If anyone ever says to you, “It sounds like you’re playing the violin with gloves on!” then you can take it they aren’t complimenting you on your performance. But sometimes, especially as winter approaches, we have to practice and perform in cold conditions. Is there a solution for violinists? Something which doesn’t interfere with the sound or ease of movement, and which is smart enough to wear on stage, or are there better ways to keep the hands warm? You can’t, after all, just put your gloves on.
Keeping the hands warm and flexible is important for every violinist. Increasingly, professional musicians are being alerted to the importance of a physical warm up. Many muscle and tendon strains can be attributed to overstretching when the body is cold. It’s for this very reason that ballet dancers wear leg warmers to stop their calf muscles from getting cold and stiff. For violinists rehearsing in cold churches, practising at home as it gets colder, travelling to and from work in the winter, and even playing outdoor concerts in the summer when it can become very cold as night falls, cold hands mean loss of dexterity, painful joints, poor vibrato, and compromised left hand agility, bow control and facility of shifts. If your hands get really cold, you’ll find you can’t even feel the string.
The first thing to do if you’re somewhere you can do so, is to put the heating on. Practising in a warm room is much less tiring. If you’ve been sitting at your computer or watching TV, or something else sedentary before you decide to practice, counteract the cold by doing something physical. Exercise in general improves the circulation. Do the washing up in a nice bowl of warm water, using rubber gloves to keep your hands dry. The combination of heat from the water and physical movement will get your hands warm in no time.
It is also important to realise that cold hands can be a result of an overall cold body temperature. If your core, or torso, is warm, blood is readily released to the extremities. When you get cold, blood is kept back for the vital organs and the brain. It’s no good sourcing the perfect gloves for your outdoor gig if you don’t dress appropriately to keep warm, especially when for most concerts you will be sitting fairly still. Layers of clothes trap in body heat and full-length sleeves make a huge difference to the warmth retained in your hands. Try wearing a HeatTech™ vest (available from Uniqlo for both men and women) under your concert outfit for incredible warmth.
The next stage is to find a glove (or ideally a pair of gloves) which allows for the dexterity needed and doesn’t get in the way. Here, Maxim Vengerov gives a moving performance of the Bach Chaconne from the D Minor Partita, at Auschwitz as part of a Holocaust Memorial.
There is snow on the ground, and from about five minutes into the piece, as he moves outside, Vengerov is wearing fingerless gloves to play.
Fingerless gloves or wrist warmers, or in extreme circumstances a combination of the two, are the ultimate solution. Chose a warm material such as wool or cashmere, but make sure the fabric is not too thick. These violin gloves from Etsy are fun, and they’re made of merino wool so they’re probably quite warm, but they’re no good for the platform. Something like these unisex thermal gloves from Sealskinz, which are specifically designed to keep the hands warm whilst allowing for high levels of dexterity would be more suitable. And they’re black.
A simple wrist warmer may be less obtrusive. Orkney Angora do some good ones, but they don’t help much when it’s really cold, whereas these heated “Wristies” look great. These customer reviews on Amazon US are helpful in recommending “Wristies” for violin practice, and the product comes in different sizes with several arm lengths. The longer sleeve will give more warmth, the shorter may be less restrictive.
There is also a wide range of hand warmers on the market, whether reusable, portable gel packs, or microwaveable pads to use at home. These can be a comforting alternative on a cold day.
Avoid anything like these support gloves. These gloves are designed for knitting, and while the idea of a supportive fabric seems appealing, they compress the muscles, hampering freedom in the tendons and ligaments, in the same way that playing in a support bandage does.
If you can’t find any fingerless gloves or mittens that take your fancy, or you feel like exercising your creativity, try knitting your own from one of these free patterns. Not wishing to succumb to stereotypes, these Man Paw gloves are perfect for the violin playing man-who-knits. Or he could get someone to knit them for him for Christmas. These cable knit gloves are warm without being too chunky to play in, and would be smart enough in black for a performance. Some people even find shifting is easier with these sorts of mittens on. These smaller gloves, which have individual fingers, rather than an open mitten-style top, and therefore keep more warmth in round the fingers, are also great for busking and for concerts outdoors or in cold churches. Choose a warm wool or wool blend, something fine enough to make fairly thin gloves, or treat yourself with cashmere.
And if none of those solutions seem creative enough for you, there’s always this violin playing glove puppet.
It’s no good at all for helping your violin practice or performance, but at least it will get a laugh.
Finally, remember that when you perform, your hands will often feel very cold. Circulation in the hands can decrease when we feel nervous. Sometimes it is good to practice with cold hands, just to get used to this feeling; otherwise it’s easy to get obsessed with everything being “just so” for a performance and panicking when it’s not.