Technique: Developing powerful base knuckles

Headshot door pc Matthew Johnson

Stephen Upshaw on developing powerful base knuckles in both hands for tension-free playing

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The size of the viola as an instrument makes the development of powerful base knuckles on both hands particularly relevant to violists. This shouldn’t be seen as a luxury or ‘the icing on the cake’ but rather as one of the essential building blocks for developing a good and sustainable technique.

With the right hand, the power circle in the hand forms the basis of playing any stringed instrument, but within that crucial shape it is the malleability of the circle that is essential to achieve precise articulation, to manage a perfectly smooth bow change, and to create truly lyrical playing. This malleability is achieved by paying attention to the base-knuckle movement, which helps access smaller motions, giving the player much more variation of bow stroke. With the left hand, this promotes good finger independence which enables the player to tackle the demands of the repertoire in a tension-free way – despite the need to play between positions and to use many extensions. A powerful springing action in the base knuckles is the way to access this independence, and to unlock each finger to work separately. Common issues that arise from under-engaged base knuckles, especially in younger students, are an inability to do off-the-string strokes in the right hand, and difficulty with hand tension and locking during passagework in the left…

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