The left hand – harnessing the power of the thumb

The left hand – harnessing the power of the thumb
May 11th, 2015 by Keith Crellin

Professor Jan Sedivka, who had few peers in his knowledge of the workings of the left hand, left an important legacy of thought on the subject. Here are some of his ideas on tackling the problem of left hand asymmetry. Gleaned from my experience in teaching as his assistant for ten years and also from the video tapes he made in the early eighties, this brings together at least some of his ideas in what I hope will be an ongoing set of articles.

In playing the instrument, we are required to reach a note or a group of notes in a given amount of time. If we don’t take the time to sort out how the hand has to work in order to do this, inevitably problems will occur both in the imperfect execution of said notes and in the physical discomfort which often follows. The human hand is asymmetrical. The fingers are long, short, strong and weak depending on their size and proximity to the thumb, yet when playing, they have to perform tasks which require great symmetry. Intonation, rhythm and finding the right notes in a certain given time span are required of the left hand yet are often the most difficult tasks to achieve.

For the hand to operate efficiently, we have a few things to consider. Firstly, the given asymmetry cannot be altered, so we have to use the hand to overcome this lack of symmetry. The tendency to grip the neck and therefore increase tension mitigates against flexibility and contributes to unevenness in the hand. The power of the thumb and the 1st finger has the potential for ruining a balanced hand, especially when it comes to using the fourth finger. There are two reasons for this – the fourth is usually the shortest finger, and secondly it is situated farthest from the thumb thereby reducing the strength advantage that the first finger enjoys. No matter how many finger strengthening exercises one does, this imbalance can never be overcome. Many readers will relate to the problem of students (and perhaps themselves) experiencing great difficulty and often discomfort in applying the fourth finger to the string. This is particularly the case with small hands where one has to operate in ways which redress the imbalance. (Large handed players may think this lets them off the hook but the same problems can exist if proper balance is not achieved).

For insight into the working of the left hand, Jan Sedivka used this simple example:

Take a pencil in your left hand and hold it with the thumb and index finger. You will notice immediately that the thumb takes up a naturally opposing position, i.e. opposite the index finger. Try with each finger and the thumb will react similarly. Now hold the pencil with the index, third finger and the thumb. You will notice once again that the thumb will logically respond and go to a position somewhere between the two fingers. Try this with different finger combinations and the thumb will again take a position most logical to the comfortable holding of the pencil.

What does this tell us? Primarily, it shows that when we place the fingers on the instrument, the thumb will respond (if we let it) in a similar way. I say similar because turning and twisting of the arm and hand does bring other factors into the equation. (Try the above exercise holding the pencil as you would a violin).

The main variable is of course the size and shape of the hand. For me (with a large hand) when playing say Eb (1st finger) to A natural (4th finger) on the violin D string, my thumb takes a position about a third of the way along the finger board between the thumb and the fourth. If I continue to increase the interval to Bb and beyond I can still play quite comfortably whilst retaining my 1st finger on the Eb providing I allow the hand to extend both ways and the thumb to lower. The only way the fourth can extend to these lengths (apart from dislocating the finger) is to extend the hand both ways as one would with tenths. Consequently, the hand and the thumb move towards me and simultaneously lower. On the viola, these adjustments would need to be greater and made earlier. This is a crucial factor in the quest for greater extensions, because in order to reach increasingly larger intervals on the larger instrument, I have to lower my whole hand and with it the thumb in order to reach.

Therefore a small hand on the viola playing the same interval would have to make the aforementioned adjustments still earlier in order to reach comfortably. A very small hand on the violin would have to do the same.

Despite the difference in hand sizes and shapes, there are of course many similar aspects to consider in the playing of the instrument. Too often the approach of one method fits all is used to the detriment of many players. In the quest for greater comfort and therefore ability to play well, it is essential to understand the importance of size of hand and how it best operates, otherwise problems can occur if careful and logical thought is not present at the outset.

Keith Crellin is head of the String Department and conductor in residence at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide. He is also Artistic Director of the Adelaide Youth Orchestra.

He was a student of and subsequently assistant to Professor Jan Sedivka from 1971 –1985 after which he relocated to Adelaide as a founding member of the Australian String Quartet. In 2004 he was awarded the University of Adelaide’s Stephen Cole prize for excellence in teaching and in 2008 was awarded the Order of Australia medal for his contribution to music and education.