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Flat vs. Curved Fingers

What are people's opinion about playing with flat fingers, especially in the higher registers? For me, I've found that I can achieve a much finer tone with flat fingers in thumb position. I also happen to have long fingers that will not stay curved. I have had some teachers complain about this and others say that it is immaterial! Your opinions please!

--Caroline

Paul Tseng replies:

My opinion is that flat fingers are not as bad as some may say. Look at Rostropovich's or even Yo-Yo Ma's. Using flatter fingers has many benefits. Your knuckles are closer to the fingerboard and thus gives you a better center of gravity. The result is that you feel more secure and are less likely to feel as if you might fall off the fingerboard.

If your knuckles stand up in the air then you must actually use pressure and force to hold the strings down, rather than the natural weight of your arm. Pantaleyev (my last teacher) would constantly tap my knuckles reminding me to flatten them out.

Ideally, there should always be a straight line (hardly any breaks or bends) from your elbow to your second knuckle in your finger. Any break in that line interrupts the weight from your arm, which needs to center straight into your fingertip where it holds the string down. This is the same reason you'll see Rostropovich or Yo-Yo's first knuckle (in from the fingertip) straightened out and flat.

An added benefit is that flatter fingers (playing not so much on the tip of your fingers, but on the flat fleshy part) helps with vibrato. For years I could never get the kind of vibrato I desired. I worked very hard and it never came about. But one day I started watching Rostropovich's video tapes and noticed how cool his left hand looked (he and Yo-Yo have really long fingers). So I tried to imitate him simply because his left hand LOOKED cool. Before I knew it, I was getting a richer vibrato than I ever did before by flattening out my fingertips. My own teacher at the time (Stephen Kates) saw what I was doing and asked "Why are you flattening out your fingers? They should be rounded and curved." I said, "That's how Rostropovich does it." He said "Well, that's just him. He's weird that way, only he can do that and still play well." I said "But I sound better this way and I feel more comfortable." Never being one to stick to "rules" he said, "One size does NOT fit all."

Pantaleyev later showed me that what I had learned from watching Slava was correct and showed me how the flat knuckle, straight line position, is to be used throughout the entire fingerboard. One should NEVER have to squeeze the strings down, the weight of the arm should be more than enough to hold them down. With looser fingers one can run around the fingerboard easier and faster, and vibrato will be much more fluid and efficient.

Greg Hamilton replies:I think Paul is right in many respects. If you use the tips of the fingers + thumb as your method to "stop the string," the result will be a grasping, clutching movement which will inhibit the vibrato, facility of fingers, and stamina when playing the instrument, not to mention the physical problems that can occur.

I find that the posture of the left hand fingers that works the best for me is when the first two joints of the fingers (distal and medial phalange) are bent (i.e. supporting the weight of the arm), and then there is a long, mostly straight line from the middle joint to the elbow. This frees up the thumb and prevents the tendency to apply counter-pressure. I've heard some teachers describe this as "hanging on the strings" with the fingers. I have my students do some exercises to help feel this, the simplest being: hold your arm well above the fingerboard, elbow at an 8 o'clock angle and hand relaxed with slightly bent fingers. Move the arm down toward the string as a unit. When you reach the string, KEEP GOING, leaving the fingers to sink into the string while the rest of the arm moves farther down. The result, if done correctly, will show how arm weight factors into left hand technique and demonstrate how the thumb is not needed to help press the strings down.

I encourage my students (90% of which come to me with bad left hand technique) to find the posture that is comfortable for them, using mine as a starting point. Most of them have base knuckles that protrude too high (there is more than one way to make a "C" with your fingers), so I show them how these knuckles should be BELOW the plane of the fingerboard (at least on the A string), not above. This leaves the middle knuckle as the apex of the left hand.

