Archive for the ‘Technique’ Category

The Bow Arm, Part II: On-the-String Strokes by Heidi Castleman

Definitions and Characteristics of On-the-String Strokes

I. Staccato (generic use of term: all strokes starting with a “K” sound and ending with silence)

Collé refers to hand motion as well as name of stroke
* hand motion
– hand moves bow from side to side, fingers follow
– best learned by placing tip to ceiling and allowing hand and fingers to lower and raise,
– controls inflection (speed of initiation) in all strokes
* stroke
– set bow weight in string, use hand motion as start of stroke with “K” sound,
– stroke length comes primarily from hand motion not arm motion, end of stroke lifts off string producing ring

– set bow weight in string, start stroke with “K” sound, follow through by relaxing and allowing the weight to stay in the string,
– all martelé strokes will end by stopping the bow,
– the shape of the martele (amount of decay) depends on musical context,
– to inflect sound use cone motion with arm motion giving speed to the stroke initiation

Staccato (specific use of term)
– successive strokes started with ”K” sound and ending with stops, usually of short length, taken all down-bow or all up-bow,
– at end of stroke, relax wrist back into original starting position,
– as you go faster, feel how the thumb lightly opposes a specific finger (e.g., 4th at frog and 1st at tip),
– also at faster speeds use very little bow and catch only the first notes, allowing the others to happen from the reflex of a flexible wrist

II. Connected Strokes
Whole Bow Legato
– connected strokes using whole bows, weight released as you start stroke (therefore no hard consonant sounds),
– to keep bow tracked go “out” at tip and “in” at frog as needed

– separate strokes for each note, strokes connected (no stops at end), weight released by group (specific grouping a function of tempo and musical context),
– detaché may be done anywhere in bow although on viola starting at balance point often produces the clearest sound (be sure to rely on open-close motion from elbow!), (biceps and triceps should take turns and never compete),
– there are many varieties of detache resulting from degree of hand and finger involvement (collé motion), the most explosive form being accented detache

III. Other Strokes
Lancé is a variation of the detache bow stroke. A slightly separated bow stroke is used to gently articulate the notes with an unaccented, distinct break between each note

Louré strokes are a short series of gently pulsed legato notes executed in one bow stroke (it is also known as portato). A slight swelling at the beginning of the note should be applied, followed by a gradual lightening of the sound. Strokes are distinctly separate, yet unaccented, and the expressive swell is produced by applying pressure and speed to the bow at the beginning of the note. Although a slur and horizontal dashes are generally used to indicate this effect, dots with slurs are occasionally used

Mixed Bowings
The mixed bowing rule: find the amount of bow appropriate for the separate stroke and fit the multiple notes of the slur into that amount of bow.

Learning Difficult Repertoire by Molly Carr

The following post is by Molly Carr.

1) To SIMPLIFY everything to the point where all elements are guaranteed to work every time.
2) To MAKE DECISIONS about everything possible, so nothing is left to “chance” or “hope” – and to discover what to think about at every moment, so your brain is allowed NO room to panic
3) ACT LIKE AN ATHLETE – use your time in the practice room for finding how to accomplish perfection with the LEAST amount of work possible (AKA… eliminate anything unnecessary in your body motions for complete body efficiency and relaxed coordination).  And doing this by using your brain to teach your body the motions one step at a time. If the bite you took is too big to digest, break it into smaller portions that you can understand and hold on to permanently.

Breaking it down to the very basics – THREE LARGE PLANES OF MOTION
A. How do you make sound? Moving your bow horizontally. (so eliminate any extra motions besides the necessary basic motion of back and forth)
B. How do you make pitch? Dropping your fingers in specific “notches” on the fingerboard. Each note has an exact location, and your arm moves up and down the fingerboard dropping fingers into these exactly located notches. Think type-writer motion to, again, eliminate any extraneous motions as you move up and down the fingerboard in a straight line.
C. 7 basic planes of balance. Four strings, with an additional three options of double-stop balance between strings.

-intonation (where is the “exact location” of each note?/how will you get there?)
-left hand balance
-shifts (old bow? new bow? old finger? new finger? new plane[string]?)
-amount of bow needed for these shifts/needed for phrasing/needed for dynamics/etc
-closeness of bow to bridge (quality of sound?/shifts?/higher positions of left hand on fingerboard?/phrasing – tension, release)
-balance of both hands on 7 planes (where do I change planes?)

