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September 2005

Teaching Left Hand Technique

by Jennifer Bogart

I have recently been thinking a lot about the left hand and why this hand is so important to good posture. I think it is like the canary in the coal mine, signaling that there is a problem and you need to pay attention. Paradoxically, one of these problems is that the child is often looking at the hand while s/he plays. This is not a good habit.

If tone is good and general posture looks good, it is quite easy to ignore the problems in the left hand. This is especially true when the bow is going awry and there are other obvious problems that demand attention first. This leaves the left hand to do what it will until the other problems are taken care of. Unfortunately the left hand problems are the hardest to fix, so they need to be addressed at every lesson. The left hand should be standing up, with the fingers going down on the tips with the nail bed facing the child’s face.

The left hand will take up the slack when other body parts are not doing their jobs. It will hold up the violin when the head doesn't. It will continue to work when the left elbow is improperly placed. It will continue to work fairly decently when the body and hand have too much tension. These problems all need to be addressed from the minute the child puts the left hand on the fingerboard, with continual work until the problems are fixed. All of us tend to comment on a left hand problem, work a bit on it, then get distracted by the tip of the bow sweeping down over the fingerboard on every down bow.

Here is what needs to happen. We need to first and foremost make sure the violin is comfortable. A slight inclination of the head is all that is needed to keep it in place. Kato Havas used to teach that the violin needs to descend onto the shoulder from above, so that it is working with gravity and not against it. Try this for yourself. Pull the violin up from the waist, position it and take the left hand away. Then raise the violin above your head, let it come down onto your shoulder with the scroll arriving last, and then take your left hand away. Which feels heavier?

Working with the child, the teacher needs to spend a lot of time positioning the shoulder pad and the chin pads until the child can turn his head to the left a tiny bit, and relax onto the chin rest without there being any pain from pressure points such as the bars holding the chin rest onto the lower bout of the instrument. If it takes two or three lessons, use that much time. Do not let the eagerness of the child, parent pressure or impatience, or your own frustration get in the way of the violin being comfortable and in the right position.

As you all know, the left toe and the scroll need to be in alignment. When the left hand is up on the fingerboard, the left elbow needs to be in towards the center of the body so it is over the toe. The head needs to be able to hold the violin by its own weight, leaning slightly to the left. The violin needs to stay put even when the left hand is hanging down by the child’s side, or on the right shoulder or waving hello to teacher. While the child is playing, this posture should be maintained. The scroll needs to find a “bulls-eye” to point to so that it does not allow the upper body to twist. If this takes another few lessons, again don’t allow yourself to be rushed.

The hand itself needs to have no opposing thumb pressure on the side of the fingerboard. The thumb should be straight (unlike the right thumb). It should lie on the side of the fingerboard directly opposite the first finger with the tip of the thumb being the only bit that shows above the fingerboard. The first finger itself needs to be standing up. That means that the inner corner of the finger is the part that goes on the string. The nail bed is looking at the child. Most importantly the bottom knuckle of the finger (where it joins to the hand) should never touch the instrument until about 4th position. The first knuckle up from the palm can touch the fingerboard, but only on the side and only as a guide, not as a squeezing device. When it does touch, it is generally touching at the nut of the fingerboard, not opposite the spot where the first finger touches the string.

While the first finger is down, the other fingers need to be hovering in place over their positions. They should not be tucked into the palm of the hand, or squeezed against each other. When picked up they should stay hovering over their places. I do not believe in teaching block positioning (except for leaving old fingers down when on the way up) as I think this adds to the squeezing of the first finger and thumb.

Finally, as stated at the beginning, the child should never look at the fingers while they are being put down. If the child has to look, it means that s/he does not know what the fingers feel like unless s/he looks at them. S/he is essentially “choosing” the finger each time it goes down. It also teaches the child to attempt good intonation visually. Yes the tapes are there at the start to give a guide, but the student needs to be independent of the tapes in order to successfully make the transition to developing good relative pitch. Happy teaching!

Jennifer Bogart received her Masters, Bachelors and Performers Certificate from Eastman School of Music. She was appointed Assistant Professor of Violin and Viola at Stetson University in DeLand Florida in 1983 where she stayed until she was appointed to the first violin section of the Florida Symphony Orchestra in Orlando in 1989. In 1993 she moved to Virginia to teach at the Renaissance Music Academy and then with her husband moved to Utah in 1994. Since being in Utah she has been a full time violinist in the Utah Symphony Orchestra, a member of the Utah Ballet Orchestra, a featured regular on the Nova, Park City and Contemporary Music chamber ensembles, and a member of a Celtic/Rock band known as Callanish. Jennifer is currently accepting students in Salt Lake City, UT and can be reached through