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Friday, August 16, 2013

Thumbs Up!

That pesky thumb! Which way should it go? Well, which thumb are we talking about? Because, both thumbs have different roles and different "attitudes," if you will. Let us take a closer look at the role of both thumbs.

Power Grip
The thumb is the "first" finger on each hand. In piano vocabulary, the thumb is indicated by the fingering number 1. Not so for violin or viola. We do not use the thumb to play our notes, so we begin our fingering designations with the index finger instead. (Not so for cello, bass, guitar, or banjo, which do use the thumb).

The thumb is a powerful finger because it is so different from the other fingers on the hand. For example:
  • the thumb has two joints rather than the three joints that the other fingers have (I am counting the joint at the base of the finger as one of the joints).
    Precision Grip
  • The thumb stands in opposition to the other fingers of the hand and moves in a direction that is counter to the other fingers. This counter-direction ability allows the thumb to form two kinds of grip: a power grip and a precision grip.
  • The power grip is when the palm muscles squeeze to clamp down or hold something, like a hammer or other tool or a jar lid, and the thumb provides counter pressure.
  • The precision grip is when the fingertips press against the thumb to provide a more "precise" grip, such as holding a writing utensil.
Precision Bow Hold
Many students confuse the use of these two thumb abilities when making a bow hold or "holding" a violin. For example, I have many adults and younger students who attempt to hold the bow with a precision grip, using the fingertips to hug the bow stick, rather than letting the bow hold rest within the hand.

Power Bow Hold (note the squeezed thumb)
There are even some younger students who still want to "grasp" the bow with the power grip -- remnants perhaps of the Palmer grasp (which is the grip that babies make when they hold onto someone's finger with their entire hand). By the way, whenever I meet someone's baby for the first time, I initiate the opportunity for the baby to grasp my finger. Then I immediately shape the fingers a little bit to form the perfect bow hold. Voilá, I cry, this baby has the perfect bow hold for studying the violin. Let's get him into lessons soon!

Precision Violin Hold
The left thumb is a problem too. Some students try to hold the violin with a precision grip, using the tip of the thumb on one side and hanging the left hand lower on the E string side so that the fingertips provide opposing pressure to each other, or the students leave a "hole" at the base of the index finger along the neck of the violin, which causes major intonation difficulties.

Pizza Hand
There are also those students who attempt to use the power grip to hold the instrument, squeezing the hand muscles (especially the "thumb pillow" at the base of the thumb) to form a "pizza hand" (so-called because when the thumb is used in this way, the wrist bends backwards to resemble the way a waiter carries a pizza tray).

Both of these thumb uses are incorrect when playing the violin. I do not see so much of these uses and problems in piano teaching, where students generally attempt to play everything with flat fingers (like pressing levers), so I will focus the rest of this thumb discussion as to how it relates to string playing.

Left Thumb

The purpose of the left thumb is to provide counter-weight. Notice that I did not use the word "pressure." I think of the left thumb as the balancing tool that tightrope walkers carry. The purpose of the balancing tool is to aide the balance of the tightrope walker. The purpose of the left thumb is to balance the feel of the left hand. It is not part of a gripping sensation. The left thumb merely rests softly and comfortably on the opposing side of the violin neck and provides a sense of balance to the hand.

Hitchhiker "Banana" Thumb
This means that the thumb is soft, relaxed, and inactive other than to form a balance. I have a tiny hand myself, so my use of the thumb is rather low under the violin neck in general. However, with my students, since they are playing instruments that have been correctly sized for them, I do not expect their thumbs to be as low under the neck as mine often is. The left thumb resembles more of the banana shape, or the hitchhiker's thumb.

Mustache Man
No Smothering Moustache Man!
I have begun using "mustache man" in my teaching to help my young charges understand how to hold the left thumb against the violin neck. I draw two eyes, a nose, and a mustache on the student's left thumb. Then we position the thumb alongside the violin next, across from and a slight bit behind the index finger (toward the scroll side). The eyes are visible. I tell the student that it is okay to smother the mustache but not okay to cover up the nose. If I have drawn the mustache and nose in the correct places, then the student will form the correct violin hold.