A. intonation ONLY
– practice with NO TEMPO
– practice with NO ATTENTION TO BOW
– don’t play a single note unless you KNOW it will be in the right place before you play it
B. Incorporating bow decisions
– exact amounts (from all your decisions in #2)
– exact balance planes/where you change between the 7 planes
-all still with NO TEMPO – only as fast as your brain can digest all three of the large planes of motion
-7x in a row without missing anything
C. incorporating rhythm.
– with metronome SLOWLY. SLOWLY. SLOWLY.
– speed up in increments, the old traditional way – a few notches on the metronome at a time.
-NEVER faster than you can control everything – you should always feel like everything is still “slow” to you, even in a fast tempo.
-no panicking.
-rely on the beat. It’s your friend. SIT ON IT. Don’t let it push you
– NOTHING CHANGES AS YOU GET FASTER. All of the decisions you made stay put.


Heidi Castleman on Body Balance


* The universe is dynamic.     (cf. Static = dead)

* Balance is everything.

* Flexible but not limp.

* Rhythm is the way musical energy moves


I. Skeleton

Using the ground as support, stack the following in a column above the arches, relaxing all joints: ankles, knees, hips, rib cage, shoulders, head.

Collarbone and shoulder blades are movable (across rib cage); therefore, arms hang.

An aligned, balanced posture is easier for some body types than for others. Physical fitness always helps. Finding a good stance is as important as finding an instrument that fits you and is responsive. Consider spacing of feet. (Possibly compare to playing kneeling sitting on heels.)


II. Breathing

Good posture/ Relax abdomen

Inhale through nose/Diaphragm expands (rolls down), filling lungs

Fill lungs to full capacity/ Notice how collarbone shelf opens, neck relaxes and head joint is released/ Filling left lung is particularly important.


The Bow Arm, Part 1: Governing Principles by Heidi Castleman

The following post is by Heidi Castleman.

General principles governing the bow arm:
• bow is an extension of the right arm
1) it should feel like a third segment of the arm
2) middle finger and thumb (“fluid loop”) function as a second elbow
3) hand and arm always follow tip (try writing name on imaginary blackboard with tip)
4) body should feel mobile, like a juggler’s following bow

• first step always is to set bow weight in string and relax
1) giving a signal allows weight to be released during the exhalation
2) a deep sound usually means the upper arm bones will feel low in the shoulder socket
3) hold should feel as if it could come off easily if someone tried to lift hand away
4) from the balance point to the tip, flat hair (perpendicular stick) makes transfer of weight from arm to the contact spot easier
5) at frog feel locus of weight in the hand, at the middle in the elbow, and at the tip in the shoulder

* bow stroke shape
1) strokes follow the shape of the stick (vertical arc); the hand and arm pronate on the down bow and supinate on the up bow.
2) drawing the bow in a crescent shape (horizontal arc) is essential to producing a big sound; remember “in” at the frog and “out” at the tip
3) clarity and strength of strokes are achieved most efficiently when the inherent weight of the tip and frog are utilized.
4) play on the tangents of the string (rather than on the top) for the most ringing sound; pull on a contact spot slightly on the left side of the string on the down bow and slightly on the right side of the string on the up bow.

• the thumb may oppose the hand (especially in the upper half) to articulate, but only after the bow weight rests on the string and then only for a split second

• Use the upper arm:
1) to draw the bow from the frog to the balance point,
2) to change string levels
Conceive of string levels as planes (like a table surface) in specific locations; rest arm weight on one of these four locations; notice if timing of arm level changes seems appropriate
3) to establish arm weight (heavy vs light)

• Use the forearm:
1) to draw the bow from the balance point to the tip
2) to change the balance of the bow hand from frog to tip and back
(helpful to have elbow in same plane as hand)

• Use the wrist (= the end of the forearm):
1) to pull and push, to establish resistance against the string
2) to initiate the up-bow stroke (wrist has slight leading feeling)

* Right hand motions

1) Colle motion –

hand moves bow from side to side, fingers follow

do the smallest possible version of the movement

controls inflection (speed of initiation) in all strokes

Practice: a) hand without bow, b) with bow in hand and tip toward ceiling, and c) bow parallel to floor as if at frog and also as if at middle and tip.

At tip, if feel strain, make sure wrist is not dropped excessively.

Caution: do not overdo!

2) Elevator – drop hand / lift hand

3) Circles – clockwise/ counterclockwise

4) Scissors – helpful in guiding bow “in” and “out”

5) Windshield wiper – essential to balancing bow in hand; thumb serves as fulcrum

Heidi Castleman on The 5 Common Causes of Injury for Violists

The following post is by Heidi Castleman.

