lowered first finger note F natural on the E string. I ask my students to hold the third finger on the note D on beat 1 and 2 of the song's first measure while the student drops the bow to play the E string and F natural on the E string. Otherwise, the student will likely succumb to dropping the left hand down to play this note when the bow drops to play on the E string level.

There are many similar places where pocket fingers can be used. Whenever I see a student trying to drop the left hand to an inappropriate E string position, I investigate whether there was a pocket finger opportunity that I might have missed.

Other Tools


Other tools I use to encourage good left hand position include:

  • Pinkie Twinkle: holding the left pinkie in a curved position on the D string while the student plays Twinkle Theme on the A and E strings.
  • Pinkie Power: using the left pinkie to do left hand pizzicato on all open A and E strings in Twinkle Theme and Lully Gavotte in book 2.
  • Sevcik Fun: making up combinations of finger exercises that are related to the particular passage we are working on.
  • Suzuki Review: assigning certain passages from the Suzuki Repertoire that will encourage extra reminders of proper left hand position and curved pinkie, such as Song of the Wind and Allegretto (book 1), Waltz and Grenadiers (book 2), Bach's Bourree (#7 in book 3), Bach's Gavotte (#6 in book 3), and the E major section of Seitz concerto # 5, 1st movement (# 2 in book 4).
Sagging left hand position is one of the problems I encounter most often in students, especially students who do not have a private teacher. The correct hand position is crucial for good finger strength and therefore good tone (getting the bones involved rather than just the finger pads), for adroitness and quickness, for ease of vibrato, for good muscle memory and spatial intervals between fingers, and ultimately for good intonation. Keep those pinkies curved!

Happy teaching!

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