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Finger flexibility, is it just me or because I started late?


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I’ve been playing the violin for just over four years now.  I play and practice every day.  I’m 47 now.

 I’m learning that there are limits to what my left hand fingers will permit before I experience pain or injury.  
 

I imagine I have gained some strength and flexibility since I started and perhaps I’ll gain more.

 But I’m wondering, do those that start at an early age have an advantage in finger flexibility, or are some people simply limited by their anatomy irregardless of age they began?

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Have you developed individual finger dexterity? Best to develop it on a table rather than on the violin. Also, you may be using far more energy than is necessary.

getting older does inhibit range of motion but not enough to interferes with your playing.

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Do you have a teacher? A GOOD teacher can quickly evaluate the way you are using your muscles and help adjust the way you play to your "anatomy" and make sure your violin is set up the best way for it as well.

If you don't want the commitment that regular lessons involve, perhaps you can find a teacher willing to act as a one-off or occasional consultant .

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Everyone is different of course, so my experience may or may not be applicable, but I'm an older guy (62) who got great gear later in life, and though I had never stopped playing, I was inspired to seriously devote myself to getting better. 

After about three years of this renewed practice, I was feeling enough pain in my left thumb that I wondered how much longer I could continue.  But, I paid particular attention to tension in my left hand, and to any tension I was holding elsewhere in my body, and kept at it, and within another 15 months, and for last couple of years, my touch lightened, and the pain has gone.  I have also trained for decades in a martial art that is all about soft touch and relaxation, and applying that to my problem was my solution.  I was paying attention not just to my fingers and hands, but to my breath, my shoulders and neck, my posture and stance, and I would stop and release any tension that crept in.  I would take breaks and stretch.

Personally, the idea of practicing on a table is anathema to me.  I can't imagine doing that.  But, the idea that you're using too much energy is almost certainly an issue.  A focused touch is present but not hard, and you want to use the minimum amount of effort to get the result. 

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20 minutes ago, Andrew Victor said:

Do you have a teacher? A GOOD teacher can quickly evaluate the way you are using your muscles and help adjust the way you play to your "anatomy" and make sure your violin is set up the best way for it as well.

If you don't want the commitment that regular lessons involve, perhaps you can find a teacher willing to act as a one-off or occasional consultant .

Yes, I take weekly lessons with the same teacher since I started.  She has stressed the importance of staying relaxed and teaches both kids and adults (meaning I’m not her only adult student).

My particular issues seems to be second finger down, stretching with the fourth.

It did take two years before I developed enough strength to play those E flats comfortably, so it may be a matter of continuing to be patient with myself.

 About six months after I started I had serious wrist discomfort.  I took a four week break, restarted, and wasn’t troubled with that issue since.  So it may be that a 47 year old learning this instrument just needs to be patient with the body as it adjusts.

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Just doing some general hand and finger stretching exercises here and there throughout the day will help...

...and not just with the violin, also for keeping aging hands limber for daily use.

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3 hours ago, outofnames said:

I’ve been playing the violin for just over four years now.  I play and practice every day.  I’m 47 now.

 I’m learning that there are limits to what my left hand fingers will permit before I experience pain or injury.  
 

I imagine I have gained some strength and flexibility since I started and perhaps I’ll gain more.

 But I’m wondering, do those that start at an early age have an advantage in finger flexibility, or are some people simply limited by their anatomy irregardless of age they began?

 

2 hours ago, Rue said:

Yes. ^_^

IMHO, Rue unfortunately summed this up pretty well.  :lol:  Because of genetics, prior life history including athletics, injuries, work history, medical conditions, etc., there simply is no single unambiguous answer to a question like this.  I feel that you are going to get a lot of anecdotes and speculation here. 

Even if we had an experienced orthopedist on the board, doctors can be some of the worst in figuring out joint and tendon discomfort.  For example, a big area of missed diagnoses, especially nowadays with all of the biting arthropod vectors for stuff like dengue virus and various Borrella spp (Lyme and its relatives) loose in the woods, can come from the tendency of doctors to look at any older person, exclaim "Arthritis!", and look no farther (I'll forgo you the anecdote.....but my hands and shoulders are now fine, thank God).