When string players are injured, occasionally it is because there are structural weaknesses, irreversible inflammatory conditions, or other physical problems.  However, the vast majority of string-player injuries occur either because of an unsuitable fit of equipment-to-player or because of faulty playing habits.

Playing pain-free is not only essential to your success as a musician, but also a necessity for your musical imagination to thrive. The five most common causes of injury for violists are:

  • improper instrument fit and set-up
  • faulty practice habits
  • holding the instrument by squeezing rather than balancing
  • poor body support for the instrument and for moving the hands and arms around
  • squeezing with the thumbs

If you have a pain, I suggest “Stop playing!”  After the pain disappears, the task is to find the cause and fix it.  Should the pain become chronic, you will need to enlist the assistance of a health-care professional in designing a strategy for recovery.


1. Instrument Fit.

Violas vary in size and dimension much more than violins.  Long-term, making sure the viola you are playing fits you is critical to finding a playing style that is natural and comfortable.

There are 7 variables in the size and the shape of a viola that potentially can cause trouble for a player. These are: body length, string length, shoulder shape, bout depth, neck angle, fingerboard shape and string height.

Body length for viola

  • “standard” is between 16″ and 17″
  • under 16″ and over 17″ are also possible
  • angle of left elbow should be about 90 degrees/ arm should have hanging feeling as if you are holding moderately heavy fruit bowls


small 15 3/8″ {14 1/8″ [8 ½” 5 1/4″] }
medium 16 ½” {14 3/4″ [9″ 6″] }
medium 16 3/8″ {15″ [9″ 6″] }
Large 18 ½” Gaspar 17 and 1/2″ Amati

preferences in instrument size have changed
(Lionel Tertis, the first legendary violist, preferred larger instruments with deeper sonorities, whereas Primrose, the next viola giant, preferred smaller instruments with more tenor sonorities – permitting greater agility)

String length

There is no such thing as normal, but if one had to identify a standard, it would be 15″.
Only a few instruments have a string length longer than 15″/ If longer, be careful; such a length strains almost all hands.
Many instruments have shorter string lengths.

  • Advantage: for small hands, more left hand comfort
  • Disadvantage, especially on a larger viola: there is a slower, “flabbier” string response for the bow, projection and articulation are more difficult.

The proportions of the string from the nut to the body of the instrument when compared to the edge of the body to the bridge, normally should be  6″ vs. 9″.

Shoulder shape and bout depth

  • broad – advantage = deeper sound
  • narrow – advantage = ease in shifting above bout


  • high – advantage = deeper sound
  • shallow – advantage = ease in shifting above bout

Sound is always a personal choice; if you prefer a deeper kind of sound, a darker one, one with more bass, and therefore choose an instrument with broader shoulders and deeper bouts, you must be exceptionally careful in the way you play, especially in the neck and shoulder area, in order to play with ease and not hurt yourself. Many of the most successful viola soloists today, favor instruments with narrower shoulders and shallower bouts because these instruments allow a virtuosity the broader and deeper models do not.

As you shift above the body on the viola, it is extremely important to have the upper arm come around first to clear the body, and then the forearm continues to close from the elbow.

Neck angle, string height and fingerboard shape
Ideally a player should be able to just drop fingers; the effort involved should be similar to what you feel if you are idly drumming your fingers on a table.

Neck thickness and angle, fingerboard shape and string height all affect the ease with which fingers can just drop:
Thickness of neck

  • If too thick – hand has to expand too much
  • if too narrow – hand closes in too much

Neck angle
because of tension, over the years the neck angle can change, resulting in fingerboard being too low
old fashioned fingerboards sometimes drop off at a sharp angle (instead of being rounded) under C string,

  • Purpose to give vibrating C string (on cello and viola) more space
  • This ridge should be rounded off to avoid left hand fingers reaching too far.

String height on viola – measure near end of fingerboard

  • On A string – 4 mm
  • On C string – 6 mm
  • If too high, will start pressing,
  • If too low, will have no cushion space in which too release finger


2.  Practice Habits.

What are faulty practice habits?
If you want to assure disaster, never warm up, start out playing fast passages only, never wait to hear in your head how you want to sound, just start playing, read through things all the time, never practice small units or quietly, take a vacation for two weeks and start back playing 8 hours a day, or change a basic skill in your playing and repeat it over and over again many times a day.

