The Pinky Problem: How to Retrain a Problematic Left 4th Finger

Most string players are often confronted with what is called “the pinky problem,” a condition in which the middle joint hooks the left fourth finger when the string player presses down a string. This is one of the topmost problems complained by string players. It doesn’t matter if the hand of the suffering person is frail or muscular, small or large, applying pressure to the fourth finger causes the middle joint to collapse and become stiff, radiating pain throughout the finger. It’s not a surprise that many players have quit in despair because of this problem.

The “pinky problem” is considered as a medical issue and has often become a subject to many pedagogical discussions. The medical term is “flexor digitarum superficialis” function. According to experts, this condition occurs because of the underdevelopment of the person’s tendon or in other cases, the absence of tendon. This condition prevents the person from independently curving their fourth finger while the other fingers are restrained. Only by using the third finger to tandem with the fourth will make it work.

In “The Journal of Hand Surgery,” British scientists have concluded that there should be a screening process for the fourth-finger “flexor digitarum superficialis” function on those who wanted to become a professional string player. They said they wanted to prevent aspiring musicians from having their hope crushed if they have a missing or underdeveloped tendon.

However, this study upsets many string teachers and players especially those who have achieved success despite this condition. String teachers will have difficulty recruiting students with this kind of proclamation. More than that, it’s not true that achieving professional level proficiency can only be hindered by the inability to curve the fourth finger independently. Others who have achieved professional level proficiency can attest that by their own personal experience. In fact, even those who have certain disabilities like having one arm, missing fingers, mutations, and other unfortunate hand conditions have achieved professional proficiency and some even virtuosity. In fact, some students who have this condition did not allow this problem to stop them from achieving their goals. The truth is, when you have a collapsing finger, your good playing will typically be hindered by pain or locking. Here are some retraining techniques based on the experiences of many students who suffered the same problem. This would retrain the arm, hand, and finger to prevent collapsing the joint.

  1. The Fingertip Solution

One main factor in the condition of having a locking-collapsing fourth finger problem is the point of contact between the string and the finger located at finger pad’s fleshiest part.

Actually, flat-fingered playing is not very dangerous for most string players – it would even look and feel normal to them. However, those who have a middle joint locking problem could be in danger. To correct this, first, you need to make sure that your finger properly contacts the string. It should be on the very tip of the finger right at the closest portion to the nail. Doing this will curve the middle joint because the finger was encouraged to form a round shape as it comes down.

  1. Avoid Over-Pronation

In keeping the fourth finger curved, the hand’s angle is a very crucial factor. This means that overpronation of the position of the left hand must be avoided, especially if the player had a much shorter finger than the others. However, we do not say that pronation in itself is not good. The pronated left-hand position was used by violinists and violists commonly and naturally. For cellists, it has been the standard pedagogy for the left hand to imitate the way Pablo Cascals would slant his left side as he placed it on the neck of the instrument. It was the position carried on by cellists since then.

The hand can move from finger to finger flexibly with the normal pronation. However, if the hand position is excessively pronated, the fourth finger will be forced to overstretch as it reaches down towards the string. This position will cause the finger to touch down flat – a dangerous situation for a collapsing and locking the middle joint. Therefore, it is important to include exercises that rationally move the finger to another finger as part of your daily fundamental practice. The angle of the hand must be adjusted smoothly to allow the weight of the arm to support the finger while pressing down the string.

  1. The constant mobility of the thumb and arm

Rational hand and finger shaping can be facilitated by allowing the thumb to be in continuous motion on the instrument’s neck. It should not be anchored in one place, unmoved. Instead, it should be soft, moving freely to oppose where and what finger is pressing down. This particular technique works on all the string family members. If you imagine that it’s not the pinching of the thumb, but it’s the weight of the arm that allows the fingers to come in contact with the fingerboard, your thumb can be freed, allowing it to be in constant motion by gliding along the neck gently while the fingers relaxingly sink into the strings.

The player is carried by the left arm’s connecting motion from finger to finger. It may vary between individuals but putting in mind that you should bring your arm forward, generally will aid the fingers and hand through its weight.

The arm-connector motion is in a sense beautiful. That is because the inability of the player to curve independently the fourth finger of the other fingers will no longer be a problem due to freedom of the fingers to curve. In this way, the temptation of straightening and stretching the fourth finger to touch the string down will be prevented.

Maintaining Methods of Mindful Practice

With daily practice, a collapsing-locking fourth finger can be retrained both with and without a string instrument. A small squeaker toy like dogs, ducks, cats, birds and other animals is one fun way to do some exercise. Put the toy between your thumb and your fourth finger and start squeaking it several times. As you do this, make sure that the curve is maintained. The goal of this exercise is not to squeeze the toy as hard as you can, in that case, you’ll just find a toy that’s easier to press. Instead, the goal is to train your fingers to maintain the right kind of curve shape to prevent it from assuming a collapsed form.

When training with your instrument, études that are specifically designed for the fourth finger development are those that you should include as part of your daily practice. For cellists, trilling exercises from Louis Feuillard’s Daily Exercises and Bernhard Cossman’s Études for Developing the Agility and Strength of the Fingers and the Purity of Intonation; for violinists, No. 9 from Rodolphe Kreutzer’s 42 Études are perfect inclusions for a daily practice routine. Using the three steps, work on your practice slowly. Make sure you pay close attention to your finger always in the mirror that you don’t relapse yourself into a collapse-prone position. It is vital to do so because if these highly repetitive etudes are played with a wrong technique, it can cause injury. Every time a non-optimal placement of the fourth finger happens, you catch yourself on the act. Ask yourself as you review the three steps; what conditions needed every time in exchange for the optimal finger placement?

The fourth finger will noticeably want to curve from the hand outward, as you build your new habit. Then you will notice the formation of callus right next to your finger’s outer corner. Don’t be alarmed! It’s not bad for you. It only shows that you are placing your finger in a more natural position on the string.

Just like the changes in any technique, changing of the hand position is not the only thing you do, you are also removing the habit that had already developed in your brain. However, the process of eliminating the bad habit and replace it with a new one is quite frustrating. But for a frustrated and discouraged player, the result is advantageous. This will also prove that anyone who suffers such peculiar condition on fingers can learn to play under the right condition at an advanced standard.

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