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Ask the Experts: helping double-jointed students

Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to a panel of experts

March 5, 2014

In the third of the series, five teachers and health specialists respond to a reader’s query on how best to teach a double jointed student.

Do you have a burning question about string playing, teaching or making that you need answering by people who really know? Email us at thestrad@thestrad.com.

The dilemma I have a new student, quite advanced, who has a double-jointed left thumb, and plays with it in a locked ‘L’ position (pictured). I am afraid that this may affect shifting, intonation and vibrato, and I feel she should relearn her left-hand position with a relaxed curved thumb. Would you agree? If so, what would be the best way to encourage her to practise in a different way? One curious thing is that in moving to third position, she will actually go to fourth position, and play with the hand leaning back to get the third-position notes.
BARB MCDOUGALL, VICTORIA, CANADA

MIMI ZWEIG The double-jointed thumb is always a difficult nut to crack. On the positive side, double-jointed students have the advantage of flexible knuckles that facilitate a warm vibrato. If the thumb can remain loose and slide gently along the fingerboard during shifts, the double joint should not be a hindrance. Also, the student can try various amounts of pressure in placing fingers down. Too much pressure on the fingerboard will force the thumb into an awkward position, and make it more difficult to play in tune. Less finger pressure is better. I have found that in the course of a lesson, if I gently place the thumb in its more natural position, strength in the thumb tendon will develop over many months (if not years).

JANET HORVATH Studies have shown that double-jointedness (hyperlaxity) is quite common, especially in string players, and these players may be at increased risk of injury. As teachers, we find them ‘loose’ and able to do things more easily initially. Hyperlaxity may affect all instrumentalists, some not only in their hands but also in their torsos, necks and other joints in the body. Due to ligament laxity, these players cannot prevent their joints from buckling, hence they must use added pressure to maintain curved fingers. In the long run, this added force can cause injury and dysfunction in the joints, including arthritis.

It is said that Paganini was also very hyperlax and that is why he could do amazing pyrotechnics. But most of us are not Paganini! I wonder if this student also has difficulty with the bow hold, as her right thumb must collapse as well, which will cause pain in the thumb and prevent smooth bow changes and string-crossings.

LINDA ROSE I have had many students with this problem, and double joints in other fingers. I never accept that the problem can’t be overcome, although it takes a great deal of determination for students to change the way they play. Each person’s hand is different, so there is no universal solution. With younger students, a parent can gently hold the thumb in the proper position during parts of the practice. I have also placed an object, such as a small spool of thread, in between the thumb and first finger for a few minutes, to keep an uncramped position. And one can never underestimate the importance of looking at the position of the hand during practice – a mirror is helpful.

The relationship of the thumb to the hand and fingers is very important. Whether you hold the thumb opposite the first finger or the second, it must be relaxed and flexible, and move together with the hand and fingers.

For strengthening, I have the student hold the left hand up and move the thumb inwards without bending the joint, then outwards, bending a little. The thumb must feel relaxed at all times. The pressure when holding the violin should be equal between the neck, shoulder and hand.

Violin tutor Dorothy DeLay had an exercise where students would play a whole-bow scale (starting on open G) and move the thumb forward and back twice, then under the neck and out twice. The photos of the left-hand position in Ivan Galamian’s book Principles of Violin Playing are helpful visual guides.

KATHERINE BUTLER It sounds as though this student might be hypermobile in the metacarpophalangeal joint (MCPJ) – the one where the thumb meets the hand – and possibly in other joints as well. The extent of the hypermobility could only be determined with clinical assessment on and off the violin. There is evidence that a higher incidence of hypermobility exists in musicians than in the population at large, and there has been debate for years as to whether this is an advantage or not. The issue is not so much learning to play with a relaxed, curved thumb, as the affected thumb is unable to maintain the desired position, owing to the MCPJ being too mobile.

The lack of ability to position the thumb can lead to muscles within the hand and forearm having to work harder to sustain positions and make the desired sounds on the instrument. This can lead to generalised arm pain. The collapsing of the left MCPJ could be affecting the ease and quality of playing, and in time may lead to other medical conditions such as osteoarthritis in the carpometacarpal joint (the thumb’s lowest, which goes down to the wrist).

Symptom management is paramount when treating the hypermobile patient, and splinting is particularly important when resting joints. If there is no pain, or once pain has settled, then treatment must focus on increasing joint stability, strengthening the muscles surrounding the affected joint(s), improving awareness of the position (proprioception) of the affected joint(s), and education about healthy joint use and how to prevent injuries from occurring.

Strengthening muscles can be done using therapeutic putty, or isometric exercises on and off the instrument. Compressive tapes or splints can increase the awareness of the position and decrease the ability of the joint slipping into an undesirable position. Patients must also be careful not to place the joints under undue stress (pressing too hard on the fingerboard or holding the neck of the violin too firmly). A specific splint has been designed for the purpose of maintaining the thumb’s MCPJ in a curved position while enabling the other joints to move and play with ease.

ROLAND VAMOS I start out with what I call the standard hand position, and then I consider the variations in physique and certain limitations. No matter how many things we think are verboten, there is always one great violinist who breaks that rule and still plays well.

The thumbs have always been a source of woe. For the teacher, it means bending down and looking upwards to check the right-hand thumb, which we usually agree should be bent outwards near the lower half of the bow, or we have to run around to the student’s left side to check on the left thumb.

Probably the best ways to attempt to remedy this problem are: practising in front of a mirror and monitoring the thumb; playing without the using the thumb at all; and stopping frequently to correct the thumb. I always stress relaxation. I make adjustments for each student as I watch how the position affects their playing. This is why teaching is always a challenge.

My wife’s teacher, Mischa Mischakoff, would sometimes say in his gruff Russian accent: ‘The thumb – it would be better if we cut it off.’ His hand was agile and his intonation perfect – he must have suffered greatly watching unruly thumbs.

Mimi Zweig is professor of violin at the Jacobs School of Music and director of the Indiana University String Academy in Bloomington, US

Katherine Butler is a clinical specialist in hand therapy based at London Hand Therapy, UK

Linda Rose teaches at the Cole Conservatory of Music, California State University Long Beach, US

Janet Horvath is associate principal cello at the Minnesota Orchestra, based in Minneapolis, US

Roland Vamos is a violin professor at Northwestern University and at the Music Institute of Chicago, US

Do you have a burning question about string playing, teaching or making that you need answering by people who really know? Email us at thestrad@thestrad.com.

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1 Comment on Ask the Experts: helping double-jointed students

  1. Hi, I am 14 years old and I study the violin for classical music. I have a problem on my hands. I have had pains for 3 years now and i got told a few week ago that I’ve got hyper mobility.I can bend my thumb back and I can do weird stuff with my hands. I’m really worried about this so is there any way to get rid of it?
    please let me know as soon as possible.
    Thank you

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