Being a violinist is a juggling act, and it requires the ability to reconcile two (or more) conflicting ideas. The left hand is often reminded to relax, and at the same time to keep its shape. Vibrato beautifies the sound, but all that movement makes pinpointing the pitch rather precarious. Playing in the top part of a position makes the bottom part seem far away. So, by the time the left hand is developed, it’s a miracle that it darts around and doesn’t collapse. It resembles a solid, radar-driven machine, guided by nothing more than the artistry of the ear.
In some ways, the left hand works the same way as the structures on the sides of buildings that keep construction workers safe and secure: the first and most important requirement is that they don’t collapse. Scaffolding, for violinists, is a method of erecting the hand to accommodate all four fingers. We build the left hand’s plan in our minds, and we observe what distances feel like. The hand thus takes shape because it’s driven by purpose and design. The air that the hand envelops becomes the structure on which strength grows. Touching the violin’s neck with two small parts of the hand doesn’t inspire as much confidence and assuredness - that is not where the "scaffolding" lies. The only thing that the left hand "grabs" is the shape of air around the neck. Like squeezing a soft, rubbery ball, the left hand keeps its shape no matter what dimensions it assumes around the fingerboard.
Scaffolding – No Two Shapes are Alike
To create your own exercise for scaffolding, start with placing individual fingers in first position on the D string. Place the first finger down and notice how the shape of the hand conforms around it. Even the air that the hand holds plays an important part in this spatial relationship. Notice that the second finger isn’t over the next note in the sequence. The hand remains focused on the first finger, and is designed to spring into action when the time is ripe for the next finger to move.
In this exercise, placing the next three fingers introduces three new scaffolds. Each is remarkable in its uniqueness, so it’s vital to let go of one shape in order to insure the freedom of the next one. Finding each of these new shapes takes several moments to discover. Shortcuts lead to cramped hand positions. If you tend to underestimate the distance from one note to the next, you’ll be surprised how much shape shifting actually takes place. The space between notes and strings shouldn’t be judged by what you see on the fingerboard, but by the landscape around it.
There was one left hand exercise which I did as a child which got in the way of this flexible movement. It involved keeping a finger down on one string while placing a finger on another string. The purpose of this was to remember where the original finger was so you could return to it and still be in tune. It also helped me keep my left hand aligned and firm. However, keeping my finger down binds the hand in an unnatural way. The exercise is essentially a good one, but like many things from your childhood, you learn to trade experience for something more relevant and true.
Ramping Up Your Left Hand Radar
All your knowledge of the fingerboard is dependent on how quick you react to the next thing the music throws at you. If there’s a shift up ahead, when do your start picturing the distance and the destination? Take two scenarios and build a practice session around them:
Be prepared for collateral damage. Sometimes a shift doesn’t reach high enough or there is a surge of abrupt, unnecessary speed. The fallout can be corrected. What is gained is learning to appreciate the skills you’ve accumulated. Play through a passage without stopping. Sight-read a phrase. This will show what you're capable of - and it will also highlight what needs work.
To feel comfortable with the neck and fingerboard, make sure all the parts fit. If your hand must move up to reach the fourth finger, or the elbow needs to come over and around, don’t look for shortcuts, just do it. Our minds love a good puzzle, and while a strip of ebony with no frets may not be a Rubik’s cube, it poses a lovely challenge to anyone fortunate enough to play the violin.
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