There are techniques that feel, for some, completely unnatural. It gets to the point that struggling students can’t even feel what right is, so they either give up on the technique (this is common with vibrato, for instance) or develop weird work arounds (hello splayed extensions!). Over the years, I’ve employed a few novel strategies to try and help students get a feel for the right technical ideas. Some have worked, many have not. Today’s post is one of five that have seemed to help when other interventions have not.

By now, you should be aware of my somewhat radical prescription for habits that don’t contribute to solid technique, but I’ll refresh anyone who is new or not up to speed. I think of a habit (good and bad) as the result of time and practice, like a poster that has been rolled in a tube for years. It’s going to curl the direction it has been trained in. The best way for many techniques to be corrected is not (for the most part) a subtle process, gradually working the hand out of the old way of being. I don’t caress the poster and hope it will stop curling at the ends. Instead, I like to roll the poster the other direction to get it to lie flat and perhaps put some weights on the corners for good measure. So if a hand is pronating, I’ll ask the student to supinate (rolling the hand forward, towards the ground) for a while, which sounds terrible and feels bizarre, but after even a single scale, has a way of making a real physical impression on the student. This is definitely what Ron had me do when I came in rotated all to hell and chasing a mean case of tendinitis on top of everything.

The key here is that when we are trying to manifest a mechanical change, all presumption of beauty must be suspended. Changing technique, especially one that may need adjustment after years investing in maladaptive approach, makes everything new. It alters where the fingers lie on the instrument. It causes a lot of distraction and sensation. The bow may panic. And it’s all fine. The first time using great technique may sound like garbage, but that doesn’t mean it’s not correct. Beautiful sound needs both fine technique and mountains of time. Give it time and quality practice, and you’ll get there.

Problem: fingers that bunch up (on either hand), flailing, inefficient left fingers, left wrist pronation, closed bow position, “beak” shaped bow hand

Solution: foam pedicure toe separators

LH: In order to play in tune with minimal exertion (and especially if you’d like to play quickly), the left hand should be close to the fingerboard and relatively quiet. It’s not uncommon for students to engage in what my biofeedback friends call “cocontraction”. This happens right before or during a movement, and is characterized by muscles not involved in doing the specified action getting involved and either pulling away from the desired direction or tensing in unison with the muscles that work. On its own, cocontraction is not a problem. It happens all over the body, primarily to stabilize joints and lend balance to various movements. It becomes problematic when the cocontracting structure acts as an interloper, distracting the body, adding rigidity where flexibility is crucial, or making the accurate repetition of a gesture impossible.

I like to play simple scales and easy shifts with the foam pieces in place. The hand ends up being exaggeratedly limited in its range of motion, and may temporarily make the notes sound mushy or out of tune. Like I said above, it’s fine. Just do a slow run through of something you’re working on and see how much the hand is fighting this new positioning. The more your hand fights, the more you need this intervention. After a few passes through whatever you’re working on, take the separators out, but try to play the same section in the same spirit and see

For the RH, fingers that slouch towards each other drastically reduce the surface area the hand has influence on, and eventually leads to tension (as the hand tries desperately to control things with very little to hang on to) and a wrist that locks. The separators not only hold the fingers apart on the top of the stick, but they also promote space in the hand, which should lead to the right kind of relationship between the fingers and thumb.

Just something to try if you (or your students) are struggling with the hand clump of doom. As with any guidance, if working with this prop causes pain, please don’t push through it! There are other approaches we can try, one of which will help.