PRONATION IN THE LEFT HAND IN LOWER POSITIONS
The natural structure of our hands encourages us to take advantage of the springs which live in the sides of our fingers, and which operate best on an angle. The schools of beginning violin which teach a child to have their left fingernails facing them, even going so far as to paint little faces on the nails, are absolutely correct in their instruction. In recent years, however, I have noticed a decided trend away from this ideal position. Players with short upper arms or pinkies are being taught to bring the base of the fourth finger closer to the neck of the violin by twisting the entire forearm to the right, thus bringing the fingernails into an angle which is perpendicular to the string.
If the fingers are perpendicular to the string in lower positions, with the fingernails facing to the left of the violin, there will be several adverse effects:
- The left arm itself will be torqued; much tension at the elbow will be induced, eventually manifesting in injury.
- The sound will have a somewhat unattractive and pinched quality.
- The thumb will squeeze.
- The action of each finger will be felt as a hit instead of a bounce, resulting in tension building in the base knuckles.
- The ability to stretch between the fingers, most needed in lower positions, will be limited.
- The ability to shift rapidly to higher positions will be compromised.
- The vibrato will be either narrow and unpleasant or wide and uncontrollable.
- The physical sense of intervals will be obliterated, because the fingers cannot maintain spaces between them when moving up and down.
This is an illustration of the undesirable square posture:
To avoid these negative consequences, the fingers of the left hand in the first through fifth positions should be placed on an angle, with the fingernails facing in the same direction as the string and towards your face. I call this pronation of the left hand. It can truly be said that pronation of the fingers in lower positions to a great extent determines the comfort and success of the left hand.
These are illustrations of the desirable pronated posture:
Steps for Ideal Left Arm and Hand Alignment
First Step: Without the violin, raise your left arm into playing position with the palm facing you. Use your right arm to shake your left forearm so that it will be as loose as possible. Allow your hand to rest directly on top of the forearm; do not twist or cock the wrist. If your imaginary scroll faces a mirror, you will be able to see that your forearm runs in a straight line from the base of your middle finger all the way to your elbow and your fingers are at a right angle to the neck of the violin. This is the most natural position for your left arm, but of course your fingers are not able to reach the string.
Second Step: Relax all the knuckles of your left hand and use your right hand to melt the base of the fourth finger of your left hand closer to the imaginary neck of the violin. Relax your index finger and thumb, allowing them to fall back; you will notice your radius rotating to the left, and your thumb will feel loose and open. Do this several times. Remember that as the thumb and first finger drop back and the third and fourth fingers melt forward, the palm will face you and the wrist will remain directly above the forearm throughout. Do not twist or cock the wrist. Do not turn the forearm.
Third Step: With your violin in playing position, repeat the above steps. (If your neck gets tired, rest the scroll on a shelf.) Use your right hand to gently melt the base of the fourth finger of your left hand closer to the neck, allowing your fingers to straighten, until your knuckles no longer protrude and the top of your palm is entirely touching the side of the violin neck; hold for a few seconds and release – your hand should immediately return to its relaxed position perpendicular to the violin, with its heel farther away. I call this ironing the knuckles. Throughout this exercise the left forearm remains relaxed and passive; the turn is initiated by the right hand.
Fourth Step: After you have ironed your knuckles a few times, iron them forward one last time and release slightly, curving the fingers and placing them on the string. If your knuckles are loose enough, you should be able to place all four fingers on the string with your palm facing you and the wrist centered over the forearm, neither cocked nor twisted. You will notice that the hand itself has comfortably rounded in; the heel of the hand is close to the neck and the index finger has dropped back slightly towards the scroll. You may also notice that your fingernails are not facing you.
Fifth Step: Hold the violin with your right hand and keep your left hand position stable. Starting with the fourth finger, slide each finger up a half-step; at the end of the movement, your finger should be leaning slightly on the inside, and your fingernails will be facing you. If your left hand fingers cannot do this at first, use the right hand to train the left. The muscles will become stronger quickly. Do not press!
Sixth Step: Lean on the left sides (the insides) of your fingers; feel the springiness. Cultivate your awareness of this springiness by doing the sliding exercise frequently. Place each finger on the side of the neck and practice sliding it up and down, leaning slightly into the neck as you perform the movement. This will help stretch open the tissue between your fingers.
Seventh Step: Make a whole step with two fingers on the string in their correctly angled, pronated position. Lift the higher finger, keeping the space between the fingers open and keeping the lifted finger slightly curled. The lifting finger moves like a little railway car on a straight, though angled, track. You should be able to clearly feel the amount of space between the fingers at all times. When the finger returns to the string, it returns to its angled position, landing on the inside of the finger. If you cannot do this at first, use the right hand to train the left; the muscles will become stronger quickly. This ability to raise the finger in an accurate and repeatable fashion, continually sensing the space between your fingers, will directly affect your intonation!
As your left hand becomes accustomed to its new pronated position, you will notice great improvement in your sound, vibrato, and shifting; you will have less feeling of strain; and you will be able to work on your intonation with lasting results, because you will be able to feel your whole steps and half steps more acutely, without squeezing.