By Laurence Vittes
There was a time not so long when pain seemed to go hand-in-hand with left-hand flexibility on the violin and viola. What was once a warrior’s stoic mentality is now increasingly becoming a conversation for the modern musician-athlete. Strings spoke with violinist Francesca Dego, violinist Tessa Lark, violist Zachary Carrettin and violist Hsin-Yun Huang about why left-hand flexibility matters, how it can help/prevent injuries, along with a few exercises and tips.
“Energy, strength and relaxation while playing comes from a deep and positive relationship with our instrument,” Dego says. “If we bully ourselves into achieving it, we risk injury or pain. Playing the violin should never hurt. If and when it does you’re doing something wrong. We are like athletes. We need to warm up to build the technical fluidity to convey our musical thoughts.”
“We are athletes,” Huang seconds, “we work daily on warm-ups, skill sets, and proper relaxation. Staying flexible while training is essential to this daily routine.”
For Lark, increasing “a mindset of flexibility focused on the left hand carries over to other parts of the body, and inspires mobility and less overall stiffness.”
Improving left hand flexibility, Dego adds, is all about the bow. “We often get stuck on a passage involving fast finger-work when the problem may be that our bow arm is tense,” Dego says, “preventing efficient string crossing and making it difficult to find that perfect balance between speed and pressure which is vital to building everything else.”
“We are like athletes. We need to warm up to build the technical fluidity to convey our musical thoughts.”Francesca Dego
Huang adds that “a feel-good bow serves as a seamless extension of the arm and the hand. Our instruments embody the most fundamental core of our artistic voices; the quality of the bow can emphasize different aspects of the sound. There is no one right bow, but rather if we are lucky, we will have choices.”
Left-hand flexibility enhances lightness of touch, Carrettin says, noting that musician’s can even change the pitch more quickly than the audience even hears a note. “If a student plays a piece barely touching the strings, only pressing them halfway to the fingerboard, they can find an enhanced awareness of how much they tend to over-press,” Carrettin adds. “The next exercise is to then touch the string to the fingerboard, but only enough for contact—no pressure beyond that.”
Flexibility in the fingers, hand, and wrist, Carrettin adds, can lead musicians to the discovery of more distinct vibratos. “Violinists can develop a palette of widths and speeds appropriate to different musical eras and styles,” he says.
The biggest reason left-hand flexibility matters to Lark is so that her musical vision will never be inhibited by physical limitations. “The more flexible you are,” she says, “the more options you have available for realizing your ideas.”
6 Tips for Improving Your Left-Hand Flexibility with Your Violin or Viola
- Check the tension in your fingers. “Be sure to check tension in the fingers you are not using. They should remain soft and supple. It takes an active mind to separate finger actions and stay observant,” Huang says.
- Don’t forget to warm up! “Playing your scales, arpeggios, etudes prior to starting to working on repertoire is a no-brainer. It is beautiful to start the day by cleansing our sound-sense with good intonation and sound quality,” Huang says. “Slowly engaging at the beginning is crucial for the long run. Whole-body awareness allows us to develop and maintain as performers, intelligently and beautifully, throughout our lives.”
- Try Ševcík in your warm up routine. “My quick fix for everything left-hand related is Ševcík, especially Op.7 parts 1 and 2, where he concentrates on finger-twisting trills and Op.8 for shifting,” Dego adds. “Keep your hand as soft and rounded as possible. Precise articulation, which overcomes that feeling of everything sounding muddy, is about the speed with which you lift your fingers—not only drop them.”
- Some Paganini goes a long way. “One of the best pieces for a full left-hand workout is Paganini’s Sixth Caprice,” Dego says. “If you can play this accurately, keep a relaxed left hand and create a beautiful even tone, you’re ready to tackle pretty much anything in the repertoire.”
- Try the Daily Dozen! Left-hand exercises from Dounis’s Daily Dozen offer all sorts of left-hand flexibility including vibrato, finger independence, stretches, portamenti, different contact points—finger pads versus tips.
- Listen, listen and listen more. “The most important tool is your ear,” Larks says. “If you can truly hear what you’re going for, the flexibility to achieve it will come, but even during a hot pursuit, always listen to your fingers and take plenty of breaks!!”