Not all, but many of injured violists have one or more of the above. If you were a Wimbledon tennis player, there is no way you would treat yourself this way.

What are good practice habits?

Warming up to play
Stretching is important; as in any sport, it is necessary to get muscles ready to move

  • Stretching out large body muscles
  • Stretching out hands is also important

Practicing slowly

  • Heighten your tactile sense (your fingers are sensors)
  • Notice coordination of your hands

Hear and feel ahead of where you are playing

  • If the brain gives the hands even a slight amount of notice, the hands will know exactly what to do.
  • Use silence before playing to prepare aural and physical images
  • Always give a preparation or signal through breathing, (as a conductor does)

Avoid playing whole sections at tempo until they are “glitch-free”.

  • Practice the most difficult measures slowly and comfortably and repeat until you can play them faster effortlessly.
  • Practice method: choose a reasonable length unit and repeat it, surrounding it with much silence. In the silence, the body relaxes and aims for the sound of the music as you imagine it.

Change things gradually
If you change something in your playing or the amount of time played daily, do it gradually, allowing muscles to adapt slowly

Changing a basic skill: Playing a 10th on the viola or the violin involves a fairly large stretch.
After a break, always come back to playing gradually

In returning after a break, Anner Bylsma, the Baroque cellist, suggests for the first three days, just play and do not listen to yourself; for most of us, our playing is not going to sound good after a break, but will fix itself if given a little while.

If preparing for an important audition, concert or competition, build up to 6, 8 or 10 hours of daily practice gradually
Putting sudden demands on muscles is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.


3.  Body Support
Poor body support looks like: collapsed posture, switching weight from foot to foot while playing, holding one’s breath, totally slouching while sitting. Players that experience back or neck pain may be suffering from improper standing, breathing and/or sitting.

Standing: How you stand is important

Body Alignment: Think of a stack above the arches.

  • In a straight line above center of arches: knees, hips, shoulders and head should be aligned
  • Forehead pulls back to seat head above spine
  • Head should not be twisted looking down fingerboard (will lead to upper back tension)
  • Abdomen goes toward spine on the inhalation; on the exhalation, weight is released

Breathing (From Diaphragm)

  • Think of breathing from back and sides; cultivate ease in breathing; when exhalation is complete, inhalation occurs naturally
  • Breathing keeps joints loose (it allows us to release weight, and not press)
  • Breathing allows the rib cage to open
  • Breathing keeps the shoulders open, down, and back
  • Shoulder blades should be flexible – they can move around rib cage


Alignment same as above, except over tail-bone
Balance between “Sit-bones” and feet (Feet must touch the floor, must feel the floor; feel enough power in legs, can spring up)
The appropriate sitting position for each player will be different based on length of legs, length of upper torso

  • Must be able to bow freely to tip on top string without hitting leg
  • Good chairs vs. bad chairs
  • Special chairs designed for orchestral musicians
  • Ergo cushion
  • Crowded seating arrangements can be a hazard

Deviation from these proper uses of the body frequently can cause physical problems.


4. Balance the Instrument: Avoid Squeezing

It is much better if the instrument sits on the collarbone
Balancing the instrument with little effort between head and hand allows for freedom of movement in playing (the scroll should feel light with 51% or more of weight on the thumb)
Shoulders are open, down and back
Head joint should always be loose
This allows the arms to have a hanging feeling.

Instrument position
Longer arms – more open, more on shoulder, scroll out some. Advantage – more ease shifting high up
Shorter arms – more in center, more on collarbone, scroll straight ahead more.  Advantage – deeper tone
At tip, bow and string should make a right angle
The physical make-up of the player, dictates the physical approach to the instrument.

Shoulder rest and chin rest
Shoulder rest

  • An auxiliary support; spreads weight so instrument supported by a broad area
  • Fills space; but if a player has a very long neck, he/she should not rely on it to completely fill space but rather explore a higher chinrest
  • Avoid sitting the shoulder rest directly on shoulder joint if possible; better placed on end of collarbone; otherwise will inhibit freedom of shoulder
  • Aim for “table” of instrument to be parallel to floor; can augment shoulder rest with sponges to achieve

Chin rest

  • If long neck, build up with chin rest extension (example, Steinhardt)
  • Shape must fit jaw contour
  • Side or middle seems to be personal preference

Facets of Vibrato by Heidi Castleman

The following post by Heidi Castleman comes in two sections.  The first is a list of things to consider about vibrato, and the second is a checklist for ensuring you get the most out of your vibrato.

