By Miranda Wilson
The “pinky problem,” where the middle joint of the left fourth finger buckles when the player pushes down a string, is one of the top complaints among string players. The symptom is the same, whether the sufferer’s hand is large or small, muscular or frail—the middle joint collapses under pressure, locks, and sends a shooting pain through the finger. Without a doubt, this problem has caused many otherwise good players to quit in despair.
The pinky problem, as well as being the subject of many string pedagogy discussions, is a known medical issue. The flexor digitarum superficialis function is dependent upon the motions of a tendon that is underdeveloped in many humans, and entirely absent in others. In such cases, the person cannot curve the fourth finger independently when the other fingers are restrained, and is only able to do it in tandem with the third finger. British scientists in The Journal of Hand Surgery actually concluded in a 2012 study of violinists and violists that anyone wishing to become a professional string player ought to be screened for fourth-finger flexor digitarum superficialis function in case an underdeveloped or missing tendon should result in crushed hopes later on.
When I read this study, I got upset.
It’s hard enough for string teachers to recruit without this kind of proclamation. What’s more, it simply isn’t true that an inability to independently curve the fourth finger prevents professional-level proficiency. I know this from personal experience, having one of those un-independent, collapsing-locking fourth fingers myself. Several of my college students have this problem, too, and they don’t let it stop them. The fact is, a collapsing finger joint doesn’t necessarily get in the way of good playing if it doesn’t lock or cause pain. When there is pain, however, you need to take urgent action. The experiences of my students led me to develop a three-point checklist for retraining the finger, hand, and arm in a way that prevents joint collapse altogether.
“Daily fundamentals practice should always include exercises in moving rationally from finger to finger, making smooth adjustments in the angle of the hand so that the arm’s weight supports the finger that is on the string.”
Use the Very Tip of the Finger
The conditions leading to a collapsing-locking fourth finger usually include a contact point between finger and string at the fleshiest part of the finger pad. Playing in this flat-fingered manner is not inherently harmful for most string players, but for those whose middle joint is prone to locking, it’s a danger zone. The first step in correcting it is to make sure that the finger contacts the string on the very tip of the finger, right next to the nail. This will encourage the finger to come down in a rounded shape that promotes a curved middle joint.
The angle of the hand is crucial in keeping the fourth finger curved. In other words, the left hand’s position must not be overly pronated, particularly if the player’s fourth finger is proportionally much shorter than the other fingers. This isn’t to say that pronation is bad per se. Violinists and violists use a pronated left-hand position as a matter of course, and the standard left-hand pedagogy for cello has been to imitate this slanted way of placing the left hand on the neck of the instrument since the time of Pablo Casals.
“Normal” pronation enables the hand to move flexibly from finger to finger, note to note. An excessively pronated hand position, however, compels the fourth finger to overstretch on its way toward the string, and this will cause it to touch down flat—in other words, the danger zone for collapsing and locking the middle joint. Therefore, daily fundamentals practice should always include exercises in moving rationally from finger to finger, making smooth adjustments in the angle of the hand so that the arm’s weight supports the finger that is on the string.
Remember: Moveable Arm, Moveable Thumb
To facilitate rational finger and hand shaping, let the thumb be constantly mobile on the neck of the instrument. It should never be an unmoving “anchor,” but instead should move softly to oppose whichever finger is down. This technique works for all members of the string family. If you imagine that it’s the arm’s weight, not the “pinching” of fingers and thumb, that brings the string into contact with the fingerboard, you can free the thumb to glide gently along the neck in constant motion as the fingers sink into the strings in a relaxed manner.
The connecting motion of the left arm carries the player from finger to finger, and while this varies greatly between individuals, it’s generally helpful to think of bringing the arm “forward” to allow its weight to aid the hand and fingers. The beauty of the arm-as-connector motion is that it doesn’t matter if the player can’t curve the fourth finger independently of the other fingers, since the other fingers are free to curve, too. In this way, you can pre-empt the temptation to stretch and straighten the fourth finger to touch down on the string.
Maintain Mindful Practice Methods
You can retrain a collapsing-locking fourth finger both at and away from the instrument in daily practice. One fun exercise is to find a small dog toy with a squeaker inside it, hold it between your fourth finger and thumb, and make it squeak repeatedly. (This will delight your dog.) Don’t allow the finger’s middle joint to collapse; glance at it constantly to make sure you’re maintaining a curve. The goal isn’t to squeeze hard, so find a toy that doesn’t need a lot of pressure to squeak. Rather, you’re teaching the finger to maintain a curved shape and not allowing it to assume a collapsed one.
At the instrument, devote part of your daily practice to études specifically designed for developing the fourth finger. For cellists, this might include the trilling exercises from Louis Feuillard’s Daily Exercises and Bernhard Cossman’s Études for Developing the Agility and Strength of the Fingers and the Purity of Intonation; for violinists, No. 9 from Rodolphe Kreutzer’s 42 Études. Practice slowly using the three steps. Watch your finger constantly in a mirror, using the utmost caution that you don’t let yourself relapse into a collapse-prone position, because these highly repetitive études are a recipe for injury if played with bad technique. Catch yourself in the act of non-optimal fourth finger placement every time it happens. Review the three steps and ask yourself, what conditions need to be in place for optimal finger placement every time?
As you build the new habit, you may notice that the fourth finger wants to curve “outward” from the hand, and you may find that a callus starts forming next to the outer corner of your fingernail. This is not a bad thing; all it means is that you’re now placing your finger on the string in a way that’s more natural for your hand.
As with any technique change, you’re doing more than changing a hand position, you’re undoing a habit that has created a neural pathway in the brain. Replacing the bad habit with a new one is a frustrating process, but the results can be cheering to a discouraged player, and prove that anyone, under the right conditions, can learn to play at an advanced standard regardless of the peculiarities of their fingers.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Strings magazine.