Using the 4th finger in fiddle playing
The 4th finger of the left hand doesn’t get much of a workout in ordinary life. In fact, unless you are a touch typist or you play another instrument, you may find you almost never use it in isolation. So it’s no surprise that when we try to use it to play the fiddle, it’s a little out of shape.
Part of getting comfortable with using the fourth finger when playing fiddle tunes is about building up strength and flexibility in the finger. So we started tonight’s class with some exercises to stretch and strengthen the fourth finger. Here are a couple that can be done anywhere, without needing your fiddle. Hold up your bowing hand, and bending each finger in turn, stretch them as far down the base of the thumb as you can reach.
And this one helps with moving the fingers of the left hand independently: holding the palm up, facing towards you, try keeping the 1st, 2nd and 3rd fingers together, and moving the pinkie independently. Then try keeping the 1st and 2nd fingers together, and the 3rd and 4th fingers together, and separate both pairs in the middle. Lastly, try keeping the 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers together, and move the index finger independently.
Then we moved onto an exercise on the fiddle. This one incorporates thinking about tuning when playing with the 4th finger, which is often an issue when you first start using it in your playing. Make sure your fiddle is in tune before you do this one! When placing the 4th finger down on a string, it should come down onto the string from above, rather than stretching out along the string. You can achieve this position by bending the last joint near the tip of the finger. Moving the elbow over to the right (if you’re using your left hand on the strings) will also give you a bit more stretch so you can reach a little further up the string with the fourth finger.
We played up the A string AAAA, BBBB, C#C#C#C#, DDDD, EEEE. When we got to the E, we played it with the 4th finger on the A string, and played a chord with the open E string. This allowed us to check the tuning of the 4th finger E.
Doing a short session of exercises like these every day for a week or two will make a big impact on being able to use the 4th finger with confidence.
We learnt the air Sitting in the Stern of a Boat, which uses the 4th finger in the B part.
We also worked on creating a full tone on the fiddle, spent some time working on creating clearer snaps in the strathspey we learnt a couple of weeks ago, and revisited the steps for learning to play with vibrato.
Here’s a recording of Paul Anderson playing Sitting in the Stern of a Boat. His wrist in his bowing arm is very relaxed, and he’s making use of the full length of his bow throughout the tune.