Do you have the dexterity needed to play the violin?

Three plastic surgeons decided to conduct a study of finger dexterity in violin and viola players versus the general population. The paper describing their findings, which was published in The Journal of Hand Surgery, has a title that tickles my funny bone:

Assessment of the presence of independent flexor digitorum superficialis function in the small fingers of professional string players: Is this an example of natural selection?
, by Godwin, Wheble, and Feig.

The paper is, lamentably, behind a paywall, and I am unconvinced by the abstract that it is worth $32.00. But never fear, The Atlantic Monthly has provided a summary and analysis of the paper in an article titled Study: Violinists’ Fates Resides in Their Left Pinky Fingers.

The gist of their argument is that you can conduct tests to determine how much independent motion a person has for their pinky and their ring finger. Go ahead, test yourself:

Hold down the index, middle, and ring fingers of your left hand, then try to bend your pinky. Now try it again, but allow your ring finger to bend as well.

About 18 percent of people can do neither, according to a study in The Journal of Hand Surgery. But in a similar group of 90 professional musicians from “three of London’s leading orchestras” (38 first violinists, 33 second violinists, 19 viola players), none lacked this ability, and all but two were able to bend just their pinky finger.
(Source: Atlantic Monthly).

I can easily bend the ring and pinky fingers together, but I have only limited curl of the pinky on its own. Does this explain why I continue to struggle to get good intonation with 4th-finger stops?

Picture from

Apparently, Godwin et al. recommend testing children for this ability prior to signing them up for violin lessons. As a filter? Really?

As a possibly-slightly-impaired player, I’m more in favor of the Atlantic’s take: “[Instead,] music teachers could use this knowledge to go easy on kids who aren’t predisposed to the violin, instead of just telling them to practice more.”

2 of 3 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Umaa said,

    February 27, 2013 at 9:31 am

    (Learned something new!)

    Very interesting. Perhaps this is why I’m not working for the London Philharmonic!

  2. Susan said,

    March 6, 2013 at 10:39 am

    (Learned something new!)

    This seems like a bizarre conclusion. I can bend my pinky in a limited fashion and both fingers without trouble. I have very good control of my pinky within the actual range of motion used on the fingerboard. Usually my problem is the STRENGTH of the pinky for holding down the string as you move up the fingerboard rather than its range of motion.

    But it seems to me that I have pretty good pinky motion BECAUSE I play the viola, not the reverse. Nobody can do the Vulcan salute the first time either; you have to train your hand to do it. Why did they conclude that the finger motion was innate rather than trained?

  3. Janel said,

    June 10, 2013 at 1:46 pm

    (Knew it already.)

    I agree with Susan… without reading the full article, this doesn’t seem to be because of genetics… it seems to be a physical change that occurs overtime with use (such as the years of practice and playing to achieve the skill required to perform in top London orchestras).

    Two examples from my own family: my spouse began playing the flute at about 12 years old. At that point, the pinky bent only with the ring finger, not independently. After about 5 or 6 years of playing/performing, the pinky now moves completely freely, able to tap the palm without moving any other fingers. In my case, our oldest child had an annoying habit as a toddler where she would grasp my right pinky and hang on it whenever I attempted to use my computer mouse–a mild form of torture I wouldn’t wish on any sleep-deprived young parent trying to check their email in the morning. BUT, over months, the habitual pulling reshaped my right pinky slightly, so if I put my palms together in a natural, relaxed way, the pinkies don’t line up… they overlap by about 1/2 of the finger pad and the right pinky is curved sideways slightly.

    Now that I have taken up the viola, I wish she had done equal damage to my left pinky so that 4th finger stretch wasn’t quite so brutal…. although I can hardly believe I just wished that on myself. C’est la vie. Back to Schermer exercises.

    But encouraging children to not play stringed instruments because of this??? Ludicrous. Who cares if they don’t end up professional… hard work is better than natural talent any day. :)

  4. Janel said,

    June 10, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    And to clarify, my spouse is not 18… the separate pinky/ring finger bending occurred by that age. Haha…

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