Four Tips for Improving Fourth Finger Strength

When you’re first learning to play the violin, mastering finger coordination can prove to be difficult, but not impossible. However, for many violinists, it’s a challenge to increase the strength as well as the agility of the pinky or fourth finger of the left hand. This is especially true for violinists with small hands.

Your pinky is not only the shortest finger on your left hand, but it’s also relatively weak in comparison to the other digits. The goal is to strengthen it and increase its flexibility, which will contribute to producing a better sound. 

There are a number of exercises that you can do to develop strength and dexterity in your fourth finger. And, while the goal for most violinists is to develop a curved pinky, the priority should be to develop a pinky that is both strong and flexible. 

What are some valuable tips to help you improve the strength and dexterity of your pinky?

Our Tips

Four basic tips that our staff at Johnson String Instrument offer to help you to improve your fourth finger include:

1. Give it time

2. Exercise with and without your violin

3. Try different positions

4. Don’t just strengthen, stretch!

Remember that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Be patient! Learning new techniques is challenging. It takes time to build muscle memory in your pinky. Overdoing exercises for your fourth finger can result in injury rather than improvement. Practice for a moderate amount of time each to prevent overuse injuries.

Practicing your chromatic scales and arpeggios over and over at a very slow tempo is one the best ways to strengthen your fourth finger and improve your dexterity. In addition, try left-handed pizzicato exercises and independent finger raises on your violin.  

And remember you do not need your violin to exercise. An example is the “pencil reach.” Grip a pencil or regular pen in your left hand, using only your fingertips. Slowly, “walk” your pinky finger away from the other fingers as far as you can and then slowly walk it back. Use a portable fingerboard or print one for free so you can practice scales and arpeggios when your violin isn’t readily available. 

Make time for stretching exercises before you practice. Stretching the muscles of your fingers as well as flexing your joints has a big impact on your range of motion and the dexterity of your fingers. Take breaks when playing, to perform some stretching exercises, as this can help prevent cramping and/or sprains.

Your Hands Can Handle It

If you have small hands, a short pinky finger, or if your hands are still growing, it may be challenging to develop your pinky finger strength for playing the violin. You may find that some of the fourth finger exercises are difficult at first. 

But don’t let small hands or short fingers stop you from playing the violin. Check out our website for tips on playing a violin with small hands.


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The Most Common Violin Scales and How to Play Them

When you are learning how to play the violin, it’s important to understand scales. Learning scales will give you a solid foundation as you start to explore new and more challenging pieces of music.

What is a scale? A violin scale is a series of notes, ordered by their frequency or pitch, which span eight notes or an octave. Each scale on the violin is accompanied by a set of naturals, sharps, and flats which determine the type of scale. While there are many different types of scales, including major, natural minor, harmonic minor and more, as a beginner playing violin, you have to first focus on and master the major scales. 

Whether you are a beginning or advanced violinist, practicing scales helps to develop the correct finger and arm muscle memory which are essential factors to making progress in your playing. Set aside a specific amount of time during each of your practice sessions to focus on playing different scales on your violin. 

Don’t just mindlessly speed through your scales. Be deliberate in your practicing of scales; play them with an exaggerated slow tempo to work on improving the accuracy of your playing as well as improving your timing and rhythm. Repeated practice of your violin scales also helps to improve your ability to detect and then correct problems with your tone, articulation, and consistency.

And don’t forget about using your sheet music because focusing on each note that you play is critical to helping build your ability to read music. “Saying” the notes to yourself as you play them helps to improve intonation as well as sight reading skills.

Starting With a Major Scale

The five most common violin scales that are useful for any violinist to master are:

1. A Major

2. G Major

3. D Major

4. C Major

5. B-Flat Major

When you have mastered these five scales, you’ll be prepared for almost any piece of music that you would like to play.

Practice in Style

Practicing violin scales as part of a consistent routine is invaluable in developing and maintaining every facet of your playing technique. By mastering scales, your fingers will have the opportunity to “learn” the correct spacing in every position on the violin. 

Start at a very slow tempo, using a metronome, and focus on your sound, pitch, and tone. 

