Precursor Games


A game you can play with students away from the instrument to help develop correct left arm rotation is the “smell the pinkie” game. Draw a smiley face or place a sticker on the side of student’s hand at the base of the pinkie (not on the palm). Raise the left arm into the position used for playing the violin/viola, then bring the left hand towards the face, and ask the students to touch the smiley face or sticker to the tip of the nose. Bring the arm away from the face, and repeat several times.

Strumming, tapping and plucking games help strengthen the fingers of the left hand and develop correct hand position for the student.  

Mark the base of the 1st finger with an X and draw a line at the crease where the index finger meets the palm (Image 1). Place the instrument in rest position. Shake hands with neck of instrument. The X should touch the neck and the line visible just above the neck. The thumb should be lengthened and straight. Tap thumb on side of neck while in banjo position. This helps to get pinkie finger over the strings.

Strum 4 times with the pinkie, then tap all 4 fingers on string. Get the elbow swinging.

The basic ANTS game is played by plucking each string four times with the 4th finger of the left hand A variant on the game is to pluck each string four times, alternating fingers of the left hand (4, 3, 2, 1).

The strumming, tapping and plucking games shown in Movie 1 help develop good hand position, while keeping tension out of the left hand and arm.

Image 1


Another game you can play with students away from the instrument as a precursor to finger placement and to learn the finger numbers is the mouse song. Raise the left arm into the position used for playing the violin/viola. Touch the tip of the 1st finger to the tip of the thumb, forming a circle. Then touch the tip of the 2nd finger to the tip of the thumb, forming a circle. Repeat with 3rd finger. Name the fingers one mouse, two mouse, and three mouse. Teach students the song in Image 3.1, tapping the rhythm with fingers while speaking or singing the words.



Basic shifting movements can be taught from the first days of instruction when establishing left  hand position. The purpose of introducing the basic shifting movements early is to help foster freedom and flexibility in the left hand, and to develop a broad conceptual framework of the fingerboard. These shifting movements will also provide the foundation for developing vibrato. There are three basic positions – first position, neck block, and high position. Once these positions have been established, ask students to shift the left hand around the neck while doing these strumming, tapping and plucking games.

Suggested sequence:

1)     Strumming and Tapping in first position

2)     Plucking single string with 4th finger in first position – ANTS game

3)     Strumming, tapping and plucking in neck block (thumb print reading machine)

4)     Strumming, tapping and plucking in high position

5)     Strumming and tap in first position and shift to neck block

6)     Strumming and tap in first position, shift to neck block, shift to high position

For developing additional flexibility these games can be played while moving through the following instrument holding positions: Rest Position; Shoulder Position Left Side, Shoulder Position Right Side, Playing Position.

The right hand may provide support while doing these games by holding the side of the instrument. Movie 2 contains a presentation of these basic shifting movements.

Establishing the Position of the Fingers and Thumb

The basic position for the fingers should be naturally curved, over the fingerboard, and the fleshy point of the fingertip should make contact with the string. The wrist should be straight (Image 2).

Finger Placement Markers

Finger placement markers are very helpful for developing a correct hand frame and finger placement in the beginning weeks of instruction. When the hand frame is well-established the tapes should be removed. Many teachers place tapes for 1st, high 2nd, 3rd finger on violin and viola, 1st, 3rd, and 4th finger on cello, and 1st, 2nd and 4th finger on bass, because these are the pitches the students play in the beginning weeks of instruction (Image 3).

Automotive 1/8 inch pinstripe detailing tape (any color but black!) works well. You can find this at most auto parts stores.

Determining the Placement of the Thumb

Hands come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. The great violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian suggested that placement of the fingers should be the determining factor for the placement of the thumb and elbow. Galamian wrote, "the fingers have to be placed in such a way to allow them the most favorable conditions for their various actions." Once the player places the fingers correctly on the fingerboard, everything else – the thumb, the hand, arm, will find its correct place.

In addition to the X and line drawn at the base of the first finger (Image 1), another game you can use with your students to establish proper wrist and thumb position is the “worm hole.” When the left hand is placed on the instrument and all the fingers are curved and making contact with the strings, a small opening should seen between the webbed fleshy part of the hand between the thumb and first finger and the bottom the neck (The only exception to this would be students who have very short thumbs).The opening should be large enough so the teacher can place a pencil (or a worm!) through the opening (Image 4).

Image 2

Image 3

Image 4

Blocked Fingers

The concept behind blocked fingers is to reduce excess finger motion and thereby improve intonation and velocity. The principle is that all of the fingers work together. When the second finger is down on the string, so is the first. When fourth finger is down, ALL the fingers are down. This is a very important principle of left hand technique, especially when trying to play fast. Play a game with your students to develop this principle and develop their left hand technique. Start with all four fingers down on the same string. Starting with fourth finger (pinkie) lift off one finger at a time, then place them back down, one at a time. How far do you need to lift the finger off the string so it isn't touching the string? About one millimeter or so is the usual answer. That becomes the challenge. Barely lifting off the string. Always keeping the fingers curved, always above the fingerboard, always working together - these are the foundations that will lead to correct intonation - and the ability to play fast.

