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How to develop left-hand finger strength

Up and down movement is the basis of left-hand technique and many pedagogues have invented fiendish exercises to improve it. Rok Klopčič takes a look at some of them

Friday, 15 August 2014

To play even the most simple melody we must stop the string in order to define pitch, making vertical finger motion the central element of left-hand technique. As a result it has received much attention, many different kinds of exercises and more than the usual amount of incorrect advice.

This includes the recommendation, made by Flesch, Dounis and Menuhin, that every finger should fall with its natural weight. S. Mittelmann and František Ondříček disagree with this idea in their 1909 violin method. They argue that finger movements are made with the fine-control muscles of the arm, hand and fingers. Natural weight, therefore, cannot play any role; even if the fingers could function without muscles, using their own weight, this would not involve enough force. To stop a string the necessary weight is approximately between 170 and 360 grams, depending on the string and the point of contact of the left-hand finger, as Otto Szende observes. Any suggestion of the influence of gravity on fingers is equally invalid.

The placing of the fingers on the string and the roles of different muscles in the arm and hand during this action are very complicated. The two aspects of the vertical movement have been given different names: what Dounis describes as the ‘down’ impulse is also called ‘finger fall’ by Galamian or ‘finger drop’ by Rolland; Dounis’s corresponding ‘up’ impulse is termed ‘lifting’ by both Galamian and Rolland, who also calls it the ‘release of the string’. All these terms are clearly not in accordance with the physiology of this movement. Nevertheless the terms ‘dropping’ and ‘lifting’ are generally used: hopefully they will not obscure understanding of the real action.

The dropping of the fingers should be done with ‘a live, springlike action’, according to Rolland. The authorities warn against using too much force in this action. Galamian warns that ‘banging and pressing is apt to build tensions that are dangerous,’ against which Rolland suggests: ‘After an articulate impact, relax the finger and allow it to vibrate.’ Dounis offers the following way of judging whether the movement is relaxed enough:
‘A free vibrato [is] the only real test of using… fingers in a correct way.’

Dounis also recommends that the lifting off should be done in the same ‘energetic manner’ as dropping the finger on to the string. Along with Rolland, he also recommends practising with exaggerated action, although Galamian disagrees with this. The most practical advice is that of Ricci, who urges practising oft-neglected left-hand pizzicato.

The trill is the most elaborate form of vertical finger movement. With its many variants it is a sparkling element of virtuoso playing and provides a valuable area of violin exercise. Short trills are a frequent and characteristic ornament from Tartini to contemporary times, with Kreisler’s cadenza for Tartini’s ‘Devil’s Trill’ being one of the most tricky examples. Among the most difficult types of trills are those on a pedal, either above or below the melody, while thematic material is played on one of the adjacent strings, for example in Wieniawski’s Souvenir de Moscou. Even harder and more expressive is the tremolo trill in different intervals above or under the melody.

There are countless exercises for vertical movement, the best of which aim at improving the actual movement and the trill as well as the general mechanics. The works of Henry Schradieck and Otakar Ševčík recognise the importance of the vertical movement, abounding with different approaches to the problems. Successors had dissenting opinions of Ševčík’s works: Flesch praised them, while Yankelevich rarely used them.

In his Urstudien, Carl Flesch presents some exercises without the bow; among them are some for vertical finger motion. Heifetz acclaimed these exercises, saying: ‘Perhaps the best studies for the trill and those I use myself are written by Carl Flesch.’ (picture 2, example 1)

According to Ricci: ‘Short trills develop strength, but with elasticity,’ and he considers Study no.6 from Dont’s op.35 as ‘perhaps the best’ for this purpose. He has transcribed it for left-hand pizzicato (picture 2, example 2).

Dounis wrote his work The Absolute Independence of the Fingers as a ‘lifetime study companion’ for developing what he describes as ‘strength, solidity, surety, pliability and individuality of the fingers… in a phenomenal degree of perfection’. Picture 2, example 3 is one of his exercises in which there is a different type of movement happening on every string. On the E string a note is held with the fourth finger; on the A string there is the vertical movement of the third finger; on the D string the second finger moves horizontally; and on the G string the first finger is engaged in lifting for the pizzicato. Dounis describes this as ‘combining all four movements’, saying that it ‘demands constant mental activity and the utmost concentration of the brain’.

It is important to practise all the variations of movement, and Mittelmann and Ondříček assert that ‘exercises in the high positions deserve special attention. They strengthen the small muscles in the hand.’ Konstantin Mostras invented exercises which bring ‘simultaneous metrorhythmic joining of notes with different values’. He claims that these exercises strengthen the fingers more than any other exercise, helping to attain ‘rhythmic discipline’ (picture 2, example 4).

For Henryk Szeryng, in the quest for excellent intonation it is not enough to practise dropping the fingers in the right place. With small intervals one must be able to draw the fingers close to each other, and to strengthen the appropriate muscles he recommends practising thirds in the harmonic minor.

Harold Berkley recommends Paganini’s Caprice no.6, saying that: ‘Probably no finer etude has ever been written for developing strength, independence and flexibility of the fingers.’ In this piece tremolo illuminates the melody, but this exquisite beauty is created by some sadistic combinations of concurrent vertical, horizontal and lateral movements. Further left-hand pizzicato can be found in Ševčík’s op.1 no.4 and in many compositions by Paganini and Sarasate, which can be used as an energising element for vertical movement of the fingers and therefore one’s whole technique.

This articles was first published in The Strad's February 2005 issue. Subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase single issues click here

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