Relaxation and flexibility promote good technique and injury-free playing

I often give students a little quiz. It’s simple, yet what it reveals is of paramount importance to the development of any cellist’s technique. Here it is: hold either of your hands in front of you, and with the index finger of one hand, simply point to and count the number of knuckles (joints where you can bend) on each finger of the other hand, thumb included.

Start with the little finger, and go on to each of the others in turn. Do you notice any patterns? For each of the first four fingers you counted, I trust you came up with three knuckles each. Now, on to the thumb. I’m guessing that you found only two.

If so, count again!

Just like each of the other four fingers, the thumb actually has three joints. What appears to be the thumb’s equivalent of the other fingers’ base joint is actually the middle joint of the thumb. The base joint is down near where the thumb joins the hand at the wrist.

Unlike the other fingers, which are moved by tendons attached to muscles farther up the arm, the thumb has its own set of muscles in the hand that enable it to bend in toward the other fingers—the famous opposable thumb of which Homo sapiens are so proud. That accounts for its different appearance and function. The thumb’s unique structure makes it the strongest of the fingers, and its strength can be a curse. So many players fail to recognize the thumb’s true structure because they genuinely aren’t flexible at the base bending point. Because its musculature allows us to hold it rigid—to “lock” it in place—for a long time without fatigue, many players do so without knowing it. This fact, combined with the natural tendency to grab tightly to things, particularly when nervous or concentrating hard, causes most student cellists to lock their thumb’s base joint, creating a plethora of technical hurdles.

It’s a basic tenet of string playing that relaxation and flexibility promote good technique and injury-free playing. A thumb that is locked or tense (which some players call “banana thumb” because of the backward-curved shape it takes) can make general hand and arm flexibility virtually unattainable.

A Chain Reaction

How does one joint play such a central role in our quest for fluid technique? Tense muscles are, by definition, stiff and rigid. They develop from shortening and tightening, and the inflexibility is aggravated by a standoff between opposing muscles. The thumb is designed to work in opposition to our fingers. Tighten the thumb, and the fingers and back of the hand naturally lock in response because the thumb has set off their deeply programmed grabbing reflex. And because fingers are operated by muscles in the forearm, tightening the fingers results in the arm also becoming rigid.

Try to shift or bow with a relaxed motion when your hand and wrist are locked, and it’s easy to see that the entire upper body is affected by the rigidity that originated in the locked base joint of the thumb. The result is stiff, jerky, non-fluid motion—just the sort of thing we don’ want in our playing.

My own exploration of the effects of a locked thumb began in the practice room when I noticed that executing quick trills in passage work is nearly impossible when the thumb is locked, but simple when the thumb is relaxed. Noticing this profound difference tipped me off to the overall salutary effects of a loose thumb, and I gradually came to believe that, for both hands of a cellist, the thumb is key to technique—for better or for worse.

The Fix

The challenge for cello players is to integrate the relaxed thumb into our playing despite the instinctive urge to grab and tighten—an urge that is exacerbated by nervousness and uncertainty. (This helps explain why those big shifts tend to be more challenging in performances than they are in the practice room.) The most important step in curing the problem is awareness. We grab because it’s natural; we’re unaware that we’re doing it. By becoming aware of it, we have taken the first step toward resolving the problem. But it’s difficult to remember how not to do something. You may want to try the method of one creative teacher I know: tape grapes to the pad of your left thumb to alert you when you’re squeezing the cello’s neck.

I don’t need to tell you what happens when you forget to keep your thumb relaxed!

This pedagogical issue is best approached by starting off with a position and technique that fosters relaxed playing in both hands. Some players with locked thumbs may respond well to frequent reminders from a teacher to relax and curve the thumbs; others may better develop awareness through games.

Tense-relax exercises can also be helpful in learning the difference between tension and relaxation. For example, place both hands loosely in your lap, then make a tight fist with both hands and hold it for 10 seconds. Note the sensation of tension, and the fact that often muscles unrelated to the act of making a fist (shoulders, legs, lips, for example) will tense in sympathy with the hands’ squeezing. Then relax the hands and exhale completely, feeling the release of tension. Repeat this exercise as necessary to attain that relaxed base joint.

Unfortunately, some musicians fail to recognize the extent of the problems caused by locked thumbs until they have caused an injury, such as tendonitis, in the forearms. Even if no injury results, a tight grip on a cello neck or bow makes playing harder and reduces technical consistency. It is not a simple problem to cure—if it were, it would be less common—but it is worth any effort, because by unlocking the thumbs, a cellist also unlocks the single greatest barrier to relaxed, reliable, injury-free technique.

*This article appeared in Strings April 2007

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