Independent Fingers

The idea behind teaching independent fingers from the beginning stages of playing is that it prevents squeezing and is the technique that will be used when playing with vibrato. When using independent fingering only one finger will be down when playing a note, however there must be a brief moment of overlap between the fingers. For example, if descending 3-2-1-0, 2 needs to be placed before lifting 3, 1 needs to be placed before lifting 2, etc.

Anchor Fingering

Anchor Fingering is an important concept. There are many passages in string music where strings are crossed, returning to the original note. For example, if you play F# with 2nd finger on the D string, then play open A, then return to the F#, the finger should be kept down on the F# when playing the open A string. The 2nd finger “anchors” the hand, improving intonation and reducing excess finger motion.

Finger Shape

An important principle for all the string instruments is that the finger shape remain consistent. Many young string students develop "approximate" intonation because they are inconsistent with the shape of their fingers as they press down on the string. One game you can play with young string students to help strengthen fingers and make them aware of their finger shape is called "finger lift-ups." Start with first finger down on the string. Lift off and place back down on the string five times. Place second finger down while keeping first finger down. Lift second finger off and replace five times without lifting first finger. Then lift and replace first and second fingers together five times. Remind students to keep their finger shape consistent and always press down the string with the same part of the pad of their finger. Continue this exercise with third and fourth fingers.

Some students will have problems with their fingers hyperextending as they press down - especially with the weaker fingers. They must train their fingers to bend the correct direction. Watch Movie 3 for a review of left hand figner position.

Common instrument position and left hand position problems for violin/viola

Elbow out of position

In Movie 4 (below) a student is resting her elbow against her body. Notice the effect this has on her bow placement. This position will cause problems with tone production.

The elbow resting against the body is a symptom of poor shoulder support or fatigue, or both. Instruct young violinists and violists to return to rest position when they are done playing to reduce fatigue. Check for proper shoulder support by asking student to reach across body and touch the right shoulder while holding the instrument in playing position.

Raised left shoulder

Some students will raise their left shoulder. Check for proper shoulder support. If shoulder support is adequate, ask them to pretend their shoulder is a balloon that is filling up with air. Then ask them to gradually let the air out of the balloon while the shoulder relaxes.

Instrument too far in front of body

Another common problem is the instrument being held directly in front of the body. Remind students to keep "nose, scroll, elbow, toe, all in a row" so they move the instrument into the correct place in relation to their body.

Watch for these common problems in the beginning stages of instruction. Repeat the entire process of bringing the instrument into position frequently. Build rest position into the routine so students do not fatigue. Never leave beginning students in playing position when they are not playing.

Collapsed wrist

The collapsed wrist pull the fingers out of position and it puts tremendous strain on the tendons. This is a recipe for carpal tunnel syndrome. In the correct hand position the wrist is straight, and the fingers nicely curved. Often the collapsed wrist is caused by a lack of proper shoulder support. If the left hand becomes responsible for supporting the weight of the instrument, the student may collapse their wrist. Once correct shoulder support is supplied,do games like shaking hands or flying the butterfly to establish correct left hand position.

Incorrect thumb position

Teachers need to avoid a “one size fits all” approach to thumb position, because the position of the thumb will be determined by the length of the student’s thumb and fingers, the shape of the student’s fingers, and the overall size of the student’s hand. That being said, the setup should not promote tension or squeezing with the thumb, and the wrist should be straight. If the teacher sees thumb position problems ask the student to move the instrument to rest position. Two approaches to use: 1) Shake hands with the neck of the instrument, making sure that the magic X is touching the side of the neck and the line at the base of the index finger is visible. While keeping hand in first position, ask the student to bring over the head and into playing position. 2) Bring the instrument into playing position with left hand on the shoulder of the instrument, then “fly the butterfly” moving the left hand into first position.

Fingers not over fingerboard

Fingers not over fingerboard indicate that the forearm is not rotated properly. A game you can play with students is draw a smiley face on their hand at the base of the pinkie, and  tell them they need to watch their smiley face.

A game you can play with students away from the instrument is the “smell the pinkie” game. Raise the left arm into the position used for playing the violin/viola, then bring the left hand towards the face, and ask the students to touch the base of their pinkie to the tip of their nose. You can also place a sticker at the base of the pinkie and touch the sticker to the tip of the nose.

Movie 4 demonstrates common left hand and arm position problems.

Movie 1

Movie 2

Movie 3

Movie 4