Vibrato Considerations:

Aesthetic – How much vibrato? Sparingly (as a special enhancement) or continuously?

Emotional aspect – What character does the vibrato reflect – love, joy, anger, fear, sorrow?


1) What is the nature of the pitch variation?
Amplitude – how deep into pitch?/ does the vibrato go to pitch or above?
Speed of pattern – is it fast, slow, moderate?
Contour of the pattern – is the pattern rounded, i.e., does it swing evenly toward and away from bridge or is it pulsed (dotted) meaning it swings faster toward bridge than away?

2) The #1 rule – hear the vibrato you want, not as a general affect, but as specific pitch variation.

3) Speed-width combinations – possible associations of vibratos and characters.
fast/narrow – anxious, agitated
fast/wide – tragic, wailing, passion
slow/narrow – mysterious, timeless
slow/wide – melancholy, longing

4) Vibrato “fingerprints” – What kind of vibrato captures a composer’s metabolism the best? Does the pitch level, speed and pattern of the vibrato suit the composer?  The vibrato used in Bartok, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Brahms, etc., should sound very different.

5) Vibrato projection – Listen to the sound from the back of the hall; how does the vibrato project?

Physical aspects
Left hand joint flexibility – warmup left hand frame with all fingers down by moving hand perpendicularly away from and toward neck
Sensitivity and awareness of fingertip pad – the fingertips should enjoy the “buzz” of the vibrating string;  think 1/4 finger pressure letting blocking come from a released arm.  If the fingertip is appropriately relaxed, the finger should be able to slide on the string in a wiping motion.
Finger dropping (or “plopping”) – relax base joint of finger, flex finger in preparation, and then drop it with a super-loose tip; the fingertip will automatically swing from very slightly below the pitch up to the pitch and back, making one complete vibrato cycle.

Note: the vibrato always begins with the fingertip swinging up to the pitch, not with the fingertip dropping on the pitch and then swinging away.
Hand movement – Imagine bouncing a ball with your left hand.  Turn left arm around to playing position; continuing the same motion supports the vibrato. Always be aware of a balanced use of complementary muscles (i.e., for lower positions, those muscles in the front and back of the arm, and for positions above fourth, the pecs and lats).
“Amplifying” the vibrato arc – The opposite end of the hand from the playing finger should be relaxed and soft, swinging more than the playing finger.

Arm flexibility – practice one-octave sirens up and down string with thumb folded into palm; expanding the rib cage at its bottom facilitates the collarbone and shoulder blade remaining relaxed while the wrist prepares to clear the bout.
Releasing of upper arm – swing arm up on inhalation; begin playing on exhalation, practicing same finger shifts of a second on consecutive down bows (or up bows). Go up one octave; also descend.

Right hand vibrato – the bow can provide a more alive, “spun” sound by gently rotating from one tangent of the string to the other.  Think stealth; no one should be aware of what you are doing!

Vibrato Checklist

• Left hand fingertips = Sensors

• Left arm free – release elbow, also release weight of collarbone and shoulder

• Pad blocks – use fleshy part of finger, especially for warmer sounds

• Vibrato spot – visualize a pitch as a point on the pad of the finger, not just a general area.

• First knuckle over string above

• Aim vibrato toward Bb on A string, except on A (perhaps Eb on D when on C)

• Originate from base knuckles

• Base of index free, no “hinge”

• Warmer, deeper sounds come from exploring lower part of pitch
(generally vibrato goes primarily from pitch to below; ear is in charge!)

• Finger farthest from vibrating finger most relaxed, moves the most

• In longer notes, left hand usually leads the development of the sound.

Double Stops for Small Hands by Heidi Castleman

The following post is by Heidi Castleman.

  1. Start with a left hand frame, but play all half steps; the left hand fingers should have first joints curved (fingers will be similar in shape to piano hammers).
  1. Open up spacing in the hand by reaching back; the expansion of the left hand frame should be initiated below the base knuckles.
  1. Base knuckles should be close to parallel to the neck; bring the ring finger near to the neck, allowing the base of the index finger to move slightly (in the direction away from the neck, but not necessarily actually away from the neck).
  1. Wrist should be slightly under the neck and have a “yielding” feeling.
  1. Thumb needs to have a “windshield wiper” capability and will adjust flexibly as any re-balancing of hand is required.
  1. Since the first and second fingers are naturally stronger than the third and fourth fingers, always feel lighter in these fingers (wimpy will do fine!), allowing the third and fourth to feel stronger.
  1. Left hand fingers always should follow this pattern: drop-relax-release; shifting in double stops will be much easier if this principle is observed!  In addition, arrange your breathing so that the shift occurs during an exhalation; this encourages the head, neck, and shoulder area to release at just the right time.
  1. In playing thirds, fourths, sixths, and sevenths, soften the fingers that are not in use; in playing octaves, try keeping the not-in-use fingers lightly down.


