“How Can You Play the Violin with Only 3 Fingers?”

When people become aware that I am missing a finger, they will state, “I don’t see how you can play with only 3 fingers!” To which I will good naturedly reply, “I don’t see how you can play with 4 fingers! It looks like that extra finger would just get in the way!”

Over the years, I have learned to have fun with my handicap. I love watching the reaction of people when they become aware for the first time that I only have 3 fingers on my left hand. I take lessons at the university where I work, and as a result, it is treated like a class – complete with an exam at the end of each semester. The exam consists of playing a couple of pieces before a panel of judges who grade you based on skill level and progress. The teacher I had those first few years used to delight in finding judges that did not know me. He would not tell them about my hand and we would both watch their reaction when they saw the “strange” fingerings I was using.

That same teacher told me in the beginning that he was determined to play my pieces with my fingerings so he could relate to what I was going through. That worked fine in the beginning, but as I progressed and the pieces became more difficult, he finally gave up. Things were becoming too confusing. One day he told me that he was considering publishing my method and calling it the “Tracy Fingering.”

I greatly appreciate that first teacher. From the very beginning he treated me like any other student. He said that it didn’t matter how many fingers I had, there was no excuse for playing out of tune. He would not let me get by with what he called a “quasi-semi sharp-flat” note.

Once I joined the chamber string orchestra I play with, there was a whole new set of people who had never seen my hand. When I went in for my first seating audition, the conductor was watching me play my scale. He cocked his head to one side with a look of puzzlement. When I finished he said “I was trying to figure out what you were doing, using that strange fingering. Then it dawned on me – you are missing a finger!” He must have been satisfied with my playing since I have been with the group ever since! Later he told me “Do you realize there are people who would give their right arm to have a left pinky as strong as yours?” I told him that since I only have 3 fingers, I either had to force myself to strengthen the finger or I couldn’t play.

There was one girl that sat at a stand near me that didn’t realize I was missing a finger until I showed her my hand. Her parents later told me that she was very impressed with my playing. She said to them, “He plays the difficult passages as well as we do and he only has 3 fingers!”

So how do I play with only 3 fingers?

  • Normal Positions. If you know anything about violin playing, you know that there are different positions as you go up the fingerboard. First position is as far down as you can go on the fingerboard. It is where beginners start playing. Third position is when you move your first finger up to the position normally played by the third finger. As you move the first finger up the fingerboard, the positions get higher.
  • Positions for me. For me, I divide each position into two parts. I have a position 1a and 1b, 2a and 2b, and so on. If I am in position 1a, 2a,3a, etc. I number my fingers 1, 2, and 3. If I am in position 1b, I number my fingers 2, 3, and 4. I have had several people ask why I do that, since it seems confusing. There are two reasons for this.
    • Follow pre-printed fingerings. First of all, it helps me follow preprinted fingerings in music. It’s much easier to follow those markings when sight reading if I keep my hand as close as possible to the same position of a normal person.
    • Keep track of upper positions. Secondly, it helps me keep track of string crossings and shifts in upper positions. If I see music coming down a scale marked with a 1 and then a 4, I know that I have to shift from the lower half of the position to the upper half and at the same time cross the string.
  • It takes time to get used to it. Sound confusing? At first, it was. The longer I worked with it, the easier it became. Even teachers that, at first, didn’t know what I was doing, got used to it and were even able to give suggestions for easier fingerings, just like they would do with a normal student. My current teacher refers to this as a great adventure. She has caught on very well and has been a great help in improving my playing.
  • It takes a lot of work. There are many difficulties that I am constantly working to overcome. I don’t like playing music written in A-flat, since it requires constant shifting or stretches, and I can’t “cheat” by using open strings. Double-stops? Very difficult, especially 3rds. However, I can do it with a lot of work and practice.

As confusing as this method may seem to a person that doesn’t have to use it, it has allowed my dream of becoming a violinist to come true. Every time I listen to a recording of our string orchestra playing Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Mozart’s Divertimento in D, or excerpts from Narnia, I smile with contentment and give thanks to the Lord for allowing me to play an instrument that a few years ago seemed impossible.

I have found that, with determination, almost anyone can overcome difficulties in playing the violin. A weak pinky is only a hindrance if you let it be a hindrance. Keep on fiddling – no matter how many fingers you have!

About Richard Tracy

I have been playing the violin for about 20 years - in spite of missing the index finger of my left hand.
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6 Responses to “How Can You Play the Violin with Only 3 Fingers?”

  1. Potato says:

    I don’t have my right pinky, and I have to admit that I have trouble holding my bow steady and straight. Seeing this helped me to realize that if I want to be good at playing the violin, I’ll just need to strengthen my ring finger!

    • I’m glad to hear of your determination to play. Holding the bow without a pinky may not be easy but it can be done. Watch some YouTube videos of Leonid Kogan. He is not missing a finger, but he definitely does not always use his pinky on the bow. Keep working at it and see if you can find a teacher that is willing to help you make the most of the fingers you have. By the way, almost everyone has trouble holding the bow steady and straight in the beginning. You just need to learn the best hold that will help you overcome that.

      Keep on playing. – RJT

  2. I love it how you assumed you could learn to play violin in 4 steps. I ve been studying at a music school for 10 years now, and I still find new things all the time.

    • Thank you for your comment. I’m sorry if I misled you. I didn’t mean to imply that I learned the violin in only 4 steps, I was just trying to explain how it is possible for me to play the violin with only 3 fingers. I have actually been taking lessons for more than 20 years and have no intention of stopping. As you said, there are always new things to learn. – RJT

  3. bill says:

    Hi. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. My daughter who is 7 years old is missing her pinky finger on her left hand. She is very interested in learning to play the violin, but I was holding off because I wasn’t sure if it was possible. You have shown that it is possible. Is there any advice that you have for a beginning player who is missing a pinky finger?

    • It would probably be easier for a 7 year old to learn with 3 fingers than for an adult. She doesn’t have any habits to overcome and can learn the fingering right from the start. She needs to learn the basics of bowing and fingering in the first position, which she can do if she uses open strings instead of the fourth finger. Once she has that down, she needs to learn how to shift so she can use the third finger where she would normally use the fourth. The best thing would be to look around and see if you can find a teacher that is willing to work with a handicapped student. I feel very confident that she can learn and would probably do very well once she tackles the basics. Glad to hear that she is interested. Please let me know if you have any questions. – RJT

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