Left Thumb Pain

January 15, 2010

My cello practice regimen typically sees me playing for an hour or so every day. I don't set a timer or try to track the time, rather I play through several of the pieces I know two or three times each to warm up and then work on the newer pieces I am still learning. I try to end each practice by playing something I like and can play well so that things end on an up note.

In Injury Free I talked about pain in my left thumb. This pain has continued and at times is quite severe. It rarely hurts when I am playing, however my thumb is quite lame and sore in the mornings when I get up. So painful in fact that I can't pinch or grip with my thumb. It has all the earmarks of a classic repetition stress injury.

The pain first became noticeable during the three-week holiday break. At my lessons this week I asked about potential causes and learned that I have been using my thumb improperly. In order to firmly stop the strings I have been using my left hand to grip or pinch, stopping the strings solely with the strength of my hand. I should be using my arm and back to pull my fingers into the fingerboard. The thumb rests on the neck but isn't used to provide gripping power.

Poking around the Cello Heaven forum I found a thread about left thumb pain that also said proper technique is less gripping or pinching and more pulling the left hand back against the fingerboard. Here are some quotes from the thread:

This is actually quite a common problem. The main thing to remember is that a cello is your friend, so don't squeeze the neck trying to choke it to death. It just does not work.
Instead of squeezing to play the strings, think pulling. Imagine you are dangling off a cliff and your are holding on for dear life using your fingers. This is what you should feel. You should be pulling the instrument towards you. Actually, pressing the instrument is a better choice of words.
The thumb should not be pressing or anything. Some will say that the thumb should stay curved, but I disagree. The thumb should be doing whatever is natural for the person. Shake your hand out and take a look at the thumb. Is is curved or straight? Remember how it feels when thumb is relaxed and keep that feeling in your playing and you should be fine. Another trick I use involve marshmallows. Place a marshmallow between the thumb and the neck of the cello. Play for a bit (without shifting, for obvious reasons), and then look at the marshmallow. Is it still puffy and round, or it is flat as a pancake? This is some indication of whether or not you have tension, as well as a means to remind yourself to keep the thumb loose. Word of caution: do not try this in humid or hot weather, as it could make your instrument very sticky. Cotton balls could work, but I find them too lacking in mass to keep them present in your mind.
This week I have been very conscious of my left thumb and whether or not I am gripping the neck and fingerboard or pulling against it. Having practiced with a grip it is surprisingly hard to play without gripping tightly. I haven't tried the marshmallow trick (don't have any at home) but I have played without using my thumb at all.

Also, it seems to me that playing further down on the fingerboard, beyond where the thumb can be behind the neck of the cello means the stopping force will come entirely from pulling against the cello rather than gripping or pinch with the fingers.

The amount of energy required to pinch the stings sufficiently to get good tone is far less than the amount of energy required to pull the hand back against the finger board sufficiently to get good tone. In other words, it takes a lot of strength to grip the strings with just fingers, but pulling with the large muscles in the back and shoulder requires less energy. What is difficult is trying to pull with just enough force to get good tone and not trying to pull with the same apparent force as was needed with fingers alone.

In the martial arts we broke even the simplest physical moves into smaller parts and practiced them slowly and repeatedly to teach the proper, injury free technique. Most, if not all, of the early practices performed by new students in a dojo is done under the watchful eye of a more experienced practitioner. Music lessons and practice are different. The student has the teachers eyes for 30 or 45 minutes a week, and practices multiple times each week on their own. The ratio of guided practice to unguided practice is far lower; which creates more opportunity for the student to incorporate bad habits.

My diligence in practicing daily is good and has resulting is rapid progress in my playing. However, three weeks of unsupervised practicing allowed me to develop an incorrect technique for stopping the strings. Hopefully it won't take another three weeks to unlearn gripping the strings and learn pulling against the fingerboard.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.