Mary McGovern provides some advice on holding your instrument without unnecessary spine and shoulder discomfort
The relationship of the head, neck and back is of central importance to human balance, co-ordination and movement. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), after whom the Alexander Technique is named, described this relationship as ‘the primary control’ since it precedes and determines the co-ordination and use of all the other parts of the body.
Violinists and violists are faced with particular problems in relation to the primary control, since the head, neck and shoulder all are directly involved in supporting the instrument.
The head is very heavy – about 7-8kg in an adult and proportionately more in a child. It is supported by a long, thin column of bones – the spine. The spine has four curves that balance one another and make the whole flexible and strong; however, this functions properly only if the curves are not exaggerated or flattened out excessively.
The human organism, like any animal organism, is constructed so that the head leads and the body follows. Wherever you send your head the body will follow. This is of great significance to the violinist or violist who wants to hold their instrument without compromising the functioning organism. If the head falls on to the chin rest in such a way that the neck (the uppermost, or cervical part of the spine) collapses, the body will follow by collapsing to some extent too. If, on the other hand, the head is freely balanced on a fully lengthened neck and back, the body will continue to lengthen despite the burden of the weight of the violin or viola on the left side and the considerable burden of holding both arms up.
This expanded, buoyant state of the organism is, however, very often compromised by the force of our less-beneficial habits.
One common problematic habit when holding the violin or viola is the tilting of the head downwards to the left, which causes a sideways curve of the neck and twists the torso downwards and round to the left. This in