Play on the pads or tips of the fingers in the left hand?
Should string players – or any instrumentalist, for that matter – play on the pads or the tips of the fingers in the left hand? Should trumpeters use the tips on the valves, and reed players use tips on the keys?
Teachers teach all kinds of ways. Good piano teachers make kids play on the tips. Typing teachers suggest tips as well… and while confronted with a lot of typing to do, awhile back, I made the discovery that I was faster and more fluent when I did as I was taught in high school typing class, many years ago.
Speaking as a bass player, I was taught to get on the pads of the fingers in the left hand. There’s a lot of pressure involved, and especially for someone new to the instrument, early contact can be quite painful. Staying on the fleshy pads eases the discomfort somewhat. Getting on the tips isn’t even suggested to beginning bassists. You don’t see it in the pictures in the method books, either.
It’s a detail that’s easy to miss in the observation of another player’s technique. They might seem to have unusual ease, or the ability to do glisses and portamentos with exceptional smoothness, or maybe an exceptionally expressive command of vibrato – but, a close observation of players with any of these characteristics will reveal that they are indeed all the way on the tips of all fingers in the left hand.
Fluent guitarists will exhibit this in single-line work, and electric bassists too. The really great ones are all on the tips.
By this point my conclusion about this might be obvious. After that boatload of typing I had to do, and the observations I made regarding the touch, agility and feel improvements that were obvious to me, I started trying to get on “radical” tips in the left hand. It’s taken my technique to a level I had never thought possible. I find myself able to do things I used to envy in the work of others, comfortably.
It takes about a week to make the transition, with recurrent resolutions to keep on the path. The initial soreness improves after a day, and practice time should double each session until it’s comfortable. The change in the feeling of the instrument under the hands is phenomenal, with a level of security that I had never previously imagined. The fingers toughen up. Pitch gets more secure, and the feeling of ease and fluency have convinced me that this is correct technique, and I feel obligated to share my insights about it now.
A further observation for bassists – and possibly cellists… as you’ll see from the pictures, while trying to get some security shifting over the shoulder into thumb position, I discovered that the most secure, repeatable part of the third finger contacting the string in thumb position was the far side of the tip. You can see the fingers curled under, and the hand position looks quite natural, although unusual. I find this to be extremely comfortable after the pad develops on the second and third finger. The index finger feels like a tracking hook, and the other fingers just flop down. It’s easiest to gliss while changing fingers when the far side of the tip of the third finger is the target in the thumb position.
I welcome your comments!