Thumb Together with the Fingers

Thumb together with the fingers:

I’ve off and on been sort of intrigued by this idea in many Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons (ATMs), thinking about how for string players a number of problems emerge alongside too much tension in the thumb when it operates in opposition to the fingers. These problems also have a lot to do with less freedom in each shoulder, less mobility throughout the the whole arm, less connection to power from bigger muscles, more tendency to isolate movement at the periphery, and generally less of a feeling of connectedness. I thought about this device in ATM being used to keep the person from really gripping a foot or elbow, or under the knee, sort of taking the effort away from the hand, using the whole hand as a point of connection rather than an instigator in the movement, possibly connecting with more power from the shoulder/back, big muscles.

Yesterday when I was teaching, though, I had a student who was playing an orchestral excerpt with very, very, tiny, fast, delicate bow strokes…Verdi, La Forza del Destino Overture…and she was becoming so restricted in her shoulder that her articulation became uneven after several lines of playing, and the intricate string crossings became clumsy and eventually out of control. I noticed that her shoulder became more and more rotated internally as she pronated her forearm to try to take control. I asked her about her thumb on the bow–it was working harder and harder in opposition to the fingers.

On a whim, I suggested she try playing the bow stroke with her hand in a soft fist with her thumb on top of the bow rather than below, so it could not oppose her fingers, but had to connect to the rest of her arm, basically to completely undifferentiate at the periphery. It seems counter intuitive to string playing, to undifferentiate in the hand and fingers for a movement so fine and delicate, and the idea of a fist, albeit soft, possibly to clumsy. But that concept from ATM popped in my mind and I thought, what the heck…worth a try. So after looking at me like I was insane, she tried it (always a very good sport), and several things happened:
-Her shoulder immediately opened in front
-She began making complex and fine differentiations in and around her shoulder that connected perfectly to these small movements in the bow
-Her hand relaxed
-She was able to quickly find a better place to play in the bow where she felt more clearly how the friction and buoyancy of the bow interacted best at that speed
-It sounded super clear and clean for the first time
-She smiled!

We went back to holding the bow the normal way, and I asked her to see if she could find a way to use her thumb together with her fingers to organize similarly so that she kept the connection through her whole arm. She found it! Obviously, the differentiation at the periphery has it’s role, too, which is why we have fingers and thumbs, but this constraint opened up a whole new freedom of movement, power, and FINE CONTROL through bigger muscles.

After she played a beautifully clean and musical excerpt, she looked at me with great puzzlement…”Why does that work?”, she said. I said, “I have no idea!” So it came full circle:)

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