Thumb Placement for Small Hands by Alexia DelGiudice-Bigari

From Debbie Price of Columbus, Ohio: “How do ACHT Studio faculty members view the role of the thumb for small handed players?” Below Alexia DelGiudice-Bigari, a 4’11’’ Italian-born freshman violist, shares responses to thumb-related questions from Misha Amory, Hsin-Yun Huang and Heidi Castleman.

How does the role of the thumb differ for small hands compared to large hands? Does the ideal position of the thumb differ for small hands compared to larger ones? 

– The position of the thumb in both small and large hands should allow each finger to drop in a balanced way, landing so there is no unnecessary tension.  In smaller hands this means more rebalancing and flexibility in the position of the thumb than for larger hands.  A caution for players with small hands: placing the thumb behind the first finger often causes undesirable tension in the thumb’s base muscle, a condition less present in larger hands.

– When I see someone with a perfect physical proportion to the instrument, I am always immensely jealous.  The challenge of playing the viola isn’t necessarily only the size of the instrument but the thickness of the neck; one grapples with a wide distance between the L thumb and the first finger.  So yes, the role of the L thumb becomes quite interesting when you have a small hand.  In a perfectly proportioned hand the thumb could relax and support what the rest of the fingers are doing without moving around much.  I find with my own physical limitation that the base joint of the L thumb needs to stay quite loose and acrobatic.  Also, when trying to make sure I am applying enough weight into the string, I need to have a more “horizontal thumb” in order to counter the weight that comes down.

– I don’t believe that there is a different basic left thumb placement for a smaller-handed player. Many players feel that the “thumb up” position (a la Perlman) gives their finger more range and reach, but many players have found exactly the same truth with the “thumb-back” position. To my thinking, thumb placement in the lower positions hinges much more on individual comfort rather than hand size; the comfort question, in turn, depends on the musculature of the hand, the width-length proportion, and the flexibility of the base joint of the thumb. What a player with smaller hands may find, however, is that the left hand overall (including the thumb) must rotate more when crossing from high-string playing to low-string playing, whereas a larger hand’s fingers could simply reach over without hand/thumb participation.

When playing vibrato what role does the thumb have?

– For small hands, it is helpful for the first joint of the thumb to have a similar degree of flexibility to the first joint of the left hand.  Furthermore, a relaxed base muscle of the thumb together with a feeling of space between the base muscle and the hand facilitates vibrato flexibility and variety.

– When vibrating (especially on a thick C string), I need all the contact I can get from a skinny hand like mine, and so I focus on the feel of the pad of the individual fingers — not tips, but pads.  Then as the thumb counters and supports the weight from above, I make sure not to flex the upper joint so my left hand doesn’t mimic feeling of a fist, but rather a more open feel.

– I don’t advocate letting the thumb move, for small-handed players any more than for others. A loose but non-slipping contact, at a fixed spot of the neck, is ideal. If the thumb actually moves, that suggests to me that the player has lost a certain anchoring role that the thumb offers, and which is so helpful in producing a good vibrato.

When playing faster passages, is there one thumb position for all strings, or a different one for each string?

– In contrast to the violin, the thumb and arm have different levels for each string, rather than reaching from one position. This is especially true in the case of small hands.

– I believe in fast passages it is about streamline and efficiency.  So the thumb should move as little as possible, but obviously never remain rigid.

– The most efficient approach would be to start out practicing with minimum hand-rotation, and only increase it to the extent absolutely necessary, since economy of motion is helpful for clean and rapid execution.

Should the thumb for a small hand be opposite the first finger or the second finger?  

– The thumb should be wherever needed to allow the hand to stay relaxed.  More often than not, for a small hand, the thumb will have to be farther forward to support the 3rd and 4th finger side of the hand.

– This would depend on which passage you are playing.  In general, when your hand is in a relaxed mode, the thumb usually is somewhere between 1st and 2nd.  I think the key here is flexibility.

Does the position of the thumb move from one finger pattern to the next?

– Yes.

– Again, depending on the passage.  If you are shifting from one position to another, then obviously the thumb comes with the hand.  If it is a passage where the hand is required to either extend or contract within that particular position, then you should be sure the base knuckle of the thumb is flexible so the fingers can be “freed” from that position.

In higher positions (4th-7th), where should the thumb rest?

– The neck should sit on the inside edge of the thumb.

In the very highest positions (above 7th) where should the thumb anchor itself?

– Personal preference.  Mine is to have the thumb travel on the side of the fingerboard rather than on the edge of the body.

– I have trouble playing in high positions when my thumb is off of the body of the instrument.  In general, feeling some kind of contact helps the rest of the fingers feel more secure.  For me, the medium thumb position would be resting by the top of the neck; then the next position would be gently “hooking” the thumb onto the lip of the instrument and extending the rest of the hand.  There are only very few exceptions when the notes are beyond.

– Once we get to 5th position and higher, there is the issue of how long the thumb can hold onto the neck. I favor having the thumb keep contact with the neck as long as possible.  This is for two reasons: first, it makes it much easier to get back down to lower positions when the time comes, and second, it gives the player a good support for the downward strength of the fingers, and for vibrating. However, if the playing is so high that holding onto the neck would cause a lot of distortion and tension in the hand shape, it is not worth keeping this contact, for the hand can become unreasonably stressed and the vibrato can suffer. If shifting high enough, every player reaches a point in which the thumb must come around and slide up the side of the fingerboard, above the upper bout – but this point is reached significantly earlier for small-handed players.

What’s a good strategy for the thumb in shifting down?

– Thinking primarily of allowing the trapezius to carry the upper arm backward to ultimately return the hand to underneath the neck.  In other words, do not think of leading with the thumb, but rather imagine a marionette string at the base of the index finger pulling the hand back down.

For small hands, which is the preferable thumb position: underneath the neck or higher up (i.e.: with the neck resting deeper in the thumb)?

– The most important thing is that the wrist avoids caving in and remains in a position that feels it can strongly support the fingers. Wherever the thumb goes to facilitate this hand position is fine!

Describe the ideal sense of touch in the thumb for small hands.

– Touching the neck gently enough that it is possible for the thumb to oscillate in a windshield wiper motion.

– As in all issues relating to the thumb, it is always important to think of and feel your hand as a whole entity.  So again, depending on what the rest of your hand is doing, the thumb should change accordingly.  Fast passages require more agility in the fingers and therefore a lighter feeling thumb; slow passages give you time and room to “massage” the fingerboard — in order to produce a thicker warmer sound.

Does the thumb function differently in fast compared to slow playing?

-Yes.  The thumb will rebalance or reposition itself more in slower playing, while in fast playing, it is necessary to find one hand balance and thumb position from which all the notes of a pattern can be reached.  Most often establishing a good 4th finger balance and reaching back for the other fingers works more effectively than starting with an index finger balance in quick playing.

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