SHIFTING AND LEFT HAND BALANCE IN HIGH POSITIONS
By Bayla Keyes
SUPPORT & RELEASE
Without holding your violin, stand and relax into your feet. Feel your alignment; your shoulders should be above your hips, hips above knees, knees above ankles, and weight dropping through the arches of your feet. Keep your hips loose; hips and shoulders are related, so if your hips are tight your shoulders will be tight and you’ll have more difficulty moving your arms!
Jiggle up and down, releasing your knees slightly. Feel the corresponding releases in your shoulders. Center your weight on your left foot, jiggle, and notice how your left shoulder responds; it should also be jiggling.
Now shift your weight from foot to foot, allowing your torso to move slightly as your arms swing naturally. (Do not allow your knees to twist!) See if you can find the organic spiral of foot to hip to shoulderblade to arm. Most of us are constricted between our shoulderblades. Can you feel their movement away from and back toward the spine? If you can’t, try the egg beater exercise – lean over, let your arms hang, and initiate a hip spiral to create an opposite spiral in your arms. Once you are going comfortably, stand up, allowing the hips and arms to continue their movement. Gradually reduce the range of movement. How little can you move, while still feeling the spiral through your body?
Continuing to initiate from your feet and hips, allow your movement to expand again. Without stopping your spirals, push off from your right foot and allow your left arm to flop up into playing position; circle several more times, allowing the left elbow to move with your body, and then relax down. Repeat this several times. Notice the space under your left arm, and notice the quality of feeling in your upper arm and elbow. Can you feel the left shoulder blade circling?
With your left arm in playing position, initiate a shift from your feet. Push off from the right foot, letting your left side respond by moving further to the left and turning slightly back; as your body returns to the right, allow the left upper arm to circle to the right and in towards your body. Find the spiral which connects your hip movement to your left elbow movement. Gradually reduce the range of movement. How little can you move, while still feeling the spiral through your arm and shoulder blade?
ENHANCING THE FLOW
Now take your violin and rest it on your relaxed left shoulder. Balance the weight of the violin with the weight of your head resting gently on the back of the chinrest. Repeat the above steps while holding the violin in this relaxed fashion. As the spirals of movement from your feet rise, allow them to flow into your arms. Feel the small circling of your shoulder blades, particularly the left, which will help you shift. If your head presses into the violin too tightly, that flow will be stopped.
LEFT HAND SHAPE
In higher positions, the string is closer to the bridge and therefore tauter. Left hand balance becomes critical because you need your left hand to be both strong and relaxed.
POSITION OF THE THUMB
The position of your thumb – how far around the body of the violin it travels, and how much it rises – will be a determining factor in how comfortable your hand is in higher positions. Often, a higher hand is needed, so that the left hand can assume a position of mastery, coming from above.
To find the best operating hand height, rest the violin on your shoulder, supporting it with your right hand. Let your left arm hang loosely. Bring your left arm up and around and tap all four fingers to the left of the fingerboard, high up on the body of the instrument. Repeat several times. After the last tapping, immediately place all four fingers high on the G string. Observe the curve of your hand and the arched shape of your fingers. Is this rounder and more forward than what you usually do? Tap your fingers together and then individually directly on the high G string – you should be able to hear the tapping clearly. Does your finger feel strong and confident in its movement?
ARCH SHAPE VS. FLATTENED HAND
The arch shape you are now making with your hand I call the “C” shape. It is a counterpart to the “C” shape of the fingers in lower positions. This “C” shape contrasts sharply with the flattened position that can happen when you shift without allowing your thumb to move around and your hand to move up. This flattened hand, which I call the position of supplication, is so weak that the sound may be fuzzy and unclear, and your hand will strain to push the string down. The only time you should allow this hand shape to be created is when you are shifting into a harmonic, which benefits from a flattened finger.
An excellent exercise for encouraging a good arched hand shape is to alternate high notes with the open string under it. Play an open string and then drop the finger quickly onto a note in a high position on that same string; you should be able to hear the finger pop as it lands. The bow should remain legato. You will notice that as you repeat this popping you will naturally find the ideal shape for the finger to feel comfortable and be able to repeat the note accurately.