●  For the right hand, choose the sounding point of the shorter string.

●  If reaching the fourth finger comfortably is a problem, check your posture.  Make sure your viola is help up!

●  If your hand is small and the joints tend not to have much flexibility, find ways to make your hand softer – imagine your hand is like someone’s that naturally has flexible joints or feel as if you are holding a baby bird in the palm of your hand.


Heidi Castleman on Trills

The following post is by Heidi Castleman.

What IS a Trill?

A trill is a musical event, a point of emphasis. For example, placement of a trill at a cadence underlines the dissonance inherent in the harmony it ornaments.


General Rules of Engagement:

In music of the Baroque period, except in rapid descending passages, trills start with the upper neighbor ON the beat. In music from the Classical period (until around 1812), the choice to start on the upper neighbor or the main note is made on a case-by-case basis.  If the dissonance enhances the musical gesture, then start on the upper neighbor, but if the dissonance interferes with the flow of the musical idea, begin on the main note.

N.B. – For trills to enhance the music appropriately, they must be CLEAR (i.e. with fingers cleanly dropped and then released), and the shape of the trill should mirror the flow of energy inherent in the musical line.  A word of caution: using the hand vibrato motion to produce a trill will result in a trill that is not clearly articulated! (i.e. No cheating!)


Concepts governing LEFT HAND action:

– The left hand must be flexible.

– Lift and drop the fingers from the base knuckles.

– As you drop fingers, think of releasing them into the hand.

– Play slightly closer to the left side of the finger pads and very slightly on the left side of the string.

– Always feel the palm of the hand as resilient and spongy.

– Be sure your left hand is positioned so that the base knuckles are slightly above the fingerboard.

– Be sure that the base joint of the thumb and webbing between the thumb and first finger are loose and springy.

-If helpful, adjust the thumb toward the fourth finger when it is in use and conversely toward the first finger when it is in use.

– Place fingers in patterns. Decide on a pivot or main note of each group and use this note as a physical pivot for the hand.


LEFT ARM concepts:

– The left forearm and hand ares unified by tendons from the elbow out through the fingers.

– Rotate (pronate or supinate) from a still elbow – The radius bone supports the index finger side of the hand; the ulna bone supports the third and fourth finger side of the hand.  It is important to be able to adjust the balance of support from these two bones as required by different finger patterns.  This rotation is most easily accomplished from a relaxed elbow.


Before beginning the TRILL EXERCISES below, try the following:

  1. Three fingers are involved in the trill: the main note, the trilling note or upper neighbor, and the finger below the main note.  Practice dropping your left hand fingers as a triple stop, feeling the main note as a pivot.  The fingertips should be loose and drop in a slightly rocking motion.
  2. Trills are frequently accompanied by the use of inflected bow strokes, or strokes in which the initial bow speed is followed by decay, i.e. the bow stroke for the trill most often starts with decelerating bow speed. At the end of the majority of trills, the bow connects to the following note. Try the exercises below playing without a trill, nachschlag, or vibrato, listening for the inflected bow stroke shape.
  3. The left hand action is constantly changing throughout the trill. The action in the left hand mirrors the decay of the inflected bow stroke. Playing with the left hand alone and without the bow, try playing the trill dropping the fingers progressively closer to the string.  In summary, the height and speed of the trill finger dropping and lifting should become less as the bow stroke decays. However, in a longer trill, if the note gathers energy in the musical line, both the bow speed and the finger action will increase.
  4. As you play the trill with the bow, compare the sound of the trill as you execute it by dropping the finger from the same height versus dropping the finger progressively closer to the string.
  5. In the fourth finger trill, be sure that the finger is dropping into a “squishy” or relaxed palm.




  1. Play without the metronome.
  2. Play variation #1 eighth = 88, variation #2 eighth = 80, variation #3 eighth = 72, and variation #4 eighth = 60




1) Play without the metronome.

2) Play variation #1 eighth = 108 and 132, variation #2 eighth = 100



Some additional trill examples thanks to Mozart.


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.

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.