By Scott Flavin | From the May-June 2021 issue of Strings magazine

Advancing students of the violin practice their scales, arpeggios, and double-stops in thirds, sixths, and octaves. When they have achieved a fair level of consistency and ease (especially in octaves and octave scales), they can add scales in tenths. But why should they practice tenths?

While tenths show up in virtuoso repertoire (like Paganini, Wieniawski, etc.), they are more fundamentally important as a way to improve left-hand technique. Tenths are a great way to monitor and resolve left-hand tension, as the stretch between the first and fourth fingers can only be accommodated with a flexible left hand. In addition, cultivating an effective and ergonomic extended hand position can facilitate large shifts and extensions, in essence making the traversal of the fingerboard more manageable from bottom to top.

Tenths at a Glance:
• Balance on the fourth finger
• Shift the whole arm, pivoting on the elbow joint
• Hear position changes (glissando)
• Have fun with it!

Get Balanced

An important difference between playing octaves and tenths is in the balance of the left hand.  In octaves, your point of balance is the first finger, which should feel heavy on the fingerboard (not squeezing, but with the finger weight comparable to playing a melodic note with vibrato), while the fourth finger should be very light (Nathan Milstein encouraged placement of the pinky on the string as light as for a harmonic, then adding only enough weight for the solid note to speak).

With tenths, it’s the exact opposite! 

The upper note (the fourth finger) is your point of balance, while the index finger should be as light as possible without compromising tone. Proper balance between the two fingers will keep your hand from being tense and rigid.

Tenths Time:
• Don’t start off your practice session with tenths! Be fully warmed up and flexible.
• Don’t practice tenths for too long. The goal should be finding a little more ease with them each practice session, even if you only work on them for a few minutes.
• Constantly monitor the left hand for tension. If something feels odd or painful, stop. Stretch, take a break, go get coffee. Don’t hurt yourself!

Finding Tenths—Open the Fan

Here’s where it gets weird, but important: In order to find the optimal hand position and balance for tenths, you must start from the upper note (fourth finger) and open the hand back, which is anatomically much easier than stretching “up” from your first finger. Look at Images 1 (normal left-hand position) and 2 (the left hand opening like a fan) and note how the tenth affects left-hand position before trying Ex. 1 yourself. 


Image 1: Hand in third position
Image 1: Hand in third position
Image 2: Extended hand position
Image 2: Extended hand position

The concept of finding the upper note first can be difficult to grasp; just make sure to start with the hand in position for the upper note. 

A good way to feel balance on the fourth finger is to play with a nice, relaxed vibrato as the finger sinks into the string. Next, add the first finger an octave below the fourth finger, and, using the lightest possible finger pressure, slide down to the tenth below the upper note (Ex. 2), maintaining weight on the fourth finger throughout. Remember, the first finger should be almost harmonic-light in terms of finger weight, only adding enough weight for the note to sound. Also, make sure that your wrist is not in an abnormal position, and that it is flexible as well. 

What will probably feel unfamiliar is that the first finger’s point of contact with the string will now be a bit on the side of the finger, not so much on the pad (see Images 3 and 3a); this is OK! You will get used to it. You’ll be surprised how little weight it takes for the note to sound, even on the G and D strings: About 70-percent weight on the fourth finger and 30 percent on the first finger should suffice. Make sure you play with a rich mezzo-forte bow tone.

Image 3: Non-extended finger position
Image 3: Non-extended finger position
Image 3a: Extended finger position
Image 3a: Extended finger position

Tuning Tenths—A Counter-Intuitive Conundrum

Intonation can be a bit daunting in tenths, but just remember that the lower note is the fundamental pitch, so even though your first finger has very light finger weight, it is the most important tuning note, and the fourth finger needs to be tuned to it. When adjusting your fingers, make sure to keep the balance of heavy fourth and light first fingers.

Shifting Tenths—Let ’Em Flow

When playing scales in tenths, your shifting must be fluid and controlled; the arm, powered by the bicep and pivoting on the elbow joint, carries the forearm and hand as a unit (a flexible unit, but a unit nonetheless). Shifting the entire arm and hand allows you to maintain the relationship or extended framework between the first and fourth fingers. 

When practicing these changes of position, shift smoothly with a glissando to eliminate tension and to “hear” the distance between notes (you’ll hear the train pulling into the station, so you won’t shift too far). Once you can shift consistently with smoothness and accuracy, you can play with lighter bow during shifting so the glissandi will not be heard. 

You must also be aware of how far each finger will be travelling. Are both shifting by whole steps? Both half steps? One whole, one half? I recommend marking the half steps in your music (Ex. 3). If one finger is shifting a whole step and the other is shifting a half step, focus on the finger shifting the larger interval, and allow the other finger to just “follow along.” 

Practice each shift up and down (Ex. 4), watching for accuracy, consistency, and no tension. Next, overlap (Ex. 5), always monitoring quality and ease of shifting. In tenths, especially on the lower strings, the arm will come around a bit more to accommodate the stretch (see Images 4 and 5). 

Image 4: Normal left-arm position
Image 4: Normal left-arm position
Image 5: Left arm coming around violin
Image 5: Left arm coming around violin

So, while tenths initially may be very difficult, the benefits gained with the increased flexibility of the left hand will show themselves in your entire technique.