knuckles on the brain

The poor left hand pinky finger – he gets such a bad rap. Some violinists avoid him altogether, steering clear of having to use him by ANY means – stemmed from a fear of giving him any responsibility whatsoever. He’s like that wimpy, shy kid that sits in the back of the classroom – he’s cute, but never gets called on by the teacher.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Some students are just born with”good hands”. That is, their pinkies are completely equal to their other fingers in strenth and agility. Like supermodels have perfect bone structure on their face, these violinists are born with perfect hand structure. For most of us, however, unless it is meticulously developed at a young age, the fourth finger is usually a burden.

I’ve always understood this is a problem for many violinists, but it wasn’t until a year ago in March that I was clued into why this might be. Robert Lipsett, the direct source of almost all of my “teaching wisdom”, if I may call it that, brought my attention to the fact that the big knuckle on my pinky was a collapsing knuckle. All the strain was directed to my little knuckle. This, I already knew – but I had been getting by this way for years! Plus, I liked to think I was one of those “in betweeners” – the fourth finger certainly wasn’t equal in it’s abilities, but I didn’t completely avoid it, either.

What about that old saying, you can’t teach a dog new tricks? Well, I can personally attest , apparently you can. Like most of the significant strides we make on the violin, however, we must completely commit ourselves to the cause and accept that it won’t happen overnight. You’re in for the long haul… It’s a bit like A.A. – the first step is admitting you have a problem. (great analogy, right?)

So, after this was brought to my attention, of course I became obsessed with it. I was able to have completely changed my bowhold (a whole different can of worms) several years before, so I knew I could handle a little strength training for a pinky finger knuckle. Not easy, but definitely worth it.

Here an overly simplified synopsis of steps ..a portion of what I refer to as”Pinky Bootcamp”:

I tried to learn to vibrate the finger with the knuckle up..at first it feels a little like jello cause there is no strength. For the first couple of months I could only keep the knuckle up during the exercises – it didn’t transfer into my concertos, pieces, etc. until later. Bit by bit..patience, my friend.

In conjunction with the vibrato, I also practiced “slamming” the pinkie onto the fingerboard, something that is hard to do unless that knuckle is up.  You want to be able to make a loud thump, like you could with the other fingers.

The real kicker, though, was when Lipsett suggested I practice the trill etudes from the middle of the Kreutzer book. More on this another time but for now I will say that I still practice excerpts from these etudes everyday. Trills, when practiced with controlled execution, cover many issues from left hand pizz and knuckles to overall hand position and clarity.

This sounds like a lot of extra work!! Why should I bother doing this when I have concertos to learn???!!!! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

We’ll, maybe, but my “Pinky Bootcamp”, while lasting almost a year, was done in conjunction with learning two new concerti and lots of performances of other rep. There was a short period when I felt it interfering in my performance preparation (simply because I was frustrated and wanted that knuckle up all the time!) but it’s just a matter of sticking with it and being a little patient with yourself. When I started seeing results of my own, all I wanted to do was share it with my students.

Benefits of strength training the little guy:

1. The fourth finger himself goes from groupie to a real member of the band. You may find that you even prefer to use 4th finger more often, possibly facilitating more extensions and eliminating unnecessary shifts.

2. To get the knuckle up and not collapsed, you will find that it has to reach a bit farther than usual in order to have room to “stand up tall”. This forces a realignment of the entire hand – in a good way. The hand shifts itself around the neck which, in turn, helps to loosen a tight thumb grip as well! Oh the wonders of it all….

3. Vibrato! There can be a lot more variety in the vibrato with the fingers up more erectly. The range of the width of the vibrato is expanded as well – ranging from the “tall” position of the fingers utilizing more the tips of the fingers all the way to a more “flat” finger position with the pads of the fingers.

Collapsed Knuckle

Collapsed Knuckle

Strong Knuckle

Strong Knuckle

4. Overall strength of all of the fingers. It is interesting to see how the rest of our digits are effected by a stronger fourth finger. Personally, I have found that my 3rd finger “skills” have been beefed up by my new 4th finger position as well, from vibrato to control of placement of the finger for intonation.
If you still have doubts, no worries. This is probably not my last blog about this. Also, I hope to get some student testimonials who are going through pinky boot camp as we speak!

One Response to “”

  1. 1 Erin Dennis

    This is a great reference to have while I’m working on my pinky boot camp! hmmm…it’s amusing that your “collapsed knuckle” looks like my “strong knuckle”. 🙂 but I’m working on it!


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