Controllers of the Left

In the last article we talked about “controllers” of the right arm and hand, as in remote controllers or video controllers, each joint having its role to play. The more aware we become of the role of each joint, the more efficiently we can play. We certainly don’t have to consciously think about these things once we’ve learned about them, but if we just play “naturally” without stopping to notice what “naturally” means for us, we may well be getting in our own way with misconceptions of what our body is actually doing. Video #9 in Technique Video Group 1 is called “Body mapping” and talks about common misconceptions about bowing and fingering that can block us from playing as well as we could.

Let’s try mapping the joints of the left arm and hand, and notice what they do for our fiddling.

There is an exercise in Technique Video Group 1 (video #7) which is called “Drumming.” What it highlights is how we use the base knuckles of our left hand to “drum” our fingers on the fingerboard much the way we would if we were drumming our fingers on a table waiting for someone who is late. We could drum our fingers on a table for a half hour if we were really annoyed and being stood up! Doing something that long means it is no work at all. That’s how we ideally want to play fiddle, so our left hand and fingers don’t get tired.

The drumming exercise video guides us from the position of holding the fiddle like a guitar, where it’s easy to keep a naturally straight wrist and drum fingers on the fingerboard, up to playing position where this can be more awkward, either out of habit or because of the angle of holding the instrument. Making that transition very slowly, as we do the exercise, teaches our shoulder, elbow, and wrist to find ways to accommodate our hand, and keep it comfortable drumming fingers on the fingerboard while our fiddle is up in playing position. Doing this simple 30-second physical exercise regularly teaches and reminds players from beginner to advanced how easy it can be to play notes with the left hand. We don’t have to work at it like mandolinists and guitarists have to because we don’t have frets that require us to press into the strings.

The bottom line is that the base knuckles of the left hand have to be free to move effortlessly, just as they do when drumming fingers on a table. Then they not only won’t get tired, but they will play much more accurately. In conjunction with the piano, I’ve seen this motion referred to as “microballistics.” The finger is shot at the string accurately because it has a trajectory, an arc caused by the base knuckle. The thing is, if the base knuckle is trapped, for example, if the first finger is grabbing at the fingerboard above the base knuckle, that finger cannot tap down and spring up effortlessly. It has to bend and straighten to be able to play notes, and this is not only more work but less accurate. You never quite know if the finger will get there on time or in the right place.

Bending and straightening the finger is used for an entirely different reason than placing the finger onto the string. Bending and straightening is how we play in tune. The “Lo-High Scale” (video #10 in TechVid Group 1) teaches this and so does the “bodymapping” video (#9). Our left hand is never parallel to the fingerboard; it faces us. If you had silver nail polish, you could see yourself in your first fingernail when it’s playing a note! Because of this, the motion of playing a low first finger (e.g. Eb on D string) is one of bending the finger back to reach that position, while playing a high first finger (E on the D string) requires a slightly straighter first finger. The hand is not involved in this change of pitch, or shouldn’t be. If it is (even when trying to reach more awkward notes like high 3d or 4th fingers), the hand is working too hard. Your goal is to find a hand position that allows the fingers to do their job. Whatever position allows you to place all four fingers on a string is probably the position you should use all the time, so you can reach any finger anywhere without scrunching up the hand just to reach a note.

The left wrist is most often used for vibrato. See the three videos in Tech Vid Group 2 (#9a, 9b, and 9c) to learn how to teach the wrist to do vibrato for you regardless of any shenanigans the fingers may be up to while playing notes on the fingerboard. The wrist operates independently. One thing we’d like to avoid the wrist having to worry about is holding the violin up. That’s what the shoulder rest is there to help with, and adjusting the right shoulder rest the right way for you is really helpful. Of course, once it’s adjusted you have to keep your fiddle positioned where you placed it when you adjusted the shoulder rest! I’ve seen many people get their shoulder rest adjusted, and then hold the fiddle too far to the front to allow the shoulder rest to do anything much for them.

If the wrist tries to help hold the fiddle up, it means it is collapsing. Not only is this weaker, and bad for blood flow (one famous Cape Breton fiddler told me she had to learn to straighten up her left wrist because she was getting numbness because bending it was blocking the blood flow to her hand), but holding the wrist bent also points the fingers farther away from the strings, so they have to work harder to reach their notes.

Let’s move up to the left elbow. The job of this controller is to help keep your hand comfortable playing on different strings. When your left elbow is moved toward your left, it’s easier to reach the E string; when the elbow is moved toward your right, farther underneath the fiddle, it’s easier to play notes on the G string. The goal is for the left hand to stay happy with its position without straining to a new position as it moves from string to string. The elbow doesn’t need to consciously movs every time you switch strings, but it is helpful for it to move when you play the highest or lowest strings.

Finally, we arrive at the left shoulder, whose job is to relax and do nothing! It should never push up or hunch up. If it feels it needs to, then your posture or your shoulder rest is not adjusted properly.

The more aware you can be of these controllers of your right arm and wrist, the better chance your muscles have of moving in a more relaxed and efficient way, and the more likely you can play a 4-hour session without getting tired!

©2019 Ed Pearlman

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