One of the most common technical hangups with string players is excess tension in the left hand. In the beginning, many students don’t yet have the finger strength to be tense, but as soon as they do, it can seem like they are holding the violin or viola like a vice! This can be a difficult habit to break because the student can’t see the tension and often isn’t aware they are squeezing.
Over the years, I have found these simple games and activities to help relieve left hand tension and promote good position. I have divided them into two categories: games that support holding the violin/viola without the left hand helping, and games that help with left hand to relax. It’s practically impossible for a student who has collapsed posture to have a relaxed left hand. Before I address the left hand itself, I want to make sure that the student is truly relying on the weight of the head to keep the viola on the shoulder, and not holding with the left hand. I’m also assuming at this point that the student is playing on inside/thumb side corners and is otherwise well set up.
In this game, I have the student play a review piece. When I clap, they must immediately take their left hand down and stop playing. When I clap again, they are to shoot their left hand back up and resume the song from wherever they left off. This game can be played in varying levels of difficulty. It’s a lot easier for students if I clap at the end of the phrase and perhaps give them a reminder as to which note comes next. As the student gets more confident, I will clap at more random times. The practicing parent/home teacher can easily play this game at home with their child and it works great in group classes to make sure the students are focused on the teacher.
Similar to the clapping game, when I give a vocal cue, the student stops playing shakes my hand with their left hand. We can also make a rule that they shake on all open strings, so they can keep playing. The shaking motion makes it harder to play, but as long as it is a relaxed handshake and not a grab, this exercise can also relieve tension in the shoulder. In group class, students can partner off when each other so each is shaking with their left hand during the song. In a group, I would start with something very simple, like Twinkle Theme, as students build their coordination.
Left Hand Pizz. on Open Strings
This game works great for songs from Song of the Wind and on up. I’ve even used it with students on Martini Gavotte in Book 3, much to everyone’s amusement! In the pre-twinkle stage, I introduce plucking with 3rd or 4th finger of the left hand, in order to build finger strength and left hand balance. In the plucking game, I simply have the student play all the fingered notes with the bow, while plucking all the open strings with the 3rd or 4th finger of the left hand. To pluck the string, the student must have the left hand rotated enough to reach the 3rd and 4th fingers easily, so this game also helps to develop a balanced left hand frame. When teaching this exercise, I will usually tell the student not to worry if they are playing the correct bowing, since they have to take the bow of the string for the pizzicato to sound.
Zombies and Cats
The recent zombie craze inspired the name for this exercise, which helps the student begin to recognize the difference between tension and relaxation in their hands. I demonstrate and have the student hold their hands out in front, palms down, and let their hands become totally soft, so they look like a zombie (also known as “Thriller Arms”). Then I have them practice tensing and curling all their fingers at once like an angry cat. We do this with both hands for a bit, then progress to one hand soft, on hand hard. Many children don’t yet have the body awareness to recognize when they are squeezing or tensing, so this is a great exercise to start building that awareness. You can even make zombie and cat sound sounds as you do the exercise!
The Thumb Goes on Vacation
Children are wonderful at engaging their imaginations. When starting a young student, I place a small square of moleskin foam where their thumb should rest. I explain that the thumb doesn’t have a note to play like the fingers do, but it should just rest on the thumb pillow. If the thumb starts to squeeze, I explain that it is the thumb’s job to rest. I will also ask if the student has ever been on a trip or vacation. We then brainstorm a relaxing place that the thumb could travel to so it doesn’t try to “help” the other fingers by pressing. If the thumb presses again (it will), I or the parent just say “Oops, it looks like the thumb is trying to work on his vacation!” Children tend to respond better to this kind of instruction than frequent reminders to “Relax!”
Once students understand the concept of a musical phrase, which I teach early in Book 1, they can use this game any time to relieve left hand tension. We simply pick a spot, usually a long note or the end of a phrase, where the student will stop and gently tap the thumb. Practicing with these mini-relaxation breaks will eventually build the ability to play the whole song with a soft thumb. I use this game with students from age 4 to college. It’s a great tool.
“Ouch! Don’t Squeeze the Hamster!”
Some teachers call this the “Mouse Hole”. As upper string players, we want to maintain some space at the webbing connecting the thumb and index finger. I will have the student imagine that there is a dwarf hamster sitting in that space and that they want to keep the thumb nice and soft so the hamster doesn’t get squished. Then I or the parent will place a finger in that space as the student plays. If I feel a squeeze, I will just say “Ouch!”. This game often leads to a lot of giggles and is more effective than saying “Relax your thumb.”
I got this idea from Alice Kanack, my former head teacher and school director in Rochester, NY. It’s great for group classes because you can kind of “set it and forget it” AND there’s a fun treat at the end. These particular marshmallows come in a flat shape, with a wide groove running down the middle and are the perfect size and shape to fit in the soft webbing between the thumb and index finger (hamster space/mouse hole). The soft, puffy texture of the marshmallow encourages relaxation and I explain that if the students squish the marshmallow, it won’t taste as good. When using the marshmallows, you do have to make sure that one side isn’t crowding the index finger, so I try to place it more on the thumb side.
I have been able to find StackerMallows at Target and most grocery stores, but you can also find them on Amazon here: S’mores StackerMallows at Amazon.com
Most students habitually play with more left hand pressure than is needed to depress the strings, leading to tension. I like to break out this game around Halloween because it sounds “spooky”. I show the student that if they put the finger down as light as a feather, it sounds different. There are many natural harmonics in the first position, and it is fun to hear how a song like “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” sounds when played with fingers at a harmonic level of weight. It’s also a great test of muscle memory for the different songs, since the student is not hearing the correct notes to the song. If I hear too much of the normal pitches, I will remind the student that they need to have a feather weight. I find that if I have students do this over a few weeks, they will naturally find a less heavy finger weight when playing the songs normally.
How do you encourage relaxation in your students? Share your tips in a comment below!