Considering the Left Hand Frame by James Dunham

Something that is incredibly important to me is the unity and cohesion of the left hand. With a thumb and four fingers (not to mention wrist and arm!) we are constantly shifting strings and position—the potential for disorganized movement is huge. For instance, a motion that I encounter far too frequently is the shift from low position to higher where the left index finger precedes the rest of the hand. This leaves all the other fingers (and the hand itself!) behind, only to catch up and reposition later, always a few seconds too late!

My initial goal (and please stay tuned for the wonderful exceptions!) is to have all the fingers be “good friends” with each other: if they are in a position, they are all in that position! The exercises designed to help train this unanimity are legion: Schradieck, Kreutzer, double-stops in scales, Ševčík, and on and on. There are also newer versions (some in scale or étude books) by Alfred Uhl, Michael Kimber, and a unique system that Peter Slowik wrote about in the ASTA Journal (vol. 40, no. 4; Autumn 1990) called “Pick Four.” This is a creative and very stimulating system for organizing the left hand and the essential finger patterns we encounter. (A “tip o’ the hat” to my former student, Molly Gebrian, DMA!)

I also use a Yost inspired shifting exercise to help the hand learn to move steadily and easily from position to position: slowly, perfectly, learning the tactile sense of the “feel” of the fingerboard, muscle memory of the distances involved, ear training for the expected arrival note and accompanying hand shape. At this stage, all fingers arrive together, all fingers are ready to play, and because of the ease and security of the shift, all arrive in place, poised to be in tune!

For me, this constitutes “hand frame”—the notion that at any time all the fingers, and in fact the left hand as a unit, are poised and ready at the same time for an eased, filled shifting gesture.

Now, if you read my “Blog Introduction” you read about the history of Karen Tuttle and “my” Gaspar. I was not a student of Miss Tuttle, but many of my good friends and colleagues were, and at a certain point I began picking up certain “Tuttleisms” that appealed to me and which I began using in my own teaching. It occurred to me that, to be honest, I should really play for her and get the ideas directly from the source! So, after I started teaching at the New England Conservatory, I made an appointment to go to Juilliard to have a lesson with Karen Tuttle! Well, following some charming conversation when we met, she asked me to play for her. I began with the Prelude of the second Bach Suite, and as I played, she walked around me, grabbing my arm, shoulder, side, just to see if I was tight and if so, where and how much. (Clearly, a teaching technique I was unlikely to adopt . . . !)

At a certain point, Miss Tuttle gave me a look that I know her students would recognize—one of intense interest and no little daring: “Do you teach hand frame?” she asked slyly? I knew there was nothing to do but confess that, yes I do, at which point she explained that she had become much more cautious about the terminology. I can only assume that too many times students returned to their next lesson with a hand “frame” more in the spirit of a picture frame or piano frame: rigid, tight, immobile! Not the point! Rather, in the words of my Diplomat father, we want our hand frame to be “flexible, but not limp!” This reliable shape, coupled with ease of shifting to exact positions offers great security as shifts gain precision and gesture.

And the exceptions I mentioned above? When the hand frame is secure, flexible, and reliable, there are then specific occasions when I love to go “out of bounds” with it! For instance, fingerings using extensions, forward or back, will reach “out of the frame” briefly, but as soon as the extension is complete, the hand easily comes back to its “proper” shape! No more spider legs across the fingerboard, just an easy motion from one place to the next.

I hope this makes sense to you! I often hesitate to put such technical, physical concepts in writing, even for my own students—I relish the individuality of each person, and I far prefer to broach such topics in person, on a case-by-case basis. Consider this carefully, use common sense in its application, and above all, love the beauty of our wonderful instrument!

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