Given the number of people I've seen overcome movement issues with therapy and exercise, even at advanced ages, IMHO, keep right on practicing, just don't overdo it.  Things tend to stretch and loosen as you persistently exercise them for short periods.  :)

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When I was teaching (violin and cello) I was very aware that I could see what student's muscles were doing under their skin and suggest corrections. Since I could also hear the results I felt I knew what to suggest. Since I had been playing from age 4 to 72 (when I quit teaching 14 years ago). So I think I have a sense of what can happen to a player's body with age. I still play - and even added some serious viola playing when I was 80 (you think it hurts to play violin? HA!). I still play all 3 instruments (even with other people). They haven't kicked my out yet!

I had a neck injury when I was 55 that affected 3 cervical disks and resulted in partial paralysis of my left arm and hand and I could not play for a year. The result was a permanent degradation of my violin playing (especially my arm vibrato) and I had to relearn how to separate control of the 3rd and 4th fingers of my left hand as well as develop a violin hand vibrato. The effect on my cello playing was also bad but that recovered after a year and (hard to believe) my cello playing actually improved until I was 72 (at least I learned some previously unopened concerto music).

I have an hypothesis about such things. In fact since my observation of myself and other old people who play string instruments confirms it, I think it may rise to the level of a theory: The trajectory of life-long players' skills are much like the trajectory of a projectile, a ball, or bullet under the influence of an initial force and the acceleration of gravity. With time it rises to a peak and then descends.- as does playing skill. If a person starts playing later in life the skill level they reach will be lower before it starts to drop - as though they intersected the curve of a long-term player's trajectory at a time past the peak.

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11 hours ago, palousian said:

Everyone is different of course, so my experience may or may not be applicable, but I'm an older guy (62) who got great gear later in life, and though I had never stopped playing, I was inspired to seriously devote myself to getting better. 

After about three years of this renewed practice, I was feeling enough pain in my left thumb that I wondered how much longer I could continue.  But, I paid particular attention to tension in my left hand, and to any tension I was holding elsewhere in my body, and kept at it, and within another 15 months, and for last couple of years, my touch lightened, and the pain has gone.  I have also trained for decades in a martial art that is all about soft touch and relaxation, and applying that to my problem was my solution.  I was paying attention not just to my fingers and hands, but to my breath, my shoulders and neck, my posture and stance, and I would stop and release any tension that crept in.  I would take breaks and stretch.

Personally, the idea of practicing on a table is anathema to me.  I can't imagine doing that.  But, the idea that you're using too much energy is almost certainly an issue.  A focused touch is present but not hard, and you want to use the minimum amount of effort to get the result. 

 

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16 hours ago, outofnames said:

I’ve been playing the violin for just over four years now.  I play and practice every day.  I’m 47 now.

 I’m learning that there are limits to what my left hand fingers will permit before I experience pain or injury.  
 

I imagine I have gained some strength and flexibility since I started and perhaps I’ll gain more.

 But I’m wondering, do those that start at an early age have an advantage in finger flexibility, or are some people simply limited by their anatomy irregardless of age they began?

This is too vague - you should post a typical passage, score will suffice.

Your hand could be too small - get a smaller violin. You want to play it not fight it.

Your tendons could be short/stiff. Temperature can fix that. With caution, joints can become unstable and it's permanent. 

Muscle do not cooperate and for that the solution is proper practice. This last one is most probable. Find someone to explain and show how it's done. 

I would suggest you try keep the hand slightly higher in position so that fingering with "1" requires a very slight downward(ish) extension. Like with "1" on F in 1st.  Usually, this fixes most problems (at your presumed level) at some very minor cost to tone and articulation. 

Wish you the best !

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I'm 49, and I have been back at violin for 5 months, now, after a 15-20-year hiatus. I, too, have issues with 4th finger down while 2nd finger is down, particularly with a high second finger, AND maintaining passable intonation when I get back to the second finger. Plus, I have small hands and short arms.

However, it is slowly getting better. I have been playing 5-note down scales, slowly, with a drone, to keep my intonation more honest. It's early days, still, but it is getting a bit better.

The Schradieck Volume 1, Part 1 is helping, too, although I'm still learning it.

I have a tendency to want to keep going even when I'm tired and am starting to feel the strain, but I'm trying to get better at stopping when I should. I'm also trying to pay attention to tension.

