The Left Hand by Ivo van der Werff

Everything we do in playing the viola has to be toward one aim; the creation of a good sound. Before even getting on to expressive elements in playing such as vibrato, you can gain a better sound through a good left hand position and good intonation.

With the left hand, balance is again a key word that comes to mind. Just as your general posture needs to be natural and unforced, so does the position and shape of your left hand. If you put your arm in a playing position (without the viola), try moving the hand backward and forward, rocking on the wrist, as far as it will go and observe where the tension comes and goes. Just as in finding the optimum position of the arm in front of the body, the optimum position of the hand is one where the opposing muscles on the front and back of the forearm are in balance or equilibrium. Thinking of gravity, one would assume that the hand would be least tense in a more upright position. Any other position and one has to “hold” the hand in place, through tension. Generally this will result in a slight outward curve of the wrist (i.e., curving away from the body). This natural position of the hand also reflects the shape of the right hand when placing the middle of the bow on a string.

Tudor Fieldhouse

Optimum position of the wrist

The height of the hand when holding the viola is dependent on how vertical the fingers are. To create a rich sound it is better to use the fleshy part of the fingers just behind the tip so the fingers do not land on the fingerboard in too upright a position. Hence the hand should not be too high. The thumb should support the neck of the viola somewhere between the underneath and side. Do not grip the neck between the thumb (which should be relaxed) and the base joint of the 1st finger (a common fault), as this will detract from left hand mobility. This can also create undue tension, which could have a detrimental effect on the vibrato.

Tudor Fieldhouse

Fingers in correct position

It is very important that the thumb is flexible. It does not have a fixed position, with any upward stretches it might want to move in the opposite direction. But again, thinking of balance, there is an optimum position for the thumb probably somewhere between the 1st and 2nd fingers. You can experiment by holding the hand in a playing position and moving the thumb backward and forward and noting where the muscle tension lies.

The fingers should always be in a position where they can strike the string, i.e., the hand might need to be turned in toward the fingerboard more so that the 4th finger generally is approximately above the string.

A good exercise is to hold the hand in a playing position and twist the forearm–wrist–hand round in each direction. This is not a natural, everyday movement, so it is worth looking at.

Although the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd fingers will always be curved, depending on the length of the 4th finger, this might well have to flatten out when striking the string.

There is no need to change the attitude of the hand to the fingerboard until one reaches at least 4th position, and the movement of the hand should be smooth and even; the less unnecessary movement the better.

Good intonation (creating a good, resonant tone) is achieved by learning the relationships between the fingers. If one has a different hand shape for each finger or position, this becomes increasingly complicated.

A common fault is to lock the fingers together at the lower knuckle, especially between the 1st and 2nd. It is very important that each finger can move independently from the lower knuckle and that there is always “daylight” between the fingers.

Good intonation can only be learned through repetition. When practicing, if a note is out of tune, DO NOT move the offending finger until it is in tune. Rather, listen and decide which way the finger needs to move on the repeat. If it is still incorrect, repeat again. In this way you will learn the exact relationship of one note to another, and by repeating many times the memory of that relationship becomes instinctive.

Good intonation is a combination of “muscle memory,” acute listening, and concentration.

Comments from Students:

As I am a person with smaller hands, I tend to let my thumb lay more toward my second finger, as it also gives me more space to make extensions, especially with the first and fourth fingers. I am currently working on placing my left hand with the palm facing the fingerboard and I agree with the idea since my fourth finger can more easily be played and is more relaxed than before. It also allows me to play faster passages because my fingers are closer to the strings. I also practice to stay in one position and keep a good hand frame through different finger extensions. I think we have a tendency to move our hand a lot when we play, as opposed to keeping it steady and relaxed. Thinking about the position you are in and using extensions (in contrast to a complete shift every time to play a half-step lower note) allows a better knowledge of your instrument as well as better intonation

– Marie-Elyse Badeau

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