The Stubborn Thumb
The thumb is a critical part of a balanced left and right hand. Unfortunately, creating a balanced thumb on both hands can be extremely difficult. In many cases the thumbs exert too much force on the neck or frog, resulting in the them hyper-extending or over flexing to the point where they are immovable. This causes the rest of the hand to tighten, largely in the palm, limiting the flexibility and adaptability of the rest of the fingers. In other words, hyper-extended thumbs or overly flexed thumbs cause the whole hand to lock up unnecessarily.
In the case of the left hand, the thumb is used as an anchor to help maintain the left hands position while moving up and down the neck of the violin. It is also used as a source of counter pressure for the left hand’s fingers.
One of the unfortunate habits a student falls in to when developing the left hand is grasping the neck by pinching in between the thumb (which manifests in hyper-extension or flexion) and the base knuckle of the index finger. Some students squeeze so tightly between these two points they report severe pain.
In a way, it only makes sense that a student tries to hold on to the violin is such a manner. In any other circumstance, they would not hold on to something as valuable as a violin by balancing it in between the bottom of their chin and the top of their shoulder girdle. They would hold on to it with their hand by grasping the object with their palm and fingers. However, not being allowed to truly grasp the violin, seemingly leaves them with the only choice of pinching.
To help the student with their hands coordination, I first make sure that the student is truly balancing the violin on their shoulder. Sometimes, when a student is not balancing the violin properly they will start supporting it exclusively with their left hand and especially the thumb. This causes the hand to stiffen unreasonably and interferes with the hands coordination. For more information regarding how I help a student develop a supportive posture please read the awareness activity outlined in my blog Supporting the Back While Playing.
Secondly, I check in to make sure that the student is not excessively focusing on their left hand while we are working to improve its functioning. This may seem odd to some teachers in that when we instruct people on how to use the left hand we do want them to focus on it. However, what I caution against is obtrusive focus. This kind of excessive attention is often achieved to the detriment of other parts of the body, most notably the neck, head, and back. This is problematic because if the functioning of the neck, head, and back is disturbed unduly by excessive tension other parts of the body like, the legs and arms, will not function properly.
To help the student achieve a balanced focus on their hand and the rest of their system, I encourage the student to think of the Alexander Technique directions; allow my neck to be free, to allow my head to go forward and up, to allow my whole back to lengthen and widen. This encourages the student to remain cognizant of their entire physical and mental beings while we work with the left hand. This results in a more cohesive blending of left hand’s technique with the rest of the body and will often ease excessive tension in the thumb and the hand overall.
After assessing how the student is holding the violin and any focus issues, I talk to them about the influence of opposition in optimizing the use of the left hand. One of the corner stones of the Alexander Technique is the idea that the body functions as a series of counterbalanced oppositions propping up the system. The same is true for the left hand. A student can usually achieve a proper amount of tension if they think of the opposing forces involved in the functioning of left hand.
Proper tension is achieved by first, thinking of the pad of the thumb exerting force toward the neck while the second knuckle on the thumb opposes this direction through a slight bend. We want the second knuckle to be thought of in this way because, it provides counter support for the pad of the thumb, as well as, encourages the rest of palm to expand rather than collapse into itself. Then, I have the student think of the base knuckle of their index finger as resting on the neck but directing away from the pad of the thumb. This continues to emphasize expansion in the palm rather than collapse. Ultimately, expansion of the left-hand leads to a balanced level of tension that allows the finger to move across the strings in a flexibly adaptive way. With little to no physical discomfort.
With the right hand, the thumb is used as a shock absorber for the friction created by the horse hair moving across the violin strings, as well as, a central support for the weight of the bow. What often happens when students are having trouble with the bow grip or are using excessive tension in the right hand is they are once again, either hyper-extending or overly flexing the thumb in an automatic response to the desire to grasp or control the bow. In this circumstance, as with the left hand, I want to bring the students attention back to their overall physical and mental being. Having the student think or repeat the Alexander Technique directions while I work with their head, neck, and back relationship helps them start from a more neutral position where any excessive tension developed from hyper-focusing on the bow is alleviated.
I then have the student remember most of the bows weight is resting on the string and they should focus on supporting only the weight of their own arm. This is best accomplished by having the student think width across their chest and elbows. Width in this region of the body can be achieved by realizing the inherent opposition of ones right and left shoulders and subsequent elbows.
I then have the student think of the opposition that can be created directly in their hands. The pad of the thumb exerts force upward against the weight of the frog. The pad is permitted to do this only if the second knuckle of thumb bends in the opposite direction. When the second knuckle is thought of in this way, we can also create expansion in the hand between the thumb and the second knuckle of the pinky finger. This props up the palm of the hand the same way poles of a tent prop up the tarp. In other words, keeping the hand open and ready for movement.
“The thumb is the last bastion” or so I’ve been told by many Alexander Technique teachers and I would have to agree. The thumb causes a lot of problems in both the left and right hands for a violinist. Fortunately, it is also the thumb that can aid in fixing a lot of those problems just as long a student keeps in mind the proper balance of the hand can be achieved by thinking about the oppositional forces involved in each of the hand positions and in their bodies.