Another cause of weakness in high positions is tension in the knuckles. If the knuckles push away from the violin too much, the fingers will lose their arch shape. Place a finger on a high note and use the right hand to gently iron the left knuckles, encouraging them to relax down and in. Notice that as the knuckles relax forward, the arch shape of the hand and fingers is reinforced. Can you maintain some of this relaxation even as your finger presses into the string?
An important contributor to high balance comfort is the ability of the first joints, especially of the first and second fingers, to soften and release down. (Your finger may look concave when you do this!) This will allow the third and fourth fingers to come more easily forward into the fingerboard. I call this steepling. Experiment with your first joints, first squaring and then steepling them. This may seem like an unusual position at first, but you will find many uses for it, including during shifts and doublestops. The looseness of this first joint is vital in vibrato as well.
ANGLE OF FINGER ENTERING THE STRING
A common mistake when playing in upper positions is to allow the finger to pull the string to the right, in the direction of the palm of the hand. It is true that the finger should feel as if it is moving to the right slightly, but in fact the string must not move! A good exercise to correct this habit is to play the Galamian one-position scales starting in eighth and continuing into twelfth position. You will need to observe your left hand closely (it helps some people to close one eye) as each finger enters the string. If the string moves sideways at all, pick up the finger and try to find a better angle of entry, usually from further back. The finger should depress the string straight down into the fingerboard. The next finger should do the same. You may find that even if the first finger seems initially good, once the second finger goes down, the string will begin to pull to the side, and the only way to fix this is to angle the first finger differently. If you stand in front of a mirror with the scroll pointing towards the mirror, you can more easily see when a finger pulls a string; that string will no longer be parallel to its neighbors. Attention to this tiny detail will have miraculous results.
The only exception to this is when you are beyond, or nearly beyond, the fingerboard. At this point it is actually useful to place the fingers to the left of the string and not to attempt to push straight down, but to play on the side of the string, pulling slightly into the palm of the hand.
I find it helpful to feel the initiation of a shift as a spiral from the left foot. A gentle push from the left foot is reflected by the left upper arm moving to the right and forward; the left hand should have a sensation of being carried by a wave of movement. You may notice the circling of the left elbow and feel that circle reflected in the left shoulder blade. Contrast this with the more angular movement of initiating the shift from the forearm. Try without and then with the violin. Where do you feel the “work” of each motion? Which process best helps your hand, biceps and shoulder to relax? When you connect your shoulder blades back into your spine, can you sense the extra support created for your arm?
This circularity can also be seen in the motion of the thumb when shifting up. Before moving, allow the thumb to relax and drop back; then diagonally trace the bottom half of a circle, like the shape of a watermelon slice, along the neck as you move up and around. Notice how this aids the organic circling movement of the upper arm. Especially before a large shift to the top of the instrument, the thumb moving in this way will give permission to the upper arm to find its natural motion.
The single most important element of a shift is releasing. A thumb pushing into the neck, your finger pushing into the string, a stiff wrist, your arm hardening, or even your head pushing into the violin can all prevent the easy flow of energy that results in a smooth shift.
The thumb is often a saboteur in shifts, refusing to let go and causing you to push through its tension in order to get to higher positions. Here are some excellent ways to reveal and then reduce that tension:
I like the exercises in Simon Fischer’s Basics on pages 146-148; I call #204 the “thumb spa” because it makes my thumb feel as if it has had a massage!
Place your violin on a shelf or up against the wall, take the thumb off the neck, and practice shifting without it. If it is noticeably easier then you have a definite clue that you are squeezing.
Without the violin, hold your left hand up so that you are making a “C” as you look at it. Gently grasp the left thumb with your right fingers; stabilize the thumb and don’t allow it to move. Now bring the thumb under each of the fingers of your left hand in turn and tap that finger onto the thumb. Can you feel your thumb reacting to the movement of your finger? Now repeat without your right hand helping your thumb. You should be able to tap each finger with the thumb remaining absolutely uninvolved and still.
An exercise from D.C. Dounis is good for releasing the finger you are leaving. Imagine that your finger is a golf ball; in the lower position it is lying on the ground. As you shift, your golf ball is flying through the air; when you arrive at your destination, the golf ball plops right into the hole. Do not dig a trench before you arrive – just pop into the string exactly when you land. In practicing a shift, your finger will not actually go in the air, but you should release it to the very top of the string. The more you release, the less you will have to work during the shift itself.
