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(Note: I am moving the continuation of this conversation over from a post in reviews, because the way it was developing was very welcome to me--but not about reviews.)
I have smallish hands and a shorter left pinkie than my right. I am getting old enough that working in contorted positions at the edge of my range of motion seems less likely to result in the body's trouble-free adaptation than it might have, say, half a century ago. I'm at the very beginning of learning violin, and struggling with the finger reach(es) needed just for 1st position.
AndrewH kindly posted an article and a video about an under-5-foot violist.
This is inspiring--if she can do that, surely I... but then, she is not 64, and not beginning at 64. So, this is, for me, an intriguing puzzle, a mixture of inspiration, technique that maybe can be mined, and some not-applicables. In unknown proportions. Here, I am interested in asking about potentially adaptable techniques.
(1) Do violists use/not use a "first position" analogous to violinists? Do they do it (or do anything) with thumb anchored against that recognizable beginning curve at the far end of the neck? If not, do they use some a tactile/kinesthetic marker, or is it just "with hand/arm this far out" (i.e., proprioception only)? Or, what? (Assumption: WHATEVER they are doing to play something that big could potentially be adapted for other issues of scale.)
(2) Wow, look at where her left elbow is! So cranked around! My arm just won't do that! At least, not today. With some months of violin playing/yoga/whatnot, it might. Or, the same work might render it even less functional. We just don't know. What we know is, here, now, at the beginning of 2018, it won't. Is this a standard adaptation to viola? Or are there alternatives? (Asking, because there would be more hope of getting that short pinkie around to the G string on my violin IF I could do that, or something even a little like it, but no.)
(3) What else might violists know, that could help smaller/stiffer violinists (i.e., folks for whom there is an issue of scale)?
Although I have and have played a viola, I was playing it as a 5/4 violin, not really a viola, and I was (and am) still a beginner.
Yes, violists play first position also. If it's strung as a violin (like I was doing), it's the same as violin, except for spacing between the notes and the strings being slightly greater.
Using the curve at the top of the neck as a marker is a convenience, not a requirement. Use it if it works for you, don't if it doesn't. (And if it works for you part of the time (like with the first three fingers), and not other parts (such as when playing with your 4th), then play mix and match.
If anything, it's good to NOT be locked into one set way of doing things when playing the violin, especially when it comes to physical adaptations to the instrument. Ergonomics wasn't invented as an idea, let alone a discipline until 300 years or more after it was invented. Plan on experimenting a lot, and use what works. (If you can find a good teacher, that will probably help - they should know lots of options. If they're rigid about the One True Way to play violin, then you know they're not a good teacher.
Re the elbow being cranked far around. That's a problem for most people, especially those starting at a later age. The thing nobody has told you yet is that you don't have to be able to do that to begin with. However far you can get to, you should get there in small stages. Move your elbow towards the treble side as far as comfortable, and then a little further. Take frequent breaks. Over time (several weeks, possibly a few months), you will have increased how far you can bring your elbow in significantly. Don't try to rush it or you will hurt yourself.
One trick, if you can play the D string ok, but have trouble with the G, is to lift the end of the violin with your left hand a couple of inches. (4-6 cm, if you're in the 95% part of the world.) That will automatically bring your elbow in (normally without strain), and give you the 8-9 mm or so you need to play the G string.
With the little finger issue, there are two main options:
- Do what you're doing now - explore options for playing differently so that you play well enough, even though it's not the standard method. Biggest pro: you can use normal instruments and standard technique a lot of the time. That means most of what's out there will apply to you. Biggest con: it may not work completely, and you may be fighting an uphill battle to discover/invent those techniques. (By the way, this includes the option of not using the 4th finger much. They ended prison sentences for not using your 4th finger back in the 1930s.)
- Play left handed. Neither of your hands knows what they're doing now, so having them each do the opposite job of what's "normal" is not going to be any more different than doing it the "right" (pun intended) way. Since you've mentioned that your right pinkie is noticeably longer, that problem would go away. Biggest con: you'll have to get an instrument (or instruments, possibly, further on down the line) that is built for a left hander. Those aren't as common, and they might not be quite as good (as the person building them is having to do everything backwards to normal).
A few tidbits on how to use the violin differently for different results:
I'm going to use airplane terminology to describe the position of the violin, because it's the only terminology I know that's 3D.
Pitch is nose (scroll) up, tail (endpin) down, or vice versa. 0 degrees pitch is flat with respect to the floor. Since you're not going to want to go down nearly as often as up, I'll make the scroll higher be the positive numbers.
