The left hand
In this month’s workshop we looked at issues around the left hand, and how to keep the left hand relaxed, which will help in developing fluid playing.
Avoiding tension in the left hand
The way we support the fiddle neck with the left hand will depend to some extent on whether we use a shoulder rest or not. The neck of the fiddle should be resting on the inside of the index finger. It’s common for tension to build, with the left hand gripping the neck of the fiddle, and the thumb becoming tense and painful. It’s important to find a way to support the neck of the fiddle while keeping the left hand relaxed. There’s more detailed information on supporting the neck of the fiddle in this article.
The palm of the left hand should be kept in a vertical position while playing, with the fingers in a gently curved and relaxed position when not on a string. This allows any of the fingers to be placed onto the strings so that they drop straight down onto the string from above.
It can be tempting to ‘cradle’ the neck of the fiddle in the palm of the hand, as the instrument might feel more secure when holding it in this way. However, if the palm is underneath and supporting the neck of the fiddle, the fingers will be pulled away from the fingerboard, making it necessary to stretch across the fingerboard from the side to reach the strings. This will cause the fingers to touch adjacent strings, which will cause problems when playing tunes that cross from one string to another.
To move the fingers from one string to another, swing the elbow of the bowing hand across. As the elbow moves from left to right, the hand is moved over the finger board from right to left. This allows us to reach the G string easily without having to stretch individual fingers across the finger board.
We looked at the pressure needed on the string when a finger is placed. You can play a note by pressing the finger hard against the fingerboard, but this immediately puts the left hand in a position of tension. We experimented with using different pressures to play an E, using the 1st finger in the D string. Firstly we just rested the finger on the string – doing this creates a note with very little resonance. Then we pressed the finger hard against the fingerboard, which creates a much crisper-sounding note, but also creates tension in the hand. After this we tried finding an intermediate level of pressure on the string that created a sound we liked, but avoided tension in the left hand.
The reality of playing is that the pressure used will be different for different notes within a tune. Ideally you’re aiming to avoid tension building up in the hand, and keeping the hand relaxed and able to move fluidly over the fingerboard. This fluidity is particularly important as you begin to play faster tunes.
We tried playing up a D scale, starting with long slow bow strokes. We gradually sped up the pace of playing, paying attention to using only a gentle pressure with each finger on the string. We also tried playing alternate D/E notes, taking time to fully relax the hand when we were playing the open D.
We learnt the reel Peerie Weerie
Keeping fingers down on the string
In the tune, there are different places where it’s possible to keep fingers placed on a string while playing the next note in the tune, as the tune will return again to the previous note. So in this phrase in the A part of the tune:the first finger can be placed on the A string to play the B, and kept in place while the G is played with the 3rd finger on the D string. It’s then easy to return to the B straight after the G is played.
Similarly, in this phrase in the B part: the second finger is placed and kept down while the top A is played with the 3rd finger on the e string, and then the 1st finger is kept down while the top G is played.
Being able to do this is helpful when working on playing tunes faster.
Playing in tune
We looked at ways to help with playing in tune with confidence. Read more about training your ear to hear when notes are in tune.
Co-ordinating the left hand with the bow action
Playing fast tunes can often lead to a disconnect between the bowing action and the fingers moving on the finger board. We looked at using shorter lengths of the bow as we play tunes faster, and developing our own sense of rhythm and pulse. We also worked on how to create a clear crisp start to each note, so we know exactly where that pulse is in the tune. This helps with keeping our own timing really steady, helping with co-ordination between the left and right hands. You can read more here about how to get the bow to fully engage with the string at the start of each note.
Placing a finger across 2 strings
We worked on placing the finger across 2 strings. This is a useful technique when a fast tune moves between 2 strings, playing notes with the same finger on each of those strings (for example where a tune moves from a C on the A string to a G on the E string, which are both played with the 2nd finger). It’s helpful to place the finger down across both strings as the first of the notes (the C) is played. Try to do this so the finger is dropping down onto both strings from above, rather than by placing the finger down to play the C then flattening the finger across onto the E string to play the G.
Using the 4th finger
Many people find it hard to use the 4th finger with confidence. This may be due to the 4th finger sitting below the neck of the fiddle in the ‘resting’ position. Check what your left hand position is when you’re not using the 4th finger. Ideally the 4th finger should be relaxed, slightly bent, and sitting close to the 3rd finger, above the finger board.
Because we’re not used to using the 4th finger independently, it tends to be naturally weaker than the other fingers. So the first step is to practice using it regularly, to begin to build up strength.
This video gives a lot more detail about the 4th finger:
Playing grace notes
We worked on playing grace notes fluidly. The name ‘grace note’ is perhaps misleading, as the finger playing the grace note barely touches the string before it is lifted again. I tend to think of it as more of a flicking action, so that the finger momentarily stops the string vibrating (imagine what would happen if the string was burning hot when you place your grace note finger on it!). The aim is to create a particular sound when the grace note is played. Ultimately you’ll need to be able to hear the sound you’re aiming to create, as you’re playing the note with the grace note.
We also looked at the different effect on the sound of placing the grace note at the start of the note or at the end.