Troubleshooting 5 — Left Hand

We’ve been troubleshooting physical and bowing problems.  Now we’ll turn our attention to the left hand in this and several upcoming articles.

About videos — the “TechVid Groups” mentioned below refer to the  technique videos available on fiddle-online.com.  There are ten videos in each group.  You can work with them in real-time or at your own pace to make use of the exercises while being reminded of what to aim for.  Written descriptions are only a rough sketch of what to do.  In fact, often videos are not even enough — many times I’ve seen people not really discover the personal context for using these exercises until they had a lesson.  If you want this kind of help, a one-off  online lesson can be arranged via the Credit Store.

Below are suggestions for handling or preventing the following problems:

  • Playing out of tune/Not sure where to put fingers
  • Playing too slowly/Reluctant fingers
  • Notes not coordinating with bow
  • Trouble with fourth finger

Problem:  Playing out of tune/Not sure where to put fingers.  This problem is not the crime that some learners (and teachers!) fear, and it is not as hard to fix as people think.  It’s just another puzzle to solve by thinking the right way for yourself, and above all by engaging muscle memory and ears.
Suggestions:
—1.  The Finger Finder (#1 in TechVid Group 4, also available on YouTube) allows you to understand fingering patterns in all keys, showing that each finger is responsible for two positions — either next to its neighbor or a finger-width away.  It is a patented slide rule contraption that lets you see and experience the pattern fingering and relationships across strings so that it all makes sense.  The Finger Finder is available in the Credit Store, or at this link, or from Shar.
—2.  Lo-Hi Scale (#10 in TechVid Group 1) — Teach your muscle memory by physically experiencing the two positions of each finger.  Playing open string, then place the first finger next to the nut and play that note.  Play open, then low one, all on one bow.  On the next bow, play open and high one, placing the finger a finger-width higher this time.  Repeat open to low one, then open to high one several times to allow ears and fingers to get comfortable with the two positions.  Leaving the first finger in the high position, play first finger to low second, with second finger physically touching the first.  Play high one to low two, then high one to high two; repeat several times.  The physical sense of fingers either touching or being a finger-width apart is essential.  These first two fingers are the anchor and suffice for the moment, but you can also do the same with high two to low three, etc.

Problem:  Fingers seem to move too slowly to keep up.  We’ll discuss ways to lighten the fingers, but keep in mind that playing faster is primarily a bowing problem that was addressed in the last article.
Suggestions:
—1.  Use Reel Bowing (#1 in Techvid Group 3) as a framework for bowing the tempo you want, and make your fingers fit into a group of four eighth notes, with a strong first bow and three weak bows leading you back to your starting point on the bow, to do it again.  Just practice a group of four notes as a group, making the fingers sink or swim as the bow remains in charge.  If it’s not working out, slow it down but never let the bow wait for the fingers.
—2.  Use Jig bowing (#2 in Techvid Group 3) the same way, working a measure at a time (two beats of three eighth notes each).
—3.  Ugly Scale (#6 in Techvid Group 2) — make sure your fingers are not pressing down too hard, which would make it harder to lift them off the string for the next note.  In the Ugly Scale, you play a long bow on an open string and very, very slowly lower the first finger until it touches the string (and sounds awful!).  Very, very slowly press the finger down more until the note sound clear, then stop pressing any more than that.  This is the minimum pressure you need to make a good sound.  Don’t press harder than that!  Leave your first finger down and try it with the 2d finger, then 3d, and 4th.
—4.  Fingertaps (#8 in Techvid Group 1) — play open string for a long four-count bow but on each beat, tap and release the first finger.  After a few tries, reverse it:  start with the first finger down, and on each beat, release the finger for a split second.  Try tapping twice, then try releasing twice.  Leave first finger down and try it with the 2d finger, etc.  It’s as important for a finger to be able to spring up as it is to tap it down.  Pressing finger down hard is a drag on your music.

Problem:  Notes not coordinating with bow.   If the left hand isn’t coordinating with the right, it’s almost always because you’re thinking about the notes instead of the bowing.
Suggestions:
—1.  Practice one phrase of a tune (most materials in fiddle-online.com use Tunelearning Pages with self-repeating audio for each phrase) while using the Reel Bowing or Jig Bowing (see above) to make your bow focus on each upcoming beat note, rather than on each note as it passes.  Allow yourself to miss notes as long as you get the beat note right and on time.  With repetition and familiarity, the missing notes will fall into place, but if you wait for the left hand to be correct before playing the notes, the bow and fingers are likely to be disconnected.
—2.  Learn the beat notes of a phrase and play only them, strongly and in time.  Then fill in the first beat with the tune’s note.  Once that gets comfortable, add the notes of the second beat.  Then the third, and the fourth.  You don’t need to do this with every phrase in order to see the benefits.  Be aware of the beat notes; those are your targets and must be on time (within whatever tempo you choose).  When your bow is aiming for the next beat, your fingers will step up to the challenge of getting the intermediates notes.

Problem:  Trouble using fourth finger.   In the most common fiddle tune keys, the fourth finger plays the same note as the next open string, so it’s often unnecesssary.  Except when it’s not, such as when playing fourth finger on the E string, or when playing an open string causes you to play a note two strings away, or when you are playing in a flat key and can’t use the open string.
Suggestions:
—1.  Finger Frame:  play a scale leaving fingers down after you play them.  On the D string, play 1st finger, 2d, 3d, and then 4th.  Try to match the 4th finger with the open A string.  Does your hand change position to allow you to reach that 4th finger while keeping the other 3 fingers down?  Keep that hand position and keep playing while maintaining the hand position you used in order to play that 4th finger.  Play 3d finger, 2d, 1st, all the while keeping your hand in the same place.  Try again going up and own without changing hand position.  Why not use this position all the time, so you can play whatever fingers you want?
— 2.  Fingertaps (as discussed above) can be very helpful setting you up to tap the fourth finger down and make it feel more confident being used.
— 3.  Keep your bow sound strong and clear whenever you use the fourth finger.  Many players, afraid the fourth finger might not sound good, play tentatively with the bow.  This makes the fourth finger not sound very good even if you get the finger in the right place!

Coming up, we’ll get back to a few more troubleshooting articles for the left hand, including such issues as playing the low 2d and low 1st fingers, making sure you instantly know higher from lower sounds, playing in higher positions, fingering two strings at once, speeding up grace notes, and more.  However, the next few articles will take a break from troubleshooting to look at playing or hosting a session; we’ll also have an article addressed to advanced and pro players.

Your comments and feedback are always welcome below.  Please note that comments have to wait for approval so as to weed out spam and advertising.

©2017 Ed Pearlman

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