The Boss DB-90 Metronome, the flagship of the Dr. Beat Metronome line, lets you practice in style. The most advanced metronome available, the Boss DB-90 has an astounding number of functions and features packed into its compact, lightweight chassis. With a tempo range from 30-250 beats per minute, the Boss DB-90 Metronome will help you improve your timing and rhythm as you work on developing your own playing style.


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Flying With Your Cello

Flying with string instruments can be a stressful experience. With the number of horror stories clogging our news feeds in recent years detailing airline mishaps, it’s no wonder we get nervous taking our instruments with us when we fly.

However, things are beginning to look up; under the new Department of Transportation (DOT) ruling that went into effect March 6, 2015, airlines are now required to allow small instruments in the cabin as part of a passenger’s carry-on allowance. Just like any other luggage, as long as it can fit in the overhead compartment or under the seat the airline cannot refuse to carry the instrument. This ruling is a huge victory for musicians, in particular string players, everywhere.

But what about cellos?

While the DOT ruling is very clear in regard to smaller instruments, it is not as definitive when it comes to larger ones. With cellos, standard practice is one of two things: use a flight case and gate check the instrument or purchase another seat in the cabin. Both options have their benefits and disadvantages, so it is up to you to decide what you are most comfortable with.


Putting Your Cello in Checked Baggage

Airport

  1. Make sure you have a sturdy flight case or cover you can use. Covers normally go around a hard case, while dedicated flight cases are heavy-duty and designed to protect the instrument without additional parts. They can be purchased or rented depending on the type you are looking for. Just as you would a package, mark it clearly as FRAGILE, MUSICAL INSTRUMENT, or any other polite message that states it needs to be treated with care.
  2. Make sure your instrument is padded within the case. Use wadded tissue paper, cloth, or old clothes to support the bridge, fingerboard, and tailpiece as well as around the sides of the instrument to prevent any jostling around inside the case. If you are concerned about the tension, tune your strings down by a half step to a third. The safest option, if possible, is to have a luthier take down the entire setup and have another set it back up when you arrive at your destination.
  3. Understand that others will be handling your instrument and plan accordingly. There is a lot of baggage to handle and things are not always treated as delicately as they should be–we’ve all watched luggage being loaded onto a plane. It is also possible that the case may be opened, and non-players do not always know how to safely put everything back. Emphasize nicely that it is a delicate musical instrument, but make sure steps 1 and 2 are in place as well.

Bringing Your Cello Into the Cabin

Plane Interior

  1. When buying your extra ticket (which should always be done), make sure you are not buying a seat where the cello will block any emergency exits or signs. Airlines can make a case to have the instrument checked if it threatens passenger safety, so check sites like Seat Guru to maximize both your comfort and the safety of your cello.
  2. Contact the airline when you buy the ticket to make sure everything follows their safety policies. This will ensure you are in compliance and allow you to confirm you provided advance notice about the cello.
  3. Some cellists have been able to fit their instruments in the overhead compartments of larger planes. This is something that cannot be guaranteed, but if you are thinking of trying it there are a few things to keep in mind:
    • Board early. If you need to pay extra to do so, it may be worth it to ensure that you have enough space to get your instrument in the overhead first. Like the DOT ruling says, if it fits in the overhead compartment and you put it there first, your instrument is entitled to stay there.
    • Some cases work better than others. Most anecdotal evidence of cello cases fitting in these compartments happened with the Accord cases, specifically the Hybrid and the UltraLight.
  4. THE AIRLINE MAY NOT CHARGE YOU MORE THAN THE COST OF THE SEAT FOR THE INSTRUMENT. To quote directly from the final ruling: “…assuming all of the safety requirements are met, carriers cannot charge the passenger more than the price of a ticket for the additional seat….” This doesn’t mean that if you decide to upgrade your seat your cello gets a free bump. It also doesn’t mean that you are exempt from fees that are normally posed on carry-on items or cargo. What it does mean is that they cannot charge you extra just because a cello is occupying the seat instead of a human being.

