Training the large thumb joint

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    After a teaching hiatus of many years, I found myself suddenly thrust

    back into it several years ago. Most of it came back pretty quickly,

    but one thing has me stumped. How does one help a student strengthen

    and train the large thumb joint to stay out where it belongs, instead

    of constantly collapsing and ruining the hand position? I’ve tried

    everything I can think of with one particular college student, who

    has been studying for a year. She works very hard at correcting the

    problem, but to no avail. Any and all suggestions would be most

    welcome! Thanks.

    Kathie Bracy


    Hi Kathie! Your post really interested me, as I am working right now with a hand therapist on an article for Harp Column magazine. I have one of those thumb joints that constantly collapses… has been that way for the 20 years I’ve played the harp and it is probably worse now than it was when I started due to overuse in playing. I met the author of our article (Carol Duffy) at the American Harp Society Conference last summer, where she confirmed what I had suspected all along: I am missing a tendon in my thumb, and it will NEVER be strait.

    College was a real trial for me. I studied with the wonderful Alice Chalifoux, who is a very strict technician and very big on hand position. Every lesson was the same: Ms. Chalifoux would distress over my thumbs and give me all sorts of exercises to strenthen them. But neither of us realized the real problem, that my thumb was physically unable to straiten.

    If this sounds depressing, I’ll tell you the good news, which is that my hand position is better than ever now, despite my collapsing thumb.


    Katherine and Kim…You just can’t imagine how happy I am to see someone write in about this.



    For goodness sakes, don’t quit!!!!! It’s hard to know what advice to give you without actually seeing your hands, but I would say that IF your teachers say you have good position despite your thumb, and IF you have made a diligent effort to straiten it with strengthening exercises and they haven’t worked, and IF you’ve been playing at least a few years and feel like your other fingers have developed strength and good position, then it’s time to stop worrying about your thumb and develop a strategy that works for you. For me, the number one thing is to listen to my sound. If I’m getting a strong and even tone over all fingers including my thumb, then I don’t care whether it’s caving in! (Practice scales and cross unders and overs a lot, because that is the place your thumb is going to hang you up.) If not, then whatever I’m doing is not working. Start listening and stop worrying!

    By the way, I feel like I have to put in one big caveat here for others who may be reading this post…..I put the word IF in caps above to emphasize that my advice about ignoring your thumb is not meant to be a substitute for bad (or lack of) technique. As a teacher and performer I can tell you that developing a good technique is critical to your success as a harpist. Because my thumb doesn’t work properly is all the more reason I have to be extra careful about all the other elements of hand position my teacher drilled into me. If I didn’t have that foundation and support, nothing would work.

    Keep us posted! I love hearing thumb stories.

    Kim at Harp Column


    Thanks Kim…This is one of those times when it is so nice to get support from this forum!


    When I began study with Miss Lawrence, I remember her holding a pencil under the thumb joint while I was playing, or even better, holding my hand with hers, until I got the sensation memorized. The first exercise in Salzedo’s Daily Dozen is great for working on this.

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