Thumb Placement for Small Hands: Part II by Steven Tenenbom

Last week several ACHT Studio faculty responded to questions posed by Alexia DelGiudice-Bigari; this post offers further thoughts from Steven Tenenbom on left hand thumbs. 


I will do my very best to answer the questions.  But I do have to make sure that you know it’s only my opinion.  And that may change tomorrow.  I think it is most important that everyone come up with their own solutions for each challenge in their playing.  As teachers, we may have heard a few thing along the way, but it should be an individual discovery for each of us.  OK, here goes…..


May I rock the boat at the outset by offering that the role of the thumb is like a helpful bystander.  I think it becomes most helpful when it is relaxed and somewhat passive.  I have watched the hands of many great artists of the past (Heifetz, Primrose, Szigeti, Stern, Milstein, Shumsky) and see a common similarity.  They all let their thumbs assume different positions for different uses as well as different types of expression produced.  Most of us violists play with shoulder rests.  In days gone by, when the players I mentioned above were performing, the left hand had more of a role in holding up the instrument. You might think that this would create extra tension in the left hand.  I think that it encourages you to learn how to balance the instrument more.  To that end, the thumb position might now incorporate a new shape to both support the neck (cradling it) and provide a fulcrum for wrist vibrato.

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?

As I stated above, I think that there are many different “ideal” positions for the thumb.  Probably an important concept for small hands is flexibility.  I have found that there is a lot of tension in the muscle at the base of the thumb.  Working on opening up the hand has helped people with smaller hands to play with more comfort and better intonation.

When playing vibrato what role does the thumb have?

When the instrument is balanced well in the left hand and the thumb is relaxed, the vibrato is free.  I can feel the (wrist) vibrato centered in the palm of my hand.  Again, I believe that the thumb is passively supportive and relaxed.

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

If the passage covers many strings, the elbow should lead laterally ahead of the new string.  The thumb will adjust automatically to the new string position.

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

For me and what I’ve experienced with different players, the thumb likes variety.  I would suggest that each player tries this –

Put your bow away.  Hold the viola up underneath your chin.  With your right hand, hold onto the body of the instrument around the top right edge (where your left hand would come around the instrument to shift to high positions) so that you can let go with your left hand.  Then, put your left hand into a normal finger pattern on any string in 1st position, but with out touching your thumb to the neck.  When your fingers feel balanced and your thumb feels relaxed, let your thumb touch the neck.  That’s where it wants to be and where it will be helpful and supportive.  Try it with different fingers and different positions.  You may find that when you’re using 1st and 2nd fingers, the thumb likes to be across from the 1st finger.  3rd and 4th fingers may like the thumb under the 2nd or even a bit higher.

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

For me, yes.

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

I like to avoid releasing the neck of the viola and using the side of the fingerboard as much as possible.  Of course, I have larger hands.  However, I also think that there is room for exploring making one’s hand (and especially the thumb!) more flexible.  I also use the lip of the top of the viola when I am up really high.  I want to feel that I am always helping to hold the instrument with my left hand.

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

For students who are at the stage of learning basic fundamentals, keeping the hand shaped as a single unit is probably a good idea.  For those who are comfortable with the general feeling of the instrument and have a confidence and curiosity to explore other possibilities, moving the thumb before the hand in certain cases can give a feeling of “presetting” the new position so that the fingers drop into a position that is already receptive and comfortable. However, I must emphasize that one has to have solid fundamentals of hand positions and shifting before adding new techniques.

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)?

As I mentioned above, this is both a personal choice as well as a question that has many answers.  Figure out which position gives me the best chance to express the note (or notes).  If you have running passages that require great facility, perhaps underneath the neck is preferable.  For long sustained notes, a deeper neck resting position may create a looser vibrato.

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

Rubbery and flexible.

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

See above.

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