Exercises for building a strong left hand frame

My practice sessions on Pendulum by Philip Glass continue, with the performance only three short weeks. As I mentioned before, this piece is loaded with double stops, many sixths and octaves. Keeping the hand frame consistent between lower and upper positions is key to establishing good intonation.

Also throughout the week, many of my students seemed to be struggling with their hand frame and of course, subsequently, their intonation was suffering. It’s pretty much pointless to work on intonation, if your hand frame is in a state of flux.

I’m a super fan of Schradieck and generally assign exercise number one “for life.” It makes a splendid warmup and starts any practice session with a focus on setting the hand frame up for success. Even though the exercise is written for the A string, it can be transposed to any string, of course. However, it doesn’t help a student struggling with maintaining the hand frame through various passages where shifting is required.

Exercise #1: Play Schradieck No. 1 with all of the fingered notes in 4th position. Use the open string as indicated. Choose any finger pattern you want. In general, most students will have a pretty good hand frame in the upper positions because the shoulder of the violin keeps the wrist out and the hand in line with the upper arm. Next step, play in 3rd position, then 2nd, and finally 1st position. Keep the hand frame the same for each position. This exercise can be played on every string with special attention to the angle of the elbow for each string.

Exercise #2: Play any etude focusing on octaves – Kreutzer 24a or octave etudes from Developing Double Stops by Whistler. Octaves are absolutely the best for reinforcing the the shape of the hand . One additional trick I learned in a master class with Roland Vamos – place the 2nd and 3rd fingers on the upper string of the octave. With all four fingers down, you will feel the spacing for the octave solidly and strengthen the hand frame shape.

Exercise #3: Play the passage from your piece and video your left hand. Play it back slowly and watch the shape of your hand. When you are able to watch your hand objectively, you can identify exactly where you are struggling to keep the hand frame consistent.

Things to watch for:

1. Is the thumb of the left hand staying in the same relationship to the first finger when shifting?

2. Is there a straight line down the pinkie and forearm to the elbow? (No kinks in the wrist)

3. Is the wrist straight, meaning not too far out towards the scroll end of the instrument and not collapsed inward?

4. Is the hand turned so the 3rd and 4th fingers hoover over the string?

5. Is the elbow at the correct angle to keep the fingers hovering over the strings?

Happy hand frame practicing!

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