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I also took a decade or so off from playing.  I mean completely cut off the violin.  I am in my early 40s now and have been back to playing for the last 4 years.  

I have found that I can play things I have never been able to play before.  I think that age can make a difference either way: gained dexterity or lost dexterity.

Here is something that you can try.  If it is possible, try practicing after you have woken up from sleep or nap.  Don't think. Just play.  I know people will roll their virtual eyes here, but don't start with scales or etudes.  Start with the most difficult passage for your piece.  After about 15 minutes or so, go do your scales, etudes, etc.  Go back and practice the difficult passage you started with.  Finish with a fun piece that you already play well.

I would say that there are too many external variable that affect your finger dexterity for anyone here to answer directly.  

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Thanks for all the good replies.

My teacher and I were chatting about use of fourth finger versus open string and we agreed it’s better for me to play in a manner that makes sense and does not cause injury.

As this endeavor is one of of enrichment and personal enjoyment, and not a career choice, I think this approach is just fine.

We played some lovely duets at my last lesson...and nice music is the goal.  

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4 minutes ago, violinnewb said:

I also took a decade or so off from playing.  I mean completely cut off the violin.  I am in my early 40s now and have been back to playing for the last 4 years.  

I have found that I can play things I have never been able to play before.  I think that age can make a difference either way: gained dexterity or lost dexterity.

Here is something that you can try.  If it is possible, try practicing after you have woken up from sleep or nap.  Don't think. Just play.  I know people will roll their virtual eyes here, but don't start with scales or etudes.  Start with the most difficult passage for your piece.  After about 15 minutes or so, go do your scales, etudes, etc.  Go back and practice the difficult passage you started with.  Finish with a fun piece that you already play well.

I would say that there are too many external variable that affect your finger dexterity for anyone here to answer directly.  

No eye rolls from me.

I was having trouble with a piece with a different time signature than I’m used to and couldn’t play it for the life of me.  After two weeks of no joy, I woke up one morning last month and heard the piece playing in my head and I KNEW I’d be able to play it.

And I did.  First try.

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It is very easy for common misconceptions about correct technique to interfere with learning the right left hand technique for your hand characteristics.  Then if you are convinced that the elephant in your room is your age, you might be very distracted by that and fail to find the real problem.

Teachers who really understand finger mechanics and the implications of hand shape differences are fairly rare.  I was lucky enough a few years ago to find a violin teacher who had also trained as a physical therapist and she made a huge difference in my left hand relaxation.  This involved less of developing greater flexibility than it did of learning greater sensitivity to what my fingers could do, and arranging my hand position to take advantage of that.  This was also aided by a framework of advice from a Delay-trained symphony player who pointed out that some common ideas taught to beginners can be detrimental if elevated too high as priorities of "good" technique.

Violin pedagogy is pretty well developed in the sense that diligent searching can find many resources, often with creative and effective approaches to teaching and technique, but taken as a whole the violin world still suffers from a "sink or swim" dynamic in which students often progress due more to their own trial and error than to any widespread systematic understanding of how to build good technique.

As to hand flexibility, if there is some astounding special level of it that professional players have, it should be very easy to name some simple metrics proving this out.  I have yet to see this anywhere.  Anyway there's a set of hand calisthenics floating around the internet that develop astounding feats of hand dexterity which all ages of people have learned.  Look into that if you really think that's your issue.

Given what older people are doing with muscle building and flexibility these days, not to mention the new information coming out all the time about triggering neuroplasticity in older adults, I think more and more the real issue is identifying the ACTUAL roadblock.  The solutions are out there.

 

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1 hour ago, Andres Sender said:

This was also aided by a framework of advice from a Delay-trained symphony player who pointed out that some common ideas taught to beginners can be detrimental if elevated too high as priorities of "good" technique.

I'd be very interested in hearing more about this.

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1 hour ago, Regina3000 said:

I'd be very interested in hearing more about this.

The idea that speed and accuracy comes from having all your fingers exactly in position above where they are to land isn't as important as avoiding tension.

Take this with a grain of salt, since I am neither a teacher nor much of a player, but I think the fingers come at their final in-tune positions in so many different ways that playing in tune is often less about the hand being a machine and more about the hand being a monkey that has played Twister for so long it can do it in the dark, if I may be forgiven the wild metaphor.

