The care and keeping of your hands: a fiddler’s guide to fingertip maintenance

We often discuss the loftier aspects of musicianship, but today we’re getting into the nitty gritty: how should you care for your fingertips, and nails? These simple things can make a big difference.

Where should I expect calluses to form? As your calluses form for the first time, you’ll feel some initial fingertip discomfort from the friction and pressure of pressing down the strings. Hang in there through the discomfort. In a couple short weeks, you’ll notice your fingertips begin to develop calluses and playing will quickly become more comfortable. You might even get a callus on the tip of your right thumb where you hold your bow. Many folks also develop a “fiddle hickey,” which is a mark (and maybe a rougher skin texture) just below the left side of your jaw where you hold the fiddle.

These changes are all part of the deal, but muscle pain in your hands shouldn’t be. If you notice aches and pains beneath the surface, it’s worth reexamining your technique so you can nip bad habits.

How long should my nails be? We see you, manicure-lovers, but we’ve got to break it to you: there’s really no place for long nails in fiddling. When your nails extend past the tip of your fingers on the left hand, you won’t be able to push the string down and you’ll get nasty, buzzy sounds instead of that clear tone we all want. Clip your nails close to the quick, but be careful not to hurt yourself. If you’re nervous about cutting them that close, you can also use a file. You should expect to clip your nails more often than you’re used to, probably every few days or so, including the thumbnail on your bow hand.

How should I take care of my calluses? Calluses often don’t require much maintenance at all, except for regular practice. It’s normal for them to peel off every once in a while and reform, too. What about when you have the opposite problem: calluses that are too thick? You can tell your calluses have gotten out of hand (eh?) if they begin to crack or they cause your fingers to touch other strings inadvertently as you play. When this happens, you can soak them in warm water and then use a pumice stone to slough off some of the extra skin. Try not to get rid of all of the protection that’s built up, only as much as you have to. 

Fingertip care often goes unnoticed but is one of the most basic and essential things you can do for yourself as a fiddler. Now go give yourself some TLC!

How to let go of left hand tension

Practicing fiddle is like stretching your muscles: it lets you notice areas that need attention and give them extra care until you notice improvement.

For many people, the area that needs a lot of special attention is their left hand, where tension commonly builds up. To counteract this, you should consciously and consistently relax your hand. 

“Sure, relax,” you say, probably doing the exact opposite of relaxing as you read that piece of advice for the hundredth time. “But how?” I hear you. It’s not always intuitive, so we’ve created a simple warm-up structure designed to help you release tension in your left hand. Look at this warm-up as some targeted TLC for the days when your left hand needs it (and sometimes, that’s every day.)

1. Begin with the Popcorn Fingers exercise.

To do this exercise, begin by getting your left hand in position with an open palm, straight wrist, and curved fingers. Then, beginning on your A string, pop one finger at a time down on the string so that you can hear the “plunk” of each pitch as your finger lands. Try this on every string with every finger. Since you don’t have to focus on bowing at the same time, you can monitor your left hand closely to notice tension and release it.

2. Move on to thumb taps.

Reset your left hand posture before you continue to this exercise. The reset is important because, even if your hand “feels right,” you might be reinforcing old habits you don’t even know you have. After you reset your hand, you’ll love how simple this warm-up is. Take your left thumb, where tension is often stored, and tap it gently three times on the neck. Then place your first finger on the fingerboard and tap three times again. Continue this process with each finger on each string. Practice pushing your fingers down without gripping in your thumb. Thumb taps are also great to mix in throughout your practice to keep your hand relaxed.

3. Practice neck slides.

Again, reset your left hand posture. This time, practice sliding your left hand toward you up the neck and then back down to where it began. Then pop your first finger down (lightly) and repeat the slide process. Go through the steps again with each finger on each string. Remember, we’re not using a bow at all for these first three exercises. That’s because the goal isn’t to sound good (or sound at all.) The focus is solely on calming your left hand, so put all your attention on that. 

4. Play mindful scales with a mirror.

By now, you’ve gotten some good practice being mindful of your left hand. You can always return to any of these exercises throughout your practice session when you need to release tension again. To finish this mini-warm-up, let’s combine what you’ve worked on by playing scales in front of a mirror. 

