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Should We Test Kids' Fingers Before Subjecting Them to Violin Lessons?

Updated on November 14, 2014
Violin Students, Participants of 2010 Keshet Eilon Summer Mastercourse
Violin Students, Participants of 2010 Keshet Eilon Summer Mastercourse | Source

I am writing this article in response to something I found on theAtlantic.com. That article in turn was a response to a study published in The Journal of Hand Surgery. The study involved 90 violin and viola players and a number of tests on their ability to independently bend their pinkies and to lift their ring finger and move it to the G-string (C-string for violists) while the rest of their fingers, especially the pinkie, remained planted on the E-string (A-string for violists). Apparently, only two of the 90 people in the study failed any of these tests. The authors of the study suggested that this would serve as a sort of "natural selection" among string players because those incapable of passing these tests would not be able to play more difficult pieces and would eventually give up. The study further suggests that students should be tested for these abilities before beginning violin lessons. Several assumptions made in the study are flawed, and I am going to discuss each of them below.

Assumption #1: All Violinists And Violists Must Be Able to Bend Their Pinkies Independently

This is not so much wrong as it is misleading, for two reasons. One, this is a skill that develops over time. I imagine that if the study had been conducted on younger musicians, the results would have been quite different. The recommended age for children to begin playing the violin is five, but a lot of Suzuki teachers will start them at age three and I have heard of students as young as two. In all of these cases, we are talking about children who cannot yet or are just learning to hold a pencil properly. We do not allow two-year-olds to touch knives because anyone with a lick of common sense knows that small children do not have the coordination to safely handle sharp objects. If we instinctively know that fine motor skills develop over time, why would we assume that some children would be born with the ability to perform complex tasks with the pinkie of what for many of them is their non-dominant hand?

If you look closely at the picture from the Keshet Eilon Summer Mastercourse, or perhaps at the larger original here, none of the students in the picture have bent pinkies. The Keshnet Eilon Summer Mastercourse is a prestigious summer camp in Israel for students around the world. There is an extensive application and audition process that takes months to prepare and complete. We are not talking about novices here. Yet, the fact remains that none of the three students in the picture naturally bend their pinkies while holding the violin. Would some or all of them have been denied violin lessons had their first instructors screened students as the study suggests they should have?

There are two reasons that a violinist needs to be able to bend the left pinkie. First, a straight pinkie has further to travel before it lands on the string. The angle, speed, and strength of the left pinkie are limiting factors of the violinist's maximum tempo. Second, it is more or less impossible to get a professional-quality vibrato out of a straight pinkie.

Just for kicks and giggles, I decided to perform the tests described in the article on myself. It was kind of hard to take a picture of my left hand while grasping it with my right to prevent my ring finger from bending with my pinkie, so you're just going to have to trust me when I say that I can do it. Instead, I took this picture below, which shows me trying to bend my pinkie alone without holding my other fingers:

As you can see, my ring finger threatens to bend with my pinkie. Then, I tried bending my ring finger and pinkie together. That proved to be no trouble at all, as you can see below:

I can also bend my ring finger all by itself:

It is impossible for me to go back in time and prove that I could not do this at age six, when I began playing the violin. However, it is possible for me to show you what I can do with my right hand. By the way, at least until I started playing the violin, I was supposedly right-hand dominant. It is completely impossible for me to bend my right pinkie without also bending my ring finger, and the middle finger threatens to bend with them as well:

This is what my hand looks like when all of my fingers are in first position on the E-string:

This is what my hand looks like when I stretch my ring finger out from first position on the E-string and place it on the G-string. This task was difficult, but not impossible:

Would you pass the tests described above?

See results

Assumption #2: Students Who Cannot Naturally Bend Their Pinkies Will Not Learn to Compensate

The article does not actually say this, but it implies it by suggesting students who cannot bend their pinkies should not take violin lessons or that music teachers should "go easy on kids who aren't predisposed to the violin." I take this very personally because, even though I have gained a considerable amount of strength in my pinkie after years of practice, I still consider myself to be one of those people who cannot bend the left pinkie, at least not in the way that many violin instructors would prefer.

