Friday, April 26, 2013

What the left hand is all about...

Primrose once said that the left hand technique between violin and viola playing are virtually the same...and then he took it back years later!!  This post discusses the major differences in this specific technique: thumb placement, vibrato control/finger placement, and use of extensions vs. shifting.

Regardless of thumb placement, Flesch says that the thumb counterbalance must occur in an upward direction, not sideways direction, or else tension will occur.  In violin playing, the left thumb generally lives closer to the fingers than on the viola, where the thumb touchpoint is generally more widespread to distribute the hand's center of gravity over a larger space, producing an effective counterbalance.  While the hand in violin playing isn't as widespread as it is in viola playing, the thumb shouldn't appear to be bent forward or protrude over the neck.

Approaching this bent/protruded position (what I will call localizing the thumb as the thumb moves closer to the fingers) may only increase dexterity for smaller hands (such as it is in Perlman's playing) because this localization permits the fingers to be curved.

Notice here that Kim Kashkashian's thumb (to the left) on the viola is further back than Arabella Steinbacher's thumb (right) on the violin, just for a point of comparison.

Although the violist's left hand frame is generally larger than the violinist's, for small hands, the thumb may move higher on the fingerboard much in the same way it does on the violin.  Effectively, the same hand that is normal-sized on the violin may be small on the viola.  There are of course weird exceptions all over, such as Bruno Giuranna, whose thumb protrudes like Perlman's, but for the opposite problem: his thumb is just REALLY long!  Check out this masterclass to see for yourself (The start-point that this link leads to is quite short, but is a nice closeup!  Scroll to 3:31 and put the video in widescreen for a lengthier example.).

Given that the viola hand frame is already in an extended state compared to the violin, for vibrato purposes, it is not paramount that every finger lie perpendicularly to the fingerboard as it is on the violin.  Below, you can see to the right a picture of Primrose's hand with a fourth finger that has much less curve than Galamian's, which is to the left.  Also, given that the space between any interval on the viola is larger than on the violin, vibrato generally must be wider and faster for the string to spin.  As Tuttle says, the violist needs full contact of the finger's fleshy pad with the string, which a square setup (like Galamian's) can't always offer.

The first-finger-fourth-finger ("1-4") hand-frame that these pictures above show should always be in tact while playing the violin according to Galamian, and with the sanctity of this frame, violinists can easily produce extensions beyond it with the first and fourth finger.  However, as you see in the picture above, the violists 1-4 frame is already at an extension, and so extensions from inside the frame (meaning with the second and third fingers) proves to be more effective.  Below is an excerpt first from a violin piece, and then from a viola piece, in which I've created two fingerings for each example: one  that airs on the side of violin extension use, and the other viola extension use.

As you can see, while the two versions in each piece have a fair amount of crossover, the viola fingerings favor extensions inside the hand (fingers 2 and 3), while the violin fingerings favor extensions on the outside of the hand (fingers 1 and 4).  In places where an outside extension occurs, violists may often opt to simply shift instead.

In short:
  • Thumb placment
  • Vibrato
  • Extensions
Remember these things, and your left hand should be in good shape (as if playing an instrument was as easy as checking a grocery list...)!!!


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