General Advice for Flying With a Cello

  1. Check your instrument insurance. There is a limit to an airline’s liability if your cello is lost, damaged, or delayed. In many cases this only covers a fraction of the instrument’s value. Make sure you are covered for air travel by your insurance provider.
  2. Arm yourself with information: bring a copy of the DOT ruling and your airline’s instrument policy with you. Be firm but polite if an issue arises.
  3. Make sure you have a high-quality hard case, such as the ones found in our store or on our website. If you are purchasing a seat for your instrument, make sure it’s a lighter and less bulky case such as Bam, Accord, or Galaxy. If you have a flight cover for checking your cello, make sure the case will fit inside the cover.
  4. Check in as early as possible. It may take longer to do so and get through security because of the instrument. Make sure to leave yourself enough time so that you are not running for the gate. If you comfortable doing so, paying for early boarding will also give you a space advantage when getting your instrument situated in the cabin.

Hopefully with these tips in mind, both you and your cello will have a safe flight. Be sure to visit the DOT webpage for more information about traveling with instruments.


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How to choose the right violin bow for you

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Congratulations, you found your violin! Now for the hard part: finding the right bow. This task can be an even more daunting than finding the instrument itself. With so many options and factors to consider, it can feel overwhelming. Luckily, we are here to help! The best thing you can do is to connect with a knowledgeable salesperson who can guide you through the process, but here are some things to keep in mind before you begin:

The first step is to know your budget. If financially possible, a good rule of thumb is to narrow your search to within a 1/4-1/3 of the value of your violin. You want the bow to compliment the instrument, so compromising  on the bow will not help your violin sound its best. Customers often ask us what they can expect to find within their price range. The chart below will give you an idea:

 

Price Range Types of Bows
Under $300 These are mostly composite bows or other materials such as fiberglass. This is a good range for students and beginning players.
$300-500 These are workshop-made bows with some wooden options available but mostly carbon fiber. Serious beginners and some intermediate players will do well in this range.
$500-1,000 These are both wood and carbon fiber workshop-made bows. These are ideal for intermediate players, as they allow for extended technique.
$1,000-3,000 These are mostly top-level contemporary workshop bows with some antique workshop and personal work included as well as top-tier carbon fiber. Advanced and professional players will benefit from looking in this range.
$3,000-6,000 This range consists mostly of professional level contemporary bows and some high quality antique German and English bows.
$6000-10,000 Here you will find top-level living makers and exceptional antique French and English bows.
$10,000 and above These bows are sought after by collectors and professional players.

 

The next step is to consider what type of playing you do. Are you a student, professional, or somewhere in between? Do you mostly play in one genre or in many? A player who tours with pop musicians will be looking for something different than an orchestral player or an amateur fiddler. Know what your priorities are for the type of playing that you do.

Choose the violin first. Have you not found the right instrument yet? Then that should be your first priority. The bow needs to match and enhance the violin, not the other way around. If you do have the instrument, make sure you bring it with you when trying out bows. You’re looking for a match for your violin, not one the shop has provided for you.

Finally, use your time wisely and trust your instincts. Be sure to try a large variety of bows with different characteristics to help narrow down your choices. While going through this process, test bows with a wide range of articulations you use in your playing. Include long, legato strokes as well as short, quick ones. Remember: if something feels wrong, the bow may not be a good fit for you. Be patient and go with your gut. You will know when it feels right.

Some final things to be aware of:

eBay: These bows are not always vetted by a professional shop, and you have no way of verifying authenticity or trying the bow out before purchasing. Proceed with caution if you are thinking of going this route.

Old vs. New: An older bow is not necessarily better than a newer bow. Neither is 100% perfect, but don’t pick something simply because it’s older. Newer makers can often rival or outperform older ones and be more affordable (see “Types of Bows,” above).

Fancy Fittings: These are mainly ornamental and include things like tortoiseshell frogs, gold fittings, and inlays. Their primary purpose is to add both aesthetic and monetary value, so you should focus on how the bow plays rather than how it looks. If it contains materials like tortoiseshell, make sure to verify that it is legal. Any reputable shop will only carry legal materials.

Ivory: This is currently a contentious issue in the US. The current laws in place ban the sale and use of elephant ivory, with some exceptions for antiques. Any modern bows sold by a reputable dealer will use either imitation or mammoth ivory, which is completely legal. To learn about current laws, click here.

When you are ready to begin your search, we are here for you! Our salespeople have an in-depth knowledge of our violin bow inventory and will work to help you find the right bow for your instrument. Call 617-262-0051 to schedule an appointment and visit us online to check out our inventory. We hope to see you soon!


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