Inward Bent Thumb
Instrument Too Big? (note outward elbow)
When the student attempts to bend the thumb inward against the violin neck, I find that the student tries to form a counterpressure against the other side where the left hand fingers reside. I usually find that the student is holding the left hand too low on the E string side, or the instrument is improperly placed on the student's shoulder (too far in front of the student or too low on the shoulder). In some cases, as when I teach at summer camps or institutes, occasionally I find this same posture issue because a student has been incorrectly saddled with an instrument that is too big for the student.

I recently encountered an older high school student at a summer camp who had a major left hand issue. This student attempted to play with only his fingertips. He held his left hand away from the violin neck, leaving a large hole between the base of his index finger and the side of the violin fingerboard. There was not much that I could do in this case, because the student had a teacher and the purpose of the camp was to learn the orchestra music. I observed though how difficult it was for the student to find the correct intonation when he played, because he was fingering "in the dark." In other words, he did not have all three reference points (thumb, base of index finger, and fingertip). Similar to the triangulation used to pinpoint someone's location, we have difficulty finding our pitch location on the fingerboard if we do not use all three of our reference points.

Right Thumb

The right thumb serves a different purpose with the right hand than the left thumb does with the left hand. Instead of acting as a balance point for the other side of the hand, the right thumb serves to provide all of the support below the bow frog for the right hand above. How the thumb is placed against the bow stick will determine the type of weight that the hand and arm muscles provide and the direction that the weight will go.

As I wrote earlier, many students attempt to play with the fingertips. When we form the bow hold, these students attempt to grasp the bow stick with the first knuckles of the fingers, forming a grip similar to the precision grip we use to hold a pencil. These students are trying to control how the bow moves in a micro-management style, if you will. This kind of thumb use will result in a lighter tone and a wispy draw of the bow across the strings. The student may feel more secure when he uses the bow in this manner, but the type of sound produced will not reflect a good tone. These students tend to straighten out the thumb or allow little or no bend to it. Instead of using the tiptoe of the thumb, these students are using the backside of the thumb tip, like a precision grip between the finger pads.

Other students may understand the need for using the tiptoe of the thumb -- the uppermost tip end of the thumb -- but misunderstand how to place the thumb tip on the bow and at what angle. This placement is extremely important, because how the thumb is placed will determine which other muscles groups are in play, which in turn will affect the type of sound, volume, and tone that the student will produce with the bow movement.

90 Degree Thumb
If the student places the tip of the bent thumb against the underside of the frog (I am talking about the beginner introduction to the thumb, with the thumb placed under the frog) and places the thumb at a 90 degree angle to the frog and bow stick, then the student will lean on the index finger side of the bow stick, the pinkie will straighten up, and the shoulder and arm may rise up because the student's bow grip will activate the "inside" muscles of the arm. The tone may be wispy because of the too high elbow and shoulder, or the tone may be too heavy and scratchy from the added weight of the hand and arm muscles leaning on the bow stick from the top.

Other students may deactivate the thumb and shift the hand weight to the pinkie or back side of the hand. This type of bow grip will prevent proper arm, hand, and finger movement. I have on occasion come across a student who allowed the bow hold to shift direction from index finger to pinkie finger as the student drew the bow across the strings, resembling the way that the balls of a Newton's Cradle pass the kinetic energy from one side to the other. This shifting right hand motion affected the student's finger motion and ability to used advanced bowing techniques.

The proper placement of the right thumb is at a 45 degree angle to the frog. The thumb should be bent at its first joint to allow for maximum flexibility and to provide strength to the weight created by the resting of the hand and arm on the bow stick. Notice that I used the word "resting." I am very careful to avoid words like "press" or "push down." Instead I use words like "rest," "sit," and "cradle." If my words imply any sort of action, I want my words to encourage action that releases or lets go of any action or activity. The arm weight is naturally heavy. There is no need to add to the force of gravity by pushing down on anything. Simply allowing the arm and hand to rest on the stick in a relaxed fashion will be enough to draw out the richest, fullest tone. But that's another article for another day. Today we focused on the thumb.