The Sluggish Left Hand

The Sluggish Left Hand

Hi everyone,

I am relatively new to whistle playing - although I have played wind instruments for years. Can anyone suggest ways to improve the absolutely abysmal sluggishness of my left hand?

I can manage half decent (in my mind - pretty awesome) rolls, cuts and taps with my right hand (and the ring finger of my left hand), but man, rolls and cuts on either A or B (on a D whistle) are a nightmare.

I’d love to hear from veterans what the solution might be. Are there exercises? How can I improve?

Of course, quickly would be best!


Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

Yeah. Forget the rolls for a bit. Do individual cuts and taps. Over and over. Then, after a bit, play an A, followed by a cut and then a tap. Do this for quite some while - a month maybe? - and do it for the B also, and only then try and put the cut and the tap together. Keep the rhythm and, very gradually, play it a little faster. But don’t hurry this stuff.

BTW, your left hand is unlikely to be sluggish. A pal of mine, some years ago (10 years maybe), when I was complaining of ‘lack of dexterity’, got me to hold the whistle and then said "Right. Now waggle your fingers as fast as you can. See? No lack of dexterity there!" He was right. Your hand probably isn’t sluggish - it’s just a question of control.

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Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

Hold your hand over a flat surface as if your were about to play a piano, and tap each finger sharply and lightly in whatever order or rhythm you decide, especially if you find a difficult combination.. The idea is to build up the muscles needed for speed, not strength. Every few seconds, turn your hand over, and do exactly the same but this time using your finger nails to tap with. You will find this much more difficult, but the speed if the fingers coming OFF the whistle is what gives that crisp, clean sound just as much as the fast tapping. If you imagine there is something on your finger nail that you are trying to flick off as far as possible while holding your other fingers over your forearm, you should feel the desired muscle in your forearm work.

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Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

Ooh! I don’t like that gam - it’s uncomfortable. Which might mean that it’s exactly the sort of thing I should be doing myself! πŸ™‚

You’ve made me stop and think about this now … which is always a good thing … hmmm …

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Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

I remember having the same trouble with the left hand when I learned to play pipes and whistle. I used to practice the roll — tap and cut — movement on random objects when I was sitting in class, say… pens, water bottles, etc. It is, as gam and ethical have said, a matter of muscle strength in your fingers.

Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

Not sure; I’m left-handed, so my right hand was always the sluggish one. Then, of course, I always whistled right-handed….

Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

Thanks, gam, for some excellently useful exercises.

Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

this is excellent and timely for me…thanks!

i have read that anything the sub-dominant hand (i.e. my left) can do, the dominant hand can do, but the sub-dominant can’t learn so quick from the dominant. that is, if i learn some skill with my left hand, my right can do it; but not so, a skill learned on the right hand. it doesn’t transfer as easily.

but you reminded me what i forgot: it’s not just finger control, it’s the strength and reaction of those little muscles.

i feel hopeful.

Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

gam, terrific simple little exercise there that a person can do anywhere—deskbound at work, stuck in traffic. Good use of down time.

Of course, just playing whistle a lot, paying attention, and playing relaxed also helps.

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Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

Keep your fingers close to the holes for the time being. You’ll
find you get quicker instantly. This is what classical woodwind
players are taught. Down the track you’ll want to vary
that sometimes, raising a finger higher to give a harder ‘thwack’
on your twiddles. There’s no point in keeping your fingers high
all the time though. You only have to raise your finger a millimeter
or so for the next note to sound.

Teaching your fingers to relax and not take it too seriously - don’t be in a hurry! 😎

What gam & Silver have already said, and others. Much of the problems with ‘sluggishness’ are rooted in tension. And that is not something you can "quickly remedy". Quick solutions tend to just add to the problem. Also, using gams’s suggestion you’ll find that one finger, which has a shorter tendon than the others, is harder to control, the one between the little finger and the middle finger, the ring finger.

Using gam’s example there are other little exercises you can add which are useful where there’s not a whistle on hand, one finger at a time. The ‘tap’, raising a finger and tapping, which you want to treat as if it were hitting something hot, quick, but not hard, just a quick tap. The other single finger one is to pop them up and down, as if there were a rubber band holding the finger and forcing it immediately down after a lift.

Important point, hand position ~ NOT A CLAW! Shake your hands out to relax everything, then just let them drop from the wrists. Note what should be no more than a gentle curve. Then, for the table or thigh exercise, just drop them down onto a surface and then practice your moves, without tension. However, the same can be practiced on a whistle without blowing. The tap/slap of the bad of the finger on the hole should sound a gentle pop, the goal is to make that crisp, but there are players where it isn’t so crisp, so we’re just talking one person’s ideal. Thats the ‘tip’.

Now for the ‘cut’. Fingers down, and situated properly and without tension on the woodwind. You can do that shake out again, then bring the whistle up to that gentle arch and softly find the best position of the pad over the holes to make a decent seal. This may, if you’ve been doing it wrong, take some real time and effort, to undo bad habits. Now once you’ve a seal, ‘pop’ one finger at a time. Again you should get a quick ‘pop!’ sound doing it. BUT ~ it doesn’t require tension.

A beautiful player to see and to hear, and there are recordings out there, is Donncha Γ“ Briain:
His whistle would be propped up on the desk of his wheelchair, his fingers barely lifted from the whistle, and it was a light hold, not a grasp.

One way to know if you are grasping at an instrument, gripping excessively, is an easy test, requiring a friend. While you’re playing ask them to pull the whistle down and out of your hands. It should just slip through. Honestly, there should be little effort required. If there is tension, it can lead to growing problems, including RSI, and a few well known pipers and wind players have brought it on themselves by pushing things too quickly and forgetting to relax and deal with removing tensions. And, those in the know are usually quick to warn those that learn from them. Mind you, other things can contribute to RSI, including keyboard work and other bad hand postures.

Start slow, work things into long slow tunes that allow you to hear your cuts and tips, and eventually it will become second nature - and hopefully relaxed.

Best of luck…

Learning to use the fingers, each, independently, without tension or movement in the others… You can also experience that ring finger phenomenon with your hand held up in front and trying to wiggle one at a time forward and back, without moving the others.

There’s also a little test you can do, but we can’t seem to remember it right now. Maybe someone else will remember it. It’s a quite obvious further proof of that difference in the ring finger… I think Will knows it?

Ring finger limitations

I remembered ~

Make a tight fist, fingers curled in ~

Now, pint the index, curl it in again, and repeat ~ easy peasy in most cases…

Now do the with the little finger ~ point, curl, point, curl, etc…

Now the middle finger ~ which won’t quite go exactly straight, so you experience your first limitation, but a mild one.

Now try the ring finger, but remember that all other fingers remain in the fist ~ DAMN!!!

That’s your shorter tendon…

‘pomt’, not ‘pint’… 😏

AAA! ‘point’ not ‘pomt’ or ‘pint’…

Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

Thanks for the exercise, Gam, I have found concentrating in finger speed exercises for 10 mins a day has made an enormous difference to my playing so I’m delighted to find one I don’t need a whistle for.

Now all I need to do is learn to play in steady time better. Got an exercise for that?

Re: The Sluggish Left Hand

Do your finger exercises to either your own heartbeat or a metronome, just to make things steadily repetitive… πŸ˜€

Or, much better and preferable, while listening to some favourite music…