Roll is left wing (bass side) up, right wing (treble side) down, or vice versa. Again, 0 is flat. You would never want it to be so that the treble side was higher than the bass, so positive is the treble (right hand on a regular violin) side down.
Yaw is the the plane (violin) swung side to side. For planes, 0 is straight in front. For violins, we'll make 0 straight left and 90 degrees straight in front of you.
Normal position for a violin is 0 degrees pitch (the scroll and endpin are at the same height); about 30 to 45 degrees roll (the treble side is noticeably below the bass side); and about 30 to 45 degrees yaw (the scroll of the violin swings around until it's a third to halfway pointing straight in front of you.
Here comes the more useful bits:
Lifting the scroll up a little will automatically bring your elbow in a little, and make it easier to get to the bass-side strings. (The ones furthest from your hand.) (Lower it back down when you don't need the extra reach.)
More or less roll (how much the violin is tilted sideways) makes certain strings easier to bow. Generally, more roll also makes the strings easier to reach. More roll is good for the bass strings. If you've got it rolled over too much (to make getting at the G string easy) you may not be able to play the E string because your bow would be straight up and down (or even a little upside down). The good news: you don't have to keep the roll at the same point all the time. (More on that in a bit.)
Yaw: The further to the left/back, the easier it is to reach with your left hand, and the harder it is to bow. The closer to straight out in front of you, the easier it is to bow, but the more you have to try and crank your hand around backward to play it. Like the other two "directions", it doesn't have to be rigidly in one spot. You don't even want it to always stay in the same position - that promotes tension. Same thing for head - it should lift off the violin completely from time to time.
I have a very short neck, so the Guarneri style chinrest (where you lay your cheek over it) is impossible for me. I can't even lay my head over that way with a bare violin without it digging into the back of my jaw. So I have had to try a LOT of weird options to get around the problem.
Speaking from experience, you can do without a chinrest, a shoulder rest, or both. There are two problems with trying to do without both:
The lower part of the violin (near your neck) wants to slide down your chest. That one is easy to fix. Put anything that tends not to slip on your shoulder/collarbone, and that will pretty much eliminate that.
The other way it wants to slip is when you are playing in a higher position, and want to shift to a lower one (i.e. moving your hand away from your neck). Without something to anchor it, the violin shows a marked tendency to want to go with it.
That one, you need something to hold it in towards your neck. I'm currently using a carved-up chinrest (end result is sort of like a Sarasote), but it's not a perfect solution. It's giving me pain in my jaw, because it's too high and/or where I need to put my chin is too far away. I was trying to figure out some kind of loop-like thing that would go around my neck and hold it in place, so I was glad to see those links you posted.
Note - this would NOT be to hold the violin up. It is only to keep it from moving away from my neck when downshifting. Until you start playing higher positions, don't worry about it.
There's one huge advantage to doing without those two - you can move the violin around much more freely without them. Since it sounds like you're going to need to move it more than most, I'd recommend experimenting with playing without one or the other (and at least a few times, without both).
If you tilt the violin more (more roll) and move the scroll back towards the left (less yaw), and raise the scroll up (more pitch), you should find hitting notes on the G string easier.
Anything that helps making notes easier to hit with the whole hand will automatically help the 4th finger some, but I'm afraid I don't have too much specific advice for that issue. I have the opposite problem (big hands) and the 4th finger is normal sized, so I've never run into that. I'll ask my teacher about it - he's quite good at coming up with inventive fixes.
The reason I posted the video wasn't to inspire, but to show that, no, violists with smaller hands don't always use a "standard" first position as thumb placement goes. In Ms. DelGiudice-Bigari's case, you can see her thumb sticking up on the left side of her fingerboard, and it's often opposite the second or third finger -- which is to say, pulled back toward her. This allows a little more reach for the third and fourth fingers. She alludes to that in her Q&A, noting that the thumb has to be a lot more mobile with small hands.
That answers your first question: I think it's more proprioception and ear training, because her thumb clearly isn't anchored against that curve.
My experience is similar; I have small hands as well and I am primarily a violist.
AndrewH: Is she playing in first position when her thumb is so nearly vertical and is located opposite her middle fingers?
(And btw, seeing somebody with smaller hands making it work IS inspiring, to me at least.)
Charles: The airplane terminology is very helpful, I have a little engineering background and a very analytical turn of mind.
