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.