How to deal with an over pressing thumb

How to deal with an over pressing thumb

Recently I had dinner with my good friend and excellent violinist Faidon Miliadis at a fancy restaurant in central Athens. Along with a bottle of white wine we discussed issues that have to do with violin playing. Among others we talked about the problem of the over pressing left-hand thumb. I believe that there must be no string teacher or performer who hasn’t faced this problem. Beginners but also advanced players over press the neck of the violin with their thumb. As a consequence their vibrato is limited, their shifts are stiff and their finger action is restrained. I have discussed the problem with teachers and colleagues, and I have tried several exercises. Things got clear though last year when I had some lessons with the renowned pedagogue Simon Fischer. In the first lesson he mentioned the problem of the over pressing thumb. His approach was truly illuminating. Here is what he told me. At first he asked me: “How many joints does the index finger have?” Three, I replied. “The middle finger?” Three, I replied again. “The thumb?” After I took a good look, I said: Two. “Wrong”, Fischer replied. “The thumb also has three joints with the first being where the finger connects with the wrist. We should consider the thumb as the longest finger of the hand and not the middle finger as most people believe”. It is truly impressive that if a player creates a mental picture of their thumb starting from the wrist, then the thumb immediately relaxes and as a reflex it moves opposite the second finger. Try it and you will see what I mean. So, this is the first and most crucial step in relaxing your thumb. Of course there are more factorsthat can stiffen ones’ thumb. One of them is how strong we press the left-hand fingers. Over pressing not only makes our fingers inflexible, it also causes great counter pressure from the thumb. A second factor is the independence of the hands. How independent they act from one another. This is a fundamental issue of technique. I will write about it in detail in a separate article. For the moment I will just mention that the lack of hands’ independence negatively affects the freedom of the thumb. In particular, when we press the bow or when there is a lot of action in the right hand, we tend to over press the thumb and the fingers. 

I would like to recommend two exercises that I feel deal with the problem of over pressing the thumb. The first is about the problem of counter pressure and the second about the hand independence. 

First exercise: Take any scale and play it slowly without the bow. Play it silently, just with the left hand fingers.Every time a finger is pressing the string, concentrate on your thumb! Make sure it does not counter press. Do this exercise slowly and with patience. Eventually it will become automatic for you not to press your thumb.

Second exercise: Choose any scale you like and play the notes as harmonics. Try to press a lot with the bow. Be careful not to block unconsciously other parts of your body. Repeat this process and every time press the fingers a little more until you press as much as needed in order to produce a clear sound. 

Try these exercises and I will be back with more tips on relaxed and enjoyable violin playing..

See you soon!