Developing a Healthy Physical Relationship with the Violin.
In my first few weeks of playing, I distinctly remember feeling dizzy and sometimes even a bit nauseous from the strain of standing for long periods of time with my arms held aloft (25 whole minutes), struggling to concentrate on a thousand different things that all felt like patting my head and rubbing my stomach. It felt impossible to focus on any one aspect of the physical or mental experience for long. When I did manage to focus on something, I completely lost the ability to maintain awareness of anything else.
With so many insanely uncomfortable things going on there was no reference point for me to understand when something crossed the line between normal and abnormal discomfort. I knew that “pain was bad,” and that “tension was bad.” But, using those ideas to guide myself was far easier said than done. Everything was tense (and still is sometimes). It might hurt somewhere because I just wasn’t used to holding my body a certain way (screaming trapezius muscles, anyone?). It might hurt because something was wrong with my approach. Plus, old ailments like to reassert themselves when you try new things. Every time something would come up, the worry that “I just wasn’t cut out for this” would bust in like the Koolaid man. I remember having the fear that I’d end up with an injury that would force me to stop playing before I had really even begun.
Violinists have one of the highest rates of injury and pain among musicians. Something like 65% of professional violinists play with chronic pain, and most have had injuries at one point in the past. The majority of the injuries are due to overuse or some form of nerve compression. It’s easy to learn this and just think that playing with pain is a given if you are going to be a violinist. To think that you could start this as an adult and not get a double dose of pain due to age felt like an impossibility. If all of these professionals couldn’t escape pain and injury, who am I to begin this 30 years later than most? (Professionals are insane though, I realize there is a big difference in how much they play compared to me. But still, tell that to my anxious mind!)
I quickly became obsessed with violin physiology and my own setup. I wanted to learn everything I could about proper balance and ergonomics so that I could somehow avoid all of that injury nonsense. I also knew that your ability to play well depends on your setup. Injury aside, if you are tense and poorly positioned, you won’t be able to build a solid technique on top of a poor foundation. And, the best way to get injured is to have a poor setup that creates tension and compression. I’m also a nerd… fascinated by everything about the violin, including the physiology behind it all. Adults are often this way – we want to know the why, the how, and best practices. Some of us want to be that Superstudent that bypasses obstacles, including injury. That’s me, I want to be the Superstudent.
I do rely heavily on my teacher’s keen eye to diagnose issues with my posture or tension. His evaluation and feedback are what keeps my bad habits in check. He sees what I cannot feel, and by now he knows my tendencies well. Sometimes I feel like my arms belong to a misbehaving marionette that won’t cooperate with the puppet master. Pull one string to correct a bad angle, and moments later, the problem is back. The arm is locked again, the wrist is tense. Anton zeros in precisely and corrects with patience, no matter how many times he has to push a wayward wrist down. Without him I’d be doomed to plateau at the highest skill level that my tension or posture would allow.
My first real, self-induced violin injury came from a combination of my shoulder rest being slightly too high, pointing my violin too high, and my violin being too far toward the middle of my body. It resulted in bicep tendonitis in my left shoulder. At first, I thought it was Carpal Tunnel, or an elbow issue. I was able to self-diagnose thanks to the cheesiest guys on YouTube: Bob and Brad (link below). By the time I arrived at the doctor and explained, she said that I was spot on with my diagnosis and self-treatment, and asked me if I was in the medical field (*blush* ahem, I’m not, but thank you). It was good to get confirmation that what I was doing for myself was correct. Had I gone to her with general complaints of wrist pain and asked her to tell me what I was doing wrong with my violin, it wouldn’t have gotten me very far.
You may be wondering if my teacher was helpful with this. Shouldn’t a teacher be able to spot these things? There was never a time when my teacher wasn’t spotting things, but the issue was that my setup looked just fine at the time. It was only a few degrees of arm rotation and lift that made the issue start or stop. He couldn’t know that it was making me unconsciously drop my collar bone after 20 minutes of playing at home, just enough to compress my nerves. Being able to fully visualize what was happening anatomically under my shoulder rest was really thanks to the book What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body, and videos from Bob and Brad. Having this knowledge has been the next best thing to having a
puppet master teacher at every home practice session.
I’ve learned that my needs change as I learn new things, and that this is true for most people. I bet that I re-evaluate my setup about every 3 months. By setup, I mean my chin rest, shoulder rest, the tilt of the violin, the positioning of it (toward center or more off to the left), posture, and positioning of the body (arms, hands, head/neck). Above all, I’m also evaluating how I feel.
I might play for a while, then pause and take the violin away and hold my left or right arm and my neck in the exact same position. Is it unnatural? Where is the tension? How does this look compared to natural standing position? When I start with a natural standing posture and put my head and arms into proper playing posture, does my violin fit within it? Or am I having to lower my head even more, or crane my neck? I use a mirror at all times during practice, and especially when I am figuring out a setup or tension issue. If a shoulder rest has changed the tilt of my violin, I’m paying close attention to my right arm as well. One change can cause a domino effect of other subtle changes that need to be noticed.
