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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Finger Motion: Tips and Tricks

In my previous post about finger motion, I promised to discuss how I guide a student to develop finger motion if they have not developed it naturally.

During the student's book 2 study, I watch to see if the student is developing an active finger motion naturally. If the student is not developing this motion naturally, then I begin adding a series of exercises that are designed to encourage this development.

First, I guide the student into performing the actual finger motion with the hand alone. We hold our right hands up in front of our faces, with the fingers naturally relaxed and curled, and then we extend our right arms out quickly to the side (mimicking the down bow stroke) and allow our fingers to lengthen and extend or straighten somewhat. This motion outward resembles the motion we make when we are brushing the crumbs off a table top. The student and I repeat this motion several times to simulate the relaxed curling and lengthening motion of the active motion of the fingers during finger motion.

Second, I ask the student to make this same motion without going through the pretend bowing motions at the same time. The student may place the curled finger position on the left hand and practice pulling the fingers up into the hand.

The next step is to perform this activity with a thick pencil (kindergarten size) between the fingers while making a bow hold. I might wrap a rubber band around one end of the pencil to provide a nonstick surface for the pinkie to rest upon. The rubber band helps the student to keep his or her fingers on the pencil and not rolling off. At this stage, I watch to be sure that the student is not just rolling the pencil back and forth between the fingertips. The student's fingers should actively move in and out of the curvature of the palm.

The next step is to perform the activity with the violin bow itself. I make sure that the student is holding the bow vertically, which is the point at which holding the bow uses the least amount of effort and feels the lightest. Again, the student may need to rest the bow on the left hand as a starting off platform. If necessary, the student's left hand can help to push up and get the finger motion started.

The next activity is to sit in a chair with the thighs parallel to the ground. The student holds the bow vertically and places his or her hand and arm on the leg just above the right knee. Then the student performs the finger motion. When done correctly, the student can lift the bow hand off the leg without the student's right arm losing contact with the leg.

While we are performing all of these activities, I use this exercise time to explain what finger motion is, where we use it, and how we can incorporate these finger motion activities in our daily lives outside of our violin practice periods. For example, we can practice finger motion at any time we are holding a pencil or even an eating utensil. I used to keep a dowel rod in my car so that I could practice various bowing exercises when I was in the car. No longer does a student have to be bored in the classroom when he or she could be practicing finger motion with writing utensils! Dinner conversation also takes on an entirely new focus when practicing finger motion with a fork or spoon. I personally like to practice finger motion during symphony rehearsals when the conductor is working with another section of the orchestra. In fact, I believe it was during college orchestra rehearsals that I developed the finger-motion-on-the-leg trick.

The final trick I use to encourage the development of finger motion is to ask the student to play a one octave D scale and repeat the top note when descending so that the scale has 8 notes ascending and 8 notes descending. Then with a progressive series of bowings, I ask the student to:
  • make sure the bow hold is correct at all times.
  • play the one octave scale over and over at a slow tempo (quarter note = 60).
  • slur 3 notes and play one note separately, using whole bows.
  • play the 3-note slur louder (forte) than the 1 separate note (piano) and still maintain a whole bow for the one note.
  • focus on using different bow speeds: use a slower bow speed for the 3-note slur and a faster bow speed for the 1 separate note.
  • allow the bow to lightly skim across the string when playing the single note; it may feel to the student as if the bow is pulling "upwards" from the string. This is how it feels to the student to do a faster bow speed on the up bow single note as opposed to the down bow 3-note slur.
  • allow the fingers to "wiggle" if they are trying to move (in other words, don't fight the finger motion action).
  • monitor the bow speed again and make sure that the student puts the "brakes" on when performing the 3-note slur .
I usually find that this last trick of the D scale exercise actually encourages the development of the finger motion. I continue to assign this exercise each week until I am convinced that the student has fully developed the appropriate finger motion.

All of the above exercises are good activities for group classes, especially for book 2 and 3 students. You can also modify these activities into introductory motions for earlier book classes. Most of my students are still familiar with the "rabbit" bow hold from their pre

Later, more advanced students may perfect the finger motion technique when studying spiccato. Before spiccato, however, the student uses the collé bow stroke in many different places in the early Suzuki repertoire in a designed review program that will focus on this skill. This is another series of blog posts that I will leave for another time.

Please leave me a comment about your own experiences in learning, developing, or teaching finger motion. I would love to hear other suggestions about exercises and interesting or fun activities for students that encourage this skill development.

Important Notice: I am going to post an interview this Saturday with Diane Allen, a fellow Suzuki colleague in Oregon. I have known Diane for many years, and I highly respect her teaching method. She has encouraged some very wonderful students and is a very capable teacher. She has recently come out with a new series of workbooks that will aide teachers (and students) in completely understanding the violin or viola fingerboard and note patterns. Please check in this Saturday. You will not want to miss this interview.


  1. Am I understanding it correctly that all the fingers are almost straight at the up bow? Ha, and I thought we had to keep all fingers curved at ALL TIMES... What kind of guck would show up at the frog area if no finger action occurs?

    - a early book 2 parent

    1. No, we keep our fingers curved at all times. It's just when performing this exercise with the bow and away from the instrument that we exaggerate the finger motion so that it looks straight. The gunk that shows up is discoloration of the bow hair, and it looks like black gooey stuff. There is always a little bit of discoloration because our thumb often bends and touches the bow hair at the frog, but if we use the whole bow when we play, we keep the black goo from showing up too much.

      Thanks for writing.