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12 hours ago, Andres Sender said:

The idea that speed and accuracy comes from having all your fingers exactly in position above where they are to land isn't as important as avoiding tension.

I think the two are related, Andres.

I teach etudes that solidify/balance hand structure in every position.  When the hand has a structure, excess tension is more easily relaxed.

Roland Vamos has, in the past decade, published his double-stop hand-structure etudes... it's one etude repeated in dozens of permutations.  Highly recommended.

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18 hours ago, Andres Sender said:

The idea that speed and accuracy comes from having all your fingers exactly in position above where they are to land isn't as important as avoiding tension.

Take this with a grain of salt, since I am neither a teacher nor much of a player, but I think the fingers come at their final in-tune positions in so many different ways that playing in tune is often less about the hand being a machine and more about the hand being a monkey that has played Twister for so long it can do it in the dark, if I may be forgiven the wild metaphor.

Thanks!

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5 hours ago, Stephen Fine said:

I think the two are related, Andres.

Of course.

5 hours ago, Stephen Fine said:

When the hand has a structure, excess tension is more easily relaxed.

That depends entirely on the compatibility of the specific structure with the specific hand and situation.  Wrong structure recommendations are destructive of good execution.  Right ones can be magic.  What standards dictate whether a structure is right or wrong?  One of them has to be the avoidance of levels of tension that interfere with execution.

5 hours ago, Stephen Fine said:

Roland Vamos has, in the past decade, published his double-stop hand-structure etudes... it's one etude repeated in dozens of permutations.  Highly recommended.

Thanks for your recommendation. I have found Borivoj Martinić-Jerčić's recent book "Freedom and Flexibility of the Violinist’s Left Hand: Technical Studies for Violin" to be very interesting on the topic of structure.

Regina3000 -- :)

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  • 3 weeks later...

I find that insofar as arguments go about kids brains and bodies being more malleable and open to learning all kind of falls behind the importance of tension in the body. Adults just have had more stress, more tension, and are more well practiced in the *particular* ways that their bodies like to hold tension.

I often think that it's not that peoples bodies (or minds!) are less able to do any certain thing, and more that they have more heavily ingrained habits that prevent it.

Even tension in one place (say shoulders, say left thumb) spreads, and messes the whole thing up. Adults can be tight bundles of tension, related to the violin or no, it will have effect.

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@outofnames I am not old, but i have worked rigorous physical labor my whole life, and have learned through painful experience that all of your muscles are affected by:

The shoulder joint

and

The hip joint

the body is a kinetic chain from your feet to your fingertips.  And so..

1.  feet width and toe position, practice standing as much as possible

2.  how much adduction in the left arm?  Where it is most relaxed.

3.  Don't crank the elbow under.

I would suggest observing your feet, and particularly how and where you hold the violin.

Feet should start around hip width apart, and you should always be practicing standing.. much less tension standing.  Hobble from standing on one foot to the other, adjusting the width until it feels most relaxed.  Also, adjust how far out your toes are pointing (or how much your glutes are activated).

And the violin should be held generally so that the left shoulder is, as much as possible, in its open/loose-pack position (30 degrees horizontal adduction applies to violin. just google it....) Focus on your hand.  If you square your body to a wall, how far is your left hand away from your body when you are holding the violin.  Don't mind the elbow, but the hand, which will be a better marker.  The elbow will always be moving more.  You should experiment without holding the instrument, holding the left arm up as if you were.  Move it further out, and closer in, pausing with each change to observe muscle tension.  There will be a point where everything is more relaxed.  This is where you should shoot to hold the violin, and adjust the bow arm accordingly.  There's a really good chance that you have too much horizontal adduction and it is causing tension.  You should always shoot for having the violin strings parallel to or slightly higher than parallel to the ground.  This makes a huuuuge difference in how hard your left hand and fingers have to work.

If in general you have too much tension and are not holding it in an optimal position for relaxation, everything else including finger mobility will be limited.

One more thing.  So many teachers make their students crank the elbow underneath the instrument at all times.  Not necessary.  The goal should be just barely enough so that the fourth finger can hover above the string you are playing on.  But as you get better, even that becomes a regular micro-adjustment.
 

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