Notice in the last two pictures above how my pinkie bends at the third (distal interphalangeal, or DIP) joint instead of the second (proximal interphalangeal, or PIP). This is something I developed intentionally as a teenager. My pinkie will bend at the second joint, but only if it is close to the ring finger and there is no pressure on the tip. Two teachers tried to teach me to keep my pinkie bent when I played. The first would pick my pinkie up, bend it, and put it back down. It would promptly go flat (i.e. move toward the ring finger) or straighten involuntarily. After much frustration, he gave up trying to correct the problem. The second teacher saw the problem with the pinkie as a bad habit that should have been corrected years earlier. At first, she tried the same tactics as the first teacher, but to no avail. After a lesson that focused very heavily on the left pinkie, she told me to practice at home and she would try to help me correct the problem again the following week.

Frustrated, I when home and began experimenting with my pinkie. I discovered two things about myself and my hand in the process. One, my left pinkie does not bend as smoothly as my right pinkie. I can bend my right pinkie naturally, with the DIP and PIP at near-right angles, to place it on my bow:

However, when I bend my left pinkie, there is a catch in the metacarpal phalangeal joint (MPJ) at the base of my pinkie that tries to stop the movement. I have to consciously push past that catch, which causes my finger to snap backward and toward my ring finger and makes the joint pop. In other words, my pinkie bends at an angle rather than going straight back. I have known about the resistance in my left MPJ, not that I called it that until I studied anatomy, for as long as I can remember. It is actually genetic. My father, grandmother, and sisters all have the same trait. What I did not know is that it had an effect on my ability to play the violin.

I experimented with moving my hand and elbow, trying to find a position that allowed me to press my pinkie down. I discovered I could get more pressure out of my pinkie if I swung my elbow toward my body and applied a little more pressure by shifting my left thumb forward slightly. When I increased the pressure, I could get my pinkie to curve at the DIP. However, it would simultaneously straighten at the PIP if not threaten to curve the wrong direction, as if I were double jointed.

Over the next week, I practiced with my pinkie like that, certain that my violin teacher would not be pleased but convinced that it was as close as I could get. As with all of my lessons, she had me begin that one with a scale. When I got to the first fourth-finger note, she told me to stop but hold my position. She came over and pinched and poked at my pinkie. She put her finger under the PIP and tried to make it curve by pressing upward. Then, she pressed down on the PIP from above. Finally, she stepped back and shrugged. "Is that comfortable?" She asked me. I nodded. "Okay," she said. "I can live with that."

Approximately eleven years have passed since that experience, and I still use the same technique. I have seen other violinists do the same thing or something similar. Some people have to move their elbows to a different position for every string. Others only move the elbow slightly to play on the G-string, if they move it at all. Each violinist's hands differ from the next. It therefore does not make sense to demand that we place our fingers in exactly the same way.

Does this mean that violin teachers should "go easy" on their students? Absolutely not! Allowing the student to compensate for genetics is one thing. Giving up on them is something else entirely. We should never fail to push children to their full potential, and while we must acknowledge that genetics and disabilities impose some limits, we cannot let those limits define those who have them. Furthermore, failing to teach proper posture and technique can result in injury or long-term damage and is generally a bad idea.

Assumption # 3: 90 Violinists And Violists From "Three of London's Leading Orchestras" Constitute a Representative Sample

All of these violinists come from orchestras in London. Orchestras in every nation in the world have the potential to attract musicians from every other country in the world. When you play an instrument for a living, you go where the jobs are. However, every orchestra is still going to consist primarily of musicians from its home country if not its home city. Forty-five percent of the people in London are white. Had this study been conducted in New York where 71.5% of the population is white, or in Tokyo where all but 3% of the population is Japanese, the genetics, and therefore natural traits, of the subjects would have been different. Furthermore, not all or even most violinists and violists play in professional classical orchestras. Some teach during the day and play in community orchestras at night. Others play in exclusively baroque orchestras. Then there are those who play fiddle, bluegrass, country, jazz, pop, rock, mariachi, gypsy, or any of the numerous other genres available to them. Choosing 90 musicians from very similar ensembles in a single city who were likely taught very similar techniques therefore gives us no information that can be applied to all children everywhere in the world who would like to learn to play the violin or viola.

Should Children Who Want to Play the Violin Be Screened At All?

Yes, they should. In order to get the most benefit from lessons, students should have patience and a long attention span, be able to read and write, commit to practicing daily, and have respect for the instructor. A lot of teachers, as well as parents of young students, consider these things as part of the process of enrolling a child in violin lessons. However, many of these things are based on maturity of the individual student, and a child who is not ready for lessons at age five might do very well at age six, and her little brother might be ready at the age of four.

Have a beautiful and blessed day!

Courtney

Courtney is part owner of Treble Strings. She teaches lessons both online and in her studio in Smithville, MO. To contact her, please email: lessons@treblestrings.com

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