Another Dounis exercise utilizes visualization and reverse psychology. Place your third finger on any very high note on the E string. Notice the exact placement of your thumb and hand. Now maintain that same hand position as you lift the third finger and reach as far back as you can with the first finger, depressing the string wherever you are able. (Your hand will look and feel very strange.) Let go with the first finger and put the third finger back down in its high place. Notice how you naturally and effortlessly float back to the higher position, because your hand and thumb are already there; as soon as you let go with the first finger, your hand is allowed to shift back up! Next, start in first position, with the first finger down; move your thumb and hand up and around as far as possible; then let the first finger go as you float up to a third finger somewhere at the top of the instrument—the exact pitch is not important for this exercise. Finally, start in first position, with the first finger down; allow the thumb to drop back; visualize the in-between position; let the first finger go and watch as your hand floats without effort to the top of the instrument, landing on your third finger.
For an exercise to counteract a stiff wrist, wave your forearm forward and backward in the direction of your face, allowing the wrist to lead in both directions. Your hand should feel like soft paintbrush bristles – as the forearm comes toward you, your hand is falling back; as the forearm goes away from you, your hand droops back toward you. Do this as a shifting exercise on the violin too. After the exercise, perform a real shift, imagining that your wrist is softening in the same way, but not allowing visible wrist movement.
A frequent fault in shifting is to think of the forearm making only a linear motion. Without the violin, put your left arm in playing position. Hold your upper arm with your right hand and shift up and down the line of the string, initiating from the forearm. Repeat, initiating from your left shoulder blade and back and starting to allow a small circling of your elbow. Repeat, initiating from your left foot. Notice any difference in what your upper arm has to do, in the physical quality of the shift, and in the feeling inside your left hand. The string is a line, but our arm works most easily in a circle. Even a slight amount of forearm rotation during a shift will make it easier. Initiate the movement of the forearm from further back, allowing the elbow to drop back and down before coming forward to shift, much as a pitcher throwing a ball will first drop his hand and arm back before coming forward to throw.
When you shift up, develop the habit of lifting your chin as your left hand comes into contact with the body of the instrument. This will counteract any tendency you may have to press in with your head. In high positions you can easily support the violin with your left hand, and your neck muscles get a break!
EXERCISES FOR ACCURACY
Thumb position, palm touching – feel and memorize
Where to come around
Saying positions out loud
Position to position
THE MOVABLE ELBOW: LEFT ARM ALIGNMENT
By Bayla Keyes
Connecting to the Shoulder blade:
Put your left arm up in playing position. Reach back with your elbow, stretching out from the armpit (remember the starfish stretch?). Can you feel the connection of your elbow into your shoulderblade? Now scoop around and forward as you shift to a high note. Notice how the space under your arm is maintained. What is the track of your thumb? Can you feel how you are initiating the movement from the back?
As you shift, do not crunch your upper arm into your side and do not squeeze your bicep; instead try to find open spaces. Even as you shift up try to come around an invisible balloon in your elbow, so that it doesn’t squeeze shut. Imagine that your entire arm is making a giant “C” shape.
Finding the Balance in High Positions:
When you are in high positions, try to find the “C” shape; if your fingers are elongated they will be weak and unable to press the string down with its additional tension nearer the bridge, so make sure that your elbow has come around the violin as much as is necessary to allow the hand and fingers to find a good balance. An arch shape will be stronger than a flattened one. Check your base knuckles – they should be relaxed and springy, never hard. (Exercises: Tapping to the Left of the Fingerboard, Pancake Hand)
Moving for Chords:
Keeping your wrist directly above your forearm, place your fourth finger on each string in turn. In order to keep the alignment, the elbow must move as you change strings. Experiment with the best position of the elbow and notice how when you have the proper alignment it is much easier to vibrate and feel the finger relax into the string.
This elbow support has enormous consequences when playing multiple stops. In solo Bach, correct placement of the elbow will give the advantage to the finger (voice) you wish to bring out. Even the pressure of the fingers should not be equal; you should be able to feel the melody finger more deeply. (Exercise: Doublestop Balance) Fugue, anyone?