You’re probably accustomed to watching your right hand when you practice in the mirror, but right now your left hand is still the star of the show. Before you begin, be sure your left wrist is straight, your palm is open, and your fingers are poised to land on their tips. At a very slow tempo, play a scale (I recommend G or A), still focused on just your left hand. This is the first time in this sequence you’ve used a bow, so fight the urge to spread your attention too thinly. Only focus on your left hand. Keep it soft and open as you play on every string, and play through the scales several times. Check the mirror repeatedly to see if your hand is doing what you want it to.

Voila! You’re cured. Wait, what’s that you say? You did the warm-up and your left hand is still tense? Before you get down, know that you’re not the only one who has a hard time with this. It takes time to change habits, and left hand tension is an especially sticky habit. Despite that, it’s a challenge that you can overcome. I promise, no matter the shape of your hands or the history of your fiddling, you can get to a place where great left-hand technique feels second-nature to you. Trust the process and you’re on your way.

Six Ways to Energize Your Playing from Home

by Celeste Johnson

 

Let me guess: you’re reading this from home. 

Hopefully, you’re also wearing your favorite pair of slippers and sipping a good cup of something. But even if you’re happy to hibernate at home for a while, some of the changes in our routines can be hard to navigate, and music is no exception. That’s why we’re spending some of our time in quarantine writing this Fiddle from Home series! 

In these posts, we’ll give you strategies, support, and inspiration to help you navigate your new musical routine while everything’s topsy-turvy. This series is here to support you, so tell us: how can we feed your fiddling right now?

In office hours, emails, and social media, all the questions and curiosities you share help us create content that meets your needs and nourishes your musical life. Let us know how we can support you by sending your topic suggestions, questions, hurdles, and eureka moments to learn@fiddleschool.com.

In this first Fiddle from Home post, let’s talk about six ways to energize your playing while we’re all cooped up at home right now.

1. Read a book. Although it’s indirect, reading is a great way to incorporate new meta-concepts into your musicianship. especially if you’ve been stuck in a rut or frustrated with music lately, which happens to all of us. I love reading when I feel this way because it feeds the part of my brain that loves to understand the process of how things work. If I can see how successful, motivated people approach their craft, I feel much better equipped to look at mine in a positive, motivating way too. Need book recommendations? Check out our Fiddle School Reading List under the resources tab in the Fiddle Lounge and drop your own suggestions below!

2. Reorganize your practice. The way you practice makes a difference. If you feel like you’re not progressing as quickly as you’d like, it might be time to overhaul your practice routine. By streamlining your practice, you can use the natural structure of the learning process to your advantage and become more efficient to boot. If you don’t know where to start, check out our article about how to use a practice journal.

3. Listen to new music. And I don’t just mean fiddle music. Listen to whatever gets you jazzed, even if it seems like it has nothing to do with fiddle. Just the act of listening to something new inspires me and makes me curious to discover my instrument all over again. If you feel frustrated with your practice, this is a lovely way to remind yourself why you fell in love with making music.

4. Buddy up. One of the best parts of fiddling is the community that sustains the music. That community sustains us musicians too, but it can be hard to feel connected when we can’t play together.Now more than ever, it’s important for you to know that you’re never alone on your musical journey. The best way to remember this is to find a fiddle buddy. You can decide what you do together: maybe you Zoom every couple weeks and show each other the new tunes you’re working on, or maybe you swap new listening recommendations. Maybe you just check in with each other every once in a while. Do whatever works best for you. If this idea sounds a little awkward, step out of your comfort zone and give it a try. It might be just the jump start you need.

5. Change your strings. Every time I put on a new set of strings after a long run on the old ones, I feel like my fiddle’s just had a spa day. I hear my fiddle anew, as if I’ve somehow been playing underwater for weeks, and the crisp, clear sound makes me want to practice for hours on end. If you’ve been playing on the same set of strings for a while, do yourself a favor and switch them out.

6. Connect with your local fiddle organization. Are you part of your statewide fiddle organization? Good! Reach out to them and see how you can support them and stay involved (can you make a donation? write them a publicity blurb for the local newspaper? attend their next meeting?) Since many summer fiddle contests are getting canceled, these organizations are feeling the burn and can really use support and involvement from the communities they serve right now. If you’re not a member of your state’s organization, now is the perfect time to join.

I hope these tips help keep you inspired and remind you that we’re still part of a strong, vibrant, passionate musical community. We can still be here for each other, even when we’re not with each other.

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