A strong fourth finger is essential for good fiddling, but often that strength is difficult to develop. Especially if you don’t often use your fourth finger or you’re new to using it, this finger may put up a fight when you try to get it to do your bidding. But don’t assume that your finger isn’t capable of what you ask of it; it’s just not trained yet. Even if you’ve been playing for a long time and still struggle with your fourth finger, there are ways to improve its function and make it stronger.
When you have a strong fourth finger, all sorts of doors open in your fiddling. You’ll get that classic fiddley sound that can only come with a fourth finger, plus your intonation will improve and your left hand will feel much more relaxed. Fourth finger work isn’t always a favorite pastime, but I promise you that the effort you put into strengthening your fourth finger will bring a huge payoff.
When should you start adding fourth finger exercises to your practice? As soon as you can place your first three fingers on the fingerboard and play those notes, you’re ready to work on the fourth. You can’t start strengthening this finger too early. If you’ve already been playing for a long time, it still doesn’t hurt to return to pinky exercises once in a while, especially if you still struggle with this finger more than others. Basically, there’s no wrong time to do these exercises.
Without further ado, here are five of my favorite fourth-finger exercises to help you strengthen your pinky and improve your left hand function. With all of these, be careful not to overexert yourself and strain your fingers. Give yourself breaks, never tolerate pain, and don’t spend too much time with these in one sitting.
Exercise #1: Visualize strength
This first exercise doesn’t require that you use your pinky at all. Instead, close your eyes and picture your pinky doing what you want it to do. Think of a strong, arched shape with your pinky landing solidly on its tip. You may have already convinced yourself that your pinky is weak or incapable simply by telling yourself that it is. By reimagining this finger as strong and capable, you can set yourself up for success.
Exercise #2: Base knuckle hammers
When you lift and place your fingers on the strings, you should move them with your base knuckle (the knuckle closest to your palm). This conserves energy and keeps your hand relaxed as you play. To practice using your base knuckle to lift your pinky, set up your left frame of hand and place your pinky on the A string (no bow necessary here). Then use your base knuckle to lift the finger off the string, keeping it close. Bring the finger back down, again using your base knuckle to move it, and repeat. Be sure that you’re not relying on other joints to move the finger.
Exercise #3: Archery practice
It takes strength to maintain an arch as you place your fourth finger on the string. To practice keeping that arch in your finger, build on the exercise above. As you practice popping your fourth finger on and off the string on its tip, watch the arch in the finger. If you notice your finger buckling or flattening as you put it down, take your right hand and gently bend your left pinky’s middle knuckle to bring the arch back to it. Every time you place the finger, be mindful to preserve the arch. The more you do it, the easier it will get.
Exercise #4: Half scales
Once you’ve gotten your pinky to the point where it can land on its tip when you’re not bowing, try this exercise. On you’re a string, walk up a half scale (A B C# D E). When you reach E, use your fourth finger to play the note. If you need to, you can pause and adjust your finger so that it’s on its tip and arched. Once it is, walk back down to A the same way you walked up. Loop these half scales to get in some agility practice and build fourth finger strength. Try these on any string once you’re confident on the A string.
Exercise #5: Fourth finger and drone
For this final exercise, build on the half scales from Exercise #4. When you reach your finger in the scale, play that note with the next highest string (for example, play your 4 on A plus the open E string next to it). This exercise is twofold: it gives you the chance to check the intonation of your fourth finger and allows you to practice the fourth finger/open string combination that is so common in fiddling.
I hope these exercises help you develop confidence and strength in your fourth finger. Practice them little by little and you’ll be amazed by how much your fourth finger really does want to be part of your team.