Concerning yaw: I had imagined all possible angles for yaw as being radii from some spot more or less in the center of my neck. Lately I've been experimenting with moving the center from which those radii radiate rather back--more like the backbone. This puts the tailpiece, or a bit treble-side from the tailpiece, nearest the head. Somewhere I read that some folks think Baroque violin was played with the jaw/chin on the right rather than left of the instrument--now I can't find it. I've got a flattish, center-mounted chinrest now, looking to replace it with a higher one of similar design, as a normal height chin rest requires moving my head or jaw down considerably to have any affect on instrument stability. I've found out I don't like having the violin boosted up to chin level: it is higher than my right shoulder, making bowing odd.
Shoulder rest: I'm a person who is just going to have to move around some, so the idea of going without a shoulder rest appealed to me, but I've revised downward the help my left hand is likely able to give in holding the instrument--that's when I began investigating shoulder-rests and possible substitutes. I tried a rigid shoulder rest (the FM carbon-fiber inexpensive one). It was wonderfully light, but the two practices I used it were the two most painful practices I've had! I'm currently using a shaped piece of foam with a rubber band, supplemented with a folded washcloth. Want to check out the Bon Musica to see if that hook over the shoulder (I guess the Slipperrest does approximately the same) seems useful.
I'm not making much sense, with my own body, of the advice that holding the scroll a bit higher (more pitch) can bring the elbow in. Though that was the advice Fiddlerman gave me on this forum too. Maybe my body doesn't do that; maybe I'm imagining something just a little bit kilter to intentions, and so am not seeing it. (This, too, will be revealed. Or, not.)
Re: straps and counterweights: some of the links I posted were things people invented to allow them to play while healing from some injury.
AndrewH: Is she playing in first position when her thumb is so nearly vertical and is located opposite her middle fingers?
(And btw, seeing somebody with smaller hands making it work IS inspiring, to me at least.)
Yes, she is in first position for some of the time that her thumb is opposite her middle fingers. She sometimes has her thumb in a "standard" placement, but when she has to use a lot of her third and fourth fingers in first position, she pulls her thumb toward her so that it's opposite her middle fingers, which allows her to reach a little farther.
Some relevant excerpts from the Q&A:
Should the thumb for a small hand be opposite the first finger or the second finger?
– The thumb should be wherever needed to allow the hand to stay relaxed. More often than not, for a small hand, the thumb will have to be farther forward to support the 3rd and 4th finger side of the hand.
– This would depend on which passage you are playing. In general, when your hand is in a relaxed mode, the thumb usually is somewhere between 1st and 2nd. I think the key here is flexibility.
Does the position of the thumb move from one finger pattern to the next?
– Again, depending on the passage. If you are shifting from one position to another, then obviously the thumb comes with the hand. If it is a passage where the hand is required to either extend or contract within that particular position, then you should be sure the base knuckle of the thumb is flexible so the fingers can be “freed” from that position.
Does the thumb function differently in fast compared to slow playing?
-Yes. The thumb will rebalance or reposition itself more in slower playing, while in fast playing, it is necessary to find one hand balance and thumb position from which all the notes of a pattern can be reached. Most often establishing a good 4th finger balance and reaching back for the other fingers works more effectively than starting with an index finger balance in quick playing.
AndrewH: Since the relevant excerpts never reference 1st position, it wasn't (and still isn't) obvious to me that her remarks were about, or included, 1st position.
One bit in those remarks that has helped me already is this:
"Most often establishing a good 4th finger balance and reaching back for the other fingers works more effectively than starting with an index finger balance in quick playing."
Again, she may be talking about issues in other positions I don't even understand. But guided by her advice, I have been trying to "find" my first position position (as it were) by trying to find the arrangement that lets me use my 4th finger correctly--at least on D and A strings--and then try to use other fingers while in that position. (This tends to mean that the end joint of my 1st finger is turned at about a 45° angle to the strings, however--also an issue.)
I asked my teacher about this issue, and his suggestion was that you learn very early on to play in 2nd position a lot. The reason is that the notes are closer together the higher up you play, so the shortness of the 4th finger matters less. If you can manage to stretch your index finger from there back up to the first-position notes, that would probably be a good "home" position for you.
If you can't stretch back that far, then the way I'd recommend you find your home position is to start with an open string, and play the first 4 notes of a scale (the first 3 fingers). Then put down your fourth finger and slide it up (while bowing) until it's at the proper 5th note of the scale. (It may be helpful to have something like a piano handy.)
Keep your hand as a whole in that position, and see if you can stretch the 1st three fingers back up so that they're hitting the right notes. If you can find one where you can hit them all without having to move your hand, you've found your spot.
