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How to encourage a relaxed left-hand thumb in string students

Top viola teacher Bruno Giuranna answer a reader's question for The Strad's Teacher Talk section

August 30, 2016

How do you encourage students to have a relaxed left-hand thumb? DAVID READER, SHEFFIELD, UK

BRUNO GIURANNA The basic issue here is how to encourage a student to correct a problem in their playing. First of all, the student should agree that the correction is necessary, and that a bad habit can only be solved if the goal of doing so becomes a constant theme in their practice. There is no magic wand, only continuous and persistent effort. (Interestingly, even after the problem has been solved, it will probably reappear in pieces that the student learnt before the correction process started, meaning that they will have to be relearnt.)

In the specific case of a thumb stuck to the root of the index finger, the main point is that the thumb should be independent of the fingers. Find out first whether the student’s thumb has a natural tendency to react or contract when the first finger is used. Hold the instrument, and ask the student to keep their thumb in the air, free, relaxed and not touching the instrument. The student should then place their first finger on the string and lift it off again, and continue doing this until the action doesn’t cause any reaction from the thumb. They should then do the same exercise using the other fingers.

There are other possible exercises to develop thumb freedom. Place all the fingers on the string and move the thumb up and down in front of them, or place the thumb in front of all of them. Alternatively, play an octave in third position, with the thumb, round and relaxed, in front of middle finger, and then move the octave a semitone back without moving the thumb. Do the same moving up. Then increase the distance moved to a full tone, down and up, while still not moving the thumb.

Read: 10 ways to avoid tension in your playing

Read: Ask the Experts – helping double-jointed students

This article was published as part of Teacher Talk – in which top teachers answer readers’ string teaching queries – in The Strad’s November 2011 issue – download on desktop computer or through The Strad App.

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