“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!

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

  1. Hello, I’m so glad to find your story. I have only been pursuing violin about a year and love it but recently had a work accident and lost about a 1/2in. off my left index finger and much of my middle finger. I was already planning to attempt a three finger method and im wondering if you would be willing to expound a little on your method that I could share with my own instructor as we venture into this new territory together. I am so grateful either way for the confidence your story gives me in my own endeavor. Thank you.

  2. A dog bit my pinky and broke the finger. Now i am unable to bend the last joint of my pinky. I can still use it some what but it is always in contact with other strings when i use it.

    I almost gave up but this is pretty inspiring.

  3. Hi, thank you for sharing this inspiring story, I my self has a tiny middle finger since I was born. I am actually dreaming of playing a violin since I was a child but had so much doubts when and how to play with only three fingers functioning, while my right hand only have two normal fingers the thumb and the pinky, the rest are little but still functioning though. I tried playing violin, but yeah so much doubts in me that leads me to stop.

  4. Hi there great to know there are other violinists out there that have problems with their hands. I have an issue where no matter how hard I try I can’t seperate certain fingers on my left hand for the strings, it hurts the bones and cartilage in my hand. Any tips greatly appreciated, I’m teaching myself just now but once this virus is over I will find a teacher that can possibly help.

    • Hi Kate. It is difficult for me to relate to the problem, since I’m not sure which fingers are giving you the problem. Also, is the difficulty when you spread the fingers or more of an up/down motion as in typing? One thing you might consider, if you haven’t already, is seeing a doctor to determine if there are any exercises that can help loosen up the joints. One thing you might try is pressing the string with two fingers instead of one. I have observed some cellists with a weak pinky finger will do that. Definitely get some advice from a teacher once the virus is over.

  5. This helps so much. I’ve been playing the violin for ten years now and recently lost a portion of my index finger in a work accident. Through the whole healing process I was terrified I would have to permanently put my violin down, but now I’m excited to try your techniques. Hopefully after a while of getting used to it I’ll be able to play normally again!

    • Lydia, I am so glad to hear that you are going to try to keep going. The hardest part is to break the old habits and work on new ones. My advice is to start slowly. Probably play in first position at first. As you get used to it, try moving up the neck of the violin. Make use of half steps for shifting. Three octave scales are a great way to figure out fingerings in higher positions. Let me know if I can help in any way.

      Thanks for commenting.


  6. Thank you for your article, I’m 56 years old and just over a week ago the beginning of November 2018 I bought my first violin and I don’t have any musical training in my background, I am determined to play the violin, if nothing more than making the neighbors dog howl. I found that I have such large hands beat up by years of construction style work, that when I place my index finger on the fingerboards followed by the middle and ring finger, for the pinky to reach the fingerboard, my hand cramps horribly, in under a minute I’m in severe pain, could be a little arthritis. If I lay my hand back so the pinky can reach comfortable then I touching several strings at the same time and I wish the geese would leave 🙂

  7. I just learned that I need to have the middle finger on my left hand amputated (still unsure how far down), and my biggest concern is that I play the violin, and have for several years. Did you play the violin prior to losing your finger? Or did you learn to play with three fingers from the get go? I haven’t taken lessons for years…I mainly play chamber music and am a ringer in some small community orchestras, but am considering starting lessons up again as I feel this is almost relearning the entire left hand of the violin. Suggestions? Where you you start in finding a teacher for this?

    • Becca – I am sorry that it took so long to respond to your question. I am very sorry to hear that you will be losing your finger. That is a difficult situation for anyone but especially for a musician. I did play a little before the accident, but it was afterward that I got serious about it. I taught myself with the use of books for the first few years. That wasn’t the best way to learn, but I was afraid no one would want to teach a handicapped violinist. About 20 years ago, I found one person willing to take up the challenge and I have been taking lessons ever since. Since that time, I have had three different teachers, all have considered it a challenge. One of them says he uses me as an illustration for students who claim the music is too difficult. “You think that is difficult? I know a guy . . . ” The key is to rethink fingerings and force yourself to follow them as strictly as you now do with regular fingerings. Remember, half-steps are your best friend. If you have a run that calls for fingers 1, 2, 3, 4 and you are missing your number two finger, you will need to shift somewhere. If the half-step is numbers 2 and 3, then number your fingering as 1, 3, 3, 4. It is easier to shift that way and will be less noticable to a listener. Start slow, set goals and work back up to your desired level.

      As far as finding a teacher, you will need to check around. Most music stores can recommend teachers, or if you are near a college/university that has a string program, you might want to contact them about a teacher. Many times orchestras will have people willing to give lessons. The hard part is finding one that is willing to take up the challenge of teaching someone that is handicapped. If you can’t find one, then teach yourself. You have been playing for many years and know all the correct techniques. You just have to adjust your fingerings in a new way.

      If I can be of any assistance with tips, fingerings, or positions, please let me know. I will do what I can to help.

      Two other articles that you might be interest in are these: How Determined ar you to play the violin? tells how I got started playing and A long journey tells of some of the experiences I have had.

    • Hi Becca ,
      Sorry to hear your story…
      Iam eniyan from india… Studying in Philippines…
      Mine is same like ur story…
      I underwent surgery on my left hand pinky fingers…
      Iam learning cello now…
      Doctors said i cant use my pinky anymore…
      I’m sad and very depressed…
      I don’t know what to do…My aim is want to be a descent cello player…
      But my dream get destroyed of this…
      Small information about me…
      I passed my 8 th grade exam in plano…And now I’m Studying MD
      In Philippines…

  8. hello sir,u are a great inspiration to me..I am from India learning cello.
    .I underwent surgery on my little finger..
    still practising..

      • Thank u for replying sir…
        Due to surgery in my pinky fingers… Doctors say i cant use my pinky fingers anymore….
        If there is any possibility of playing cello with rest of the fingers except pinky?
        I’m so depressed…
        For information i passed 8 th grade in piano…
        Eagerly waiting for ur reply sir…
        Thank u.

      • Respected sir,
        If possible..Please post anyone of your video for us
        We are eagerly waiting to see your play…
        Thank u.

  9. This gives me hope. I’m not missing a finger, but my pinky is missing a joint, naturally, they’re both the same. Try as I might I cannot get it to reach the strings. I have taken to using my other fingers in place of it, in hopes I can still play the violin, which I’ve wanted to play since I was little. I’m at the end of my first violin book and I’ve had a bit of a problem but I can do it.

    • I’m glad to hear you are working at it. I don’t know what book you are using, but use it to learn the basics. Go on to book two, but supplement it with easy music you like. Maybe get a hymn book and play some of your favorite hymns. If you like show tunes or movie themes, go to the music store and find a book of tunes from your favorite movie. There are many books for beginners that are fun to play. Some of them even have an accompaniment cd with them. Have you considered the Mark O’Connor Method? His books use American Folk and Appalachian style music. It might be worth checking out – http://www.oconnormethod.com.

      This makes me realize that I need to write an article explaining the scale fingerings for three fingers. I’ve been rather lazy with my writing lately. I’ll try to get back into it soon. Thanks for commenting.


  10. 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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