This will depend heavily on how wide you can spread your fingers. Many years ago, I had a woman tell me (and demonstrate) that she could play a wider span of notes on the guitar than I could, even though her hand was significantly smaller than mine.
With time and practice, your ability to spread your fingers widely will increase, so even if this doesn't work at first, it should be possible eventually.
The next bit is to find some way that you can find this spot again. The neck widens steadily as it goes from the nut down towards the bridge. Sensing how wide it is will work, but unless your proprioceptive sense is much above average, that's going to take quite a while before you're hitting it regularly
I personally favor a marker you can feel, as opposed to one for you to look at. A little further down the line, you're going to want to be looking at music, not at markings on the neck. My recommendation would be to put the marker on the side or bottom of the neck. Ideally, you'll be able to feel it, but it won't get in your way (especially as you may be moving your thumb around more than most.
A few ideas: a drop of varnish (the same kind as the violin is finished with) or hide glue. Let it dry thoroughly, and you'll have a small bump that your hand or thumb can feel. If you discover that you need two places - one for the first and second finger, and another for the 3rd and 4th (or even just the 4th), put a second one. Use different patterns for the two spots. One dot for one, two for the other, or something like that.
The tape that some people put across the fingerboard is another option. It will eventually come off and temporarily leave a sticky spot, but there's less danger of doing something to the violin that you can't undo later.
If you don't care about making permanent changes to it, notches would also be an option. (Make them small and shallow - you only want a marker, not something that will interfere with movement. Paint the groove with varnish to protect the wood.)
Re the references not explicitly mentioning 1st position: There's nothing magical about any of the positions. They're simply convenient references for describing to someone else where your hand was. (Or telling someone where to put their hand.) The notes are played the same way regardless of where you are on the fingerboard. It also doesn't matter which finger you use. If the string is pressed down cleanly, it will sound the same no matter which finger did the job.
I don't tend to think in positions when playing higher up on the fingerboard. I had issues with chinrests (still do, although I have a workaround I can live with for now), and that meant I couldn't do the modern "Hail Mary" shifts, where you go from 7th position to 1st all in one go. So my teacher and I worked out ways for me to "spider walk" up the fingerboard, playing each note with whatever finger would work best, given where I was coming from, and what was coming next.
You have to learn the skill of reading/thinking ahead several notes for bowing (not immediately, but you will need it on down the line). I think you need to start thinking the same way about fingering. Standard fingering is simply not going to work for you when the 4th finger gets involved. You need to start thinking about alternative ways to play each piece so that doesn't become an issue. Here are some of the options that occur to me (and some contributed by other people). Some are repeats of what's already been said - I'm trying to collect them all in one spot.
- Shifting up a position (or a half of a position) so that you can play the note with the 3rd finger instead of the 4th. That same shift might be enough to get the 4th finger within reach.
- Related to that, play higher than 1st position (1.5th position or 2nd) to play 1st position, and stretch up to hit the low notes, rather than down to hit the high ones.
- Stretching your 3rd finger to cover what the 4th might normally play. Something I just discovered: stretching the 3rd finger out to play a higher-than-normal note seems to let the 4th finger reach further, too.
- Rocking your hand left to right, depending on which "end" of your hand (forefinger or little finger) you need at the moment.
- Switching strings - this will be less useful in the higher positions, because the 4th finger will not be playing the 5th note (which is the next string up), but the 4th. Still, 1st position is going to be a more difficult one for you (because everything is further apart), and this will frequently work there.
The shoulder rest solution you're using sounds like a good one.
I can confirm what you thought you saw about playing with the chin to the right of the tailpiece. My teacher told me that's what they did before chinrests were invented. (He's been trying to get me to use it for the last year and a half. I find it a bit awkward - since the violin slopes down, that's noticeably lower than the left side. Actually, the tailpiece is right at the perfect spot, if only there weren't a tailpiece in the way... 🙂 )
Re raising the pitch - the question is not whether it brings your elbow in. The question is whether it makes it easier to hit the further strings. You might check in a mirror that your normal playing position has the violin basically flat on that axis. If it's not level to begin with, you might get different results. If a two-inch movement of the scroll doesn't help, then that technique won't work for you. (I can't guess why, but if it doesn't, it doesn't.) If it DOES make it easier to reach, then it doesn't matter what the elbow is doing.
Oh, I'll add that I tend not to use the 4th finger a lot myself, because I have to stretch just to reach the natural note in 1st position. In many pieces, I spend more time in 2nd and 3rd positions than 1st position even when the music is perfectly playable in 1st position for someone with average hand size.