hacks for your technique, part 3: getting a tense right pinky to chill out

I wrote about this nearly ten years ago, but it’s stood the test of time for a tense/hyperextended/jerk of a pinky. My school of bow technique asserts that the pinky is largely inert during most actions, and although there are big names (A. Weilerstein and M. Haimovitz to name two…sometimes Rostropovich) who lean on their pinkies during the change from down to up bow, I don’t advocate this for any beginning or intermediate student. Of course, there are certain instances where the little finger is somewhat useful: for my hand and particular posture, the pinky helps control a bouncing bow, depending on the speed and desired articulation. But again, since the blasted thing is so frequently problematic, I tend to err on the side of a technical approach that relieves this small, well-intentioned digit of the hefty responsibilities it tries to take on.

The fix is simple: with a small elastic, bind your pinky to the ring finger. The photo below presents a slight optical illusion- my pinky is not straight, but gently curved- the way it does when I’m away from the cello. Your hand may not look like mine when it is relaxed- perhaps yours will be more curved or maybe quite straight. The important part is that your pinky is slack, and is acting with concert with the ring finger, which is acting in concert with the rest of the hand.

The most common tendencies that result in pain, fatigue, and ineffective technique are:

  • pinky stands up on top of the stick, a bit like some violinists’ hands do
  • hand is rotated so that pinky hooks the stick
  • pinky comes off the stick in a tense position
  • pinky grips the frog

All of these habits create conflict within the hand, which ideally is supposed to be draped on the bow with each finger contributing to a few simple goals: transferring the weight of the arm to the string, making sure the bow doesn’t fall on the ground, and offering as little interference as possible between the arm and the string.

The hand is NOT responsible for holding the weight of the bow. That’s the string’s job.

I’ll say that again. The string bears the weight of the bow. The hand simply is the thing at the end of the arm that nature gave us to offer small inputs and a bit of finesse. If I hold the bow chest-high to demonstrate for a class, I use my left hand to hold the weight. Otherwise, the right hand becomes Super Claw with an intense pinky- for good reason! The tip of the bow feels heavy otherwise. And of course it does. It’s designed that way so we don’t have to work as hard to manufacture a sound.

Back to the idea about conflict in the hand: if the pinky is not working with the other fingers, which largely lean towards the point of contact unless you’re right at the frog, it’s fighting a battle it cannot possibly win. We hook the index finger (just a bit) around the stick and lean because we’re trying to create a lever: a way to send the energy of our arm to wherever the bow is in contact with the string. The further from the weight of the hand the bow travels, the more we have to rotate onto the index finger to transmit that energy, keeping the sound equal. Otherwise, the tip of the bow sounds weak. When we lean on the index finger, it should come from the entire arm- it’s a line that runs from the shoulder all the way to the edge of the finger. If the pinky is doing anything contrary to this, we have a problem.

You heard me.

So the idea here is just to get the pinky used to going along with whatever the other fingers are doing. If they’re limp, it’s limp. It they’re leaning a bit on the frog, pinky is leaning a bit on them. If the player needs to lean really hard on the string at the tip, it the hand may lean so much that the pinky comes clean off the bow, resting gently against the ring finger.

Which is where the elastic can be handy. Make sure it’s not too tight. Focus first on open strings and long tones before moving to more adventurous pursuits. Experiment- see if anything changes after 10 minutes. Take note of what happens to the rest of your hand, that you’re not doing new weird things because of this one minor adjustment. Even if it throws you into temporary chaos, it’s all fine. You don’t want a bow hand that can be taken down by such a small adjustment. The more you invest in being relaxed, with the form being all about the simplest, most direct path to function, the better you will feel AND sound.

Happy practicing.

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