Laura Wichers replies:I'm against the flat finger approach in thumb position. Whoever posted the idea that the arm should be flat from the elbow to the first joint past the base of the fingers has the right idea. If the last joint is also flat, a number of problems can arise, not the least of which can be weird intonation/overall hand position. My current cello prof told me what I'm going to tell you: Hold your left arm/hand/wrist out in front of you (elbow bent). Relax the wrist completely. Then, straighten the wrist until it is flat with the rest of your lower arm. Your fingers naturally curve and your thumb will naturally be about parallel to your wrist, pointing towards the last joint of your second finger. This is how the hand should be in thumb position. In my own experience, playing with curved fingers and a rounded/relaxed hand position greatly increases my 'muscle memory' as to where notes are in relation to each other and when shifting great distances. And contrary to what someone else posted, I think it is easy to be able to concentrate the arm weight into the fingers in the curved position, not having to pinch or press.

The key is to relax your left arm/hand/wrist and make everything feel as natural as possible. If for some reason you find you tense up with flattened fingers, curve them. If the curved position hurts/doesn't work for you (I define this by using the technique for at least a few weeks before deciding you don't like it), then find something that does.

Paul Tseng replies to Laura:As long as your fingers are not unnaturally flattened (to the point where they will contort the rest of your hand/wrist), there is nothing that should hamper your playing.

Many people feel slightly hindered when they begin using this hand position (especially if they are in the habit of having their knuckles pointing high up). The reason they feel constricted is because they are not as free to make very wide ranging motions with their fingers. But my response to students has been, why would you need to move your fingers so high off the finger board, only to have to go so far back down every time you used that finger? How much distance does one really need to put a finger down on a note? It would seem to me that the further from the fingerboard your finger travels the further it needs to travel back. That will take more time. And if you travel back in time it will be more energy; energy wasted. That is why some students get so tired playing Popper 26. Their fingers are using too much excess motion and that tires them out and is inefficient.

I remember watching Sarah Chang play with the Baltimore Symphony. She must have been 14 years old. She's not my favorite violinist but she was quite a player. She moved around all over the stage when she played expressively. But when it came to fast technical passages, suddenly all her motions became very compact and concentrated. This is all for balance and momentum.

Think of a speed skater. Which one would perform better, one who is flailing and waving his limbs about while flying at high speed or one who keeps his arms in close to his body when moving fast?

The bottom line is ... when it comes to fast technical passages, be efficient and relaxed. Don't become tight, but don't expend or waste energy with non-essential motions. I don't mean to say that one should not follow through on large motions. But if you are moving fast you must consider how best to do it.

Think about this: You are given a task to swing a baseball bat to tap a target (about 12 inches from you) 50 times in 1 minute. The only limit you have is time. It doesn't matter what technique you use, what type of stroke you use, you just need to tap it 50 times in 1 minute.

1) How far back will you wind up to swing?

2) Wouldn't it be better to keep the bat really close to the target and use tiny small strokes instead of a whole arm wallop?

Moving your fingers fast is not much different. You need the same factors, speed, accuracy and endurance.

Ryan Selberg replies:I am another of the "flat finger" players. One major point that has not yet been addressed is the actual contact of the finger to the string/fingerboard. The most natural position of the finger is a contact with the pad of the finger, not the end of the finger. Just hold your left hand up in front of you and gently bring the thumb and fingers together. Touch the thumb with each of the fingers, and see where it naturally comes together. I suspect very few will find it natural to touch the ends of the fingers to the thumb. The only time I use that position is to try to pull a sliver out of my finger when I have been doing some woodworking in the garage. When I play in the thumb position, I actually invert the first joint of the fingers (the joint nearest the fingernail) in order to vibrate with the same type of pad contact. However, in rapid passagework, I do raise the fingers to a more arched position.

My teacher studied with Feuermann for awhile, and related Feuermann's analogy about thumb position finger usage. When we walk, we walk heel to toe, or full-footed. But when we run, we use the balls of the feet, not the heel. The same applies to slower, vibrated passages versus rapid passages. I would add a further analogy. Playing on the fingertips for vibrato and shifting would be akin to a ballet dancer walking on point ALL the time. Having the finger on the pad also helps shifting, as you have a bit of resistance to control speed, distance and location. Think of shoveling snow, and the angle of the shovel. Holding it vertical is not the most efficient position for it.

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