Building Up Dexterity in the Left Hand

Hey you cool cats and kittens (that intro doesn’t date this article at all…)  – this post is response to a really good question from one of my students asking about building up finger dexterity. 

One of the biggest mistakes a developing violinist can make on their way to mastery is approaching technique with too much forcefulness. When your fingers don’t seem to be obeying your brain to help you create the sounds you hear in your head,  it’s easy to think you have to apply more pressure – to put your sweat and tears into “making” your hand do exactly what it should. However, this only makes it worse.  Putting tension in the hand locks it in place – while less effort will actually do a better job letting the hand move freely.   As Victor Wooten put it in his book The Music Lesson ( a read I highly recomend, by the way) – “If you’re trying too hard, try easy.”

When you watch a violinist or fiddler who really knows what they’re doing (like her):

look closely at the left hand.  Benedetti’s playing very virtuosic and complicated stuff, but her hand stays in a gentle and natural curve for the entire performance. All her skilled “fireworks” are created by the slightest of motions.  Physically speaking, it’s really nothing more demanding than the lifting and putting down of fingers I am currently doing to type this. The tricky part is the coordination and making the fingers land in exactly the right spot at the right time – and of course that takes years of disciplined practice. But the actual physical motion should not be something you have to strain for.  So here are some exercises to help you play with a left hand that relaxed enough to give you the freedom to learn how to play whatever slow and lyrical, or blistering fast lines you want to work towards.

Without the violin:

With the violin –

A summary to keep in mind:

The left hand should never hold up the instrument – that’s not it’s job! You want that hand free to move on and off the strings and around the finger board as freely as it can.  So spend a little time practicing just holding the instrument up – using your neck and jaw to make the instrument a part of your shoulder.

Keep the fingers all together curved and hovering above the strings.  Fingers will sometimes want to fly off – but if you notice that, just gently bring them back into a group working together.

If  you’ve ever tried cooking and accidentally touched something hot – you may notice that  you’re hand will automatically (without even really trying) jerk away. So pretend the strings are “hot” and you want to take them off as soon as possible.

Celtic music in particular is built around trills  and turns that involve moving the fingers on and off the strings quickly – ornamentation that makes a tune sound more interesting but an afterthought – moving super quickly so that you don’t loose the original tune or the danceable groove.


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