In the beginning stages of playing the violin or viola, there are many things to consider: the posture, bow hold, and bowing motion for starters. But for beginners, simply placing the fingers in the correct shape on the fingerboard and using an appropriate amount of force vs. relaxation of the finger can be a challenge. Even more advanced students must work on improving finger action, for example, in using the fingers to articulate a series of notes under a slur. I like to use the following exercises to teach finger action.
The Ants Go Marching
In the pre-twinkle stage, I will draw the finger numbers on the tip of each left hand finger and we will sing “The Ants Go Marching” while doing “finger pops”. In finger pops, the finger and thumb make a circle, with the finger on its tip. This both helps to strengthen the arch shape of the fingers, and also reinforces the finger numbers, since we pop the first finger when singing “the ants go marching 1 by 1”, pop the second finger when singing “the ants go marching 2 by 2”, etc.
I have teacher trainer Carrie Reuning-Hummel to thank for this. She called it the “dumping game”, but at the time I learned about it, I had a lot of Angry Birds-obsessed students and I adapted the game to feature the birds in action. Basically, the student places the violin or viola on the shoulder in playing position, but has their left hand resting on the upper shoulder of the instrument, thumb on the bottom, fingers on the top (see picture below). With arched fingers, they then pull back each finger individually, while keeping the same shape of the finger (ie; not straightening). I like to pretend there is a different bird on top of each finger and if the finger keeps its shape, the bird is launched towards the blocks. If the finger straightens out, the bird is launched towards the ground and can’t get any pigs.
Popcorns on the Strings
If the student has been doing a lot of finger pops and Angry Birds away from the instrument, this next step simply adds the element of placing the left hand correctly. With the left hand relaxed and in its proper position, I have the student repeat the Angry Birds exercise, but this time the fingers are on their respective tapes on the string, rather than on the top of the viola. Once the motion is secure and easy, I will have the student see if they can pop the fingers one at a time with enough energy that they can hear the viola/violin “talking” to them. With sufficiently percussive finger drop and release, they should hear a little pitch from the finger striking the note. It can also be a lot of fun for the teacher or practice parent to bow for the child while they do their finger pops, creating a slow trill. It’s important at this time to check for gripping or squeezing in the thumb. I want the energy coming from the fingers and hand, not from sideways squeezing. Another way to visualize the upward energy of the finger is that the fingerboard is a trampoline and the fingers are “bouncing” up from it.
“Locker Combinations”/Number Plays
Students who are of school age will likely have some experience having to memorize a numerical locker combination. With the finger numbers drawn in marker on each fingertip, I will say a string of four numbers out loud. 1, 2, 3 ,4 is the easiest, after which I will progress to 1, 3, 2, 4, or 2, 1, 4, 3, etc. I try to say the numbers very fast, indicating that the student should do the finger pops equally fast. Occasionally I have had transfer students who have a hard time remembering the finger numbers or who are confused by the different finger numbers if they also take piano lessons, so these kinds of games can help them switch into “viola mode” for the left hand. Students enjoy seeing how fast they can pop the different combinations and some even enjoy using the metronome to beat their “high score”.
Left Hand Pizzicato
I also teach this exercise in the pre-twinkle stage. I teach the Ants Song (for violas) or the Eggs Song (for violins) to teach the names of the strings and the “Stomp Song” as another open string option. When teaching left hand pizzicato, I start by having the student pluck with the 3rd finger and for an extra challenge later, we use the 4th finger. I use Mimi Zweig/Paul Rolland’s method of starting left hand pizzicato with the hand over the “high dot”, so the student must maintain a straight wrist and must learn to move the left hand to each new string level. When working with students who have been playing for a while, or in a group class setting, I will have students bow, for example, the notes of Perpetual Motion, while playing all the open string notes with a left hand pizzicato. This can be a fun challenge in the later books as well, when working on left hand balance. I once had a student play the entire Martini Gavotte from Book 3 with left hand pizzicato on every open string. She got quite the workout and we had quite a laugh at how crazy it was to move back and forth between arco and pizz!
What tricks do you use to teach finger action?