Every time I show up with something new, like an outrageously tall chin rest, I have fun watching my teacher attempt to play my violin while pretending like he’s choking. Occasionally he likes something I’ve done with my setup. At times it feels like I can’t leave well enough alone. I like a really low shoulder rest, and for a long time I just used a sponge after the tendonitis. Well, once vibrato and shifting started in earnest, I needed more support. Deeply understanding my own physiology of violin playing gave me the confidence to hack apart my Wolf Forte Secondo AND my Bon Musica to create a specialty shoulder rest that is as low as it could possibly be but still have support under the E string side. I even put something from my Everest on it, so now it’s like a $100 shoulder rest. I actually play without a rest periodically because the freedom of movement is a wonderful break to reset my balance. And frankly, nothing beats the feeling of the bare violin resonating in your rib cage. #ExcitingFridayNight
All of this time, effort, and money spent on learning about the ways that you should and shouldn’t approach the physical relationship with the violin has been a gift. I’ve learned to recognize the difference between natural discomfort and unnatural discomfort to the point that I would say I have a sensitivity to it. It feels amazing to discern between the two and more easily catch problems in my playing or posture. The violin no longer feels like a foreign object that I’m pretending to be comfortable with. Experimenting with a handful of accessories that I no longer use was time and money well spent in learning.
I’m very interested in what will make playing the violin sustainable for me throughout my life. No one gets younger each day. Even if you don’t have any “ailments” when you started to play, you will as you age. Having a solid body of knowledge about this is going to help me once I really start to have age related issues. I realize that I’m lucky right now – I’m still relatively young and healthy. Most of my issues are just about being freakishly double-jointed and a bit out of shape. I am constantly amazed to learn about folks who start to play in their late 60’s and 70’s, who battle things like rheumatoid arthritis or even brain tumors, and continue to play with enjoyment. I’m sure that takes a deep understanding of oneself.
I am no longer afraid of injury. Well, no, that’s a total lie. I am afraid of being injured, BUT… Injury no longer feels like something that will slap me out of the blue and which will abruptly end my violin playing. Injuries do tend to come out of the blue, but I feel so much more equipped to isolate the problem, identify options to explore, and even help my body heal before it becomes an injury. This is all thanks to having geeked out on this stuff for two years now. Understanding that I may have made a change to my setup weeks before it started to cause an issue means paying careful attention to what I changed and when, so that I can remember that if an issue pops up.
When I shifted my focus about learning to play with ease away from a one-and-done to a life long learning endeavor, and learned to see it as something that provided many ongoing benefits aside from just trying not to get injured, I really began to feel like a violin-ist. This is because more than just attempting to play violin, I’m developing a philosophy and mindset toward the physical aspects of comfort, sustainability, and how to fully own this as an adult starter. Now, if only this could translate fully into being Miss Behaving Marionette instead of Misbehaving Marionette!
Below are some of my favorite resources that I’ve used on the quest to comfort and ease. What are your resources? Comment and let me know how you’ve found comfort, or what remains difficult. What violin induced injuries have you overcome, and how? What’s your philosophy? The lifelong journey of finding physical comfort doesn’t end, and we have to support each other.
What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body This is a fantastic book that takes a detailed look at the physiology behind what is happening with the body when playing the violin. Warning: This is a dense book that requires a geeky level of interest in the anatomy of playing, don’t read it at bedtime.
How Muscles Learn: Teaching the Violin with the Body in Mind This is a great and easy to read book on the violin setup. Lots of photos. It’s geared toward people teaching violin to children, but just let that go.
The Violin Lesson by Simon Fischer This book is indispensable on so many levels, but it has a lot of stuff about setup and posture, as well as sources of tension and the ways that your body needs to move.
Kreddle on YouTube This guy is a fellow geek that likes to explain all about proper violin ergonomics and his philosophy of how to approach it. Check out his channel for a lot of knowledge that will help you regardless of whether you ever buy his chin rest. Kreddle is the chin rest that I am currently using. It is fully adjustable in height, tilt, and horizontal placement. Learning how get this right taught me so much about my particular needs. So much so that I can’t imagine being able to evaluate the fit of a chin rest without having had the experience of customizing this.
Bob and Brad: Physical Therapy Videos on YouTube These guys are the best. If you have a physical issue bothering you, they have a video on how to self-diagnose and what to do to fix it. Free physical therapy!
Wave Chinrest Like Kreddle, this site has some great info on setup. This guy Randall is such a nice guy. I have 2 of these chin rests, and I was reluctant to go back to the Kreddle because I love the shape of the plate and the wood that they are made out of. I will probably return to the Wave once I get the itch to mess around with my setup again.
Jennifer Roig Francoli – Alexander Technique on YouTube For anyone who isn’t familiar with the Alexander Technique, it’s a method of learning to be mindful of your body’s automatic tensing response, and how to become more free and less injury prone in your playing. Her simple and short “etude” called the cycle helps you to train yourself to relax. I’m including it here because I love it, and I need to make it more of a part of my routine.
Hand Strengthening Exercises for the Violin by Joy Lee I really enjoyed these two videos because it’s not easy to find violin-specific strengthening exercises. The Theraputty really helped my hands when I had nerve pain radiating from my shoulder that also gave me carpal tunnel.
Wolf Forte Secondo Wolf and Bon Musica are the most customizable shoulder rests on the market. The wolf is smaller than the Bon Musica and allows you to have a lower violin.
Bon Musica Shoulder Rest This is a crazy versatile shoulder rest, and most either love or hate it. Using this helped me to pinpoint my needs in a shoulder rest much like the Kreddle did in helping me identify my needs with a chin rest.
Therapy Putty Recommended in Joy’s hand strengthening video
Resistance Band Set Essential gear for all things, but especially strengthening your rotator cuffs in some of Bob and Brad’s videos.
Pure Wave Percussion Massager This beast is a must-have. Recommended by Bob and Brad, it’s the best massager I’ve ever had. It is great for really getting to deeper tissue, and helped me heal my bicipital tendonitis.
Ear Peace High Fidelity Ear Plugs I have tinnitus, and wearing one of these in my left ear while I practice has been a life saver. There are different inserts that mean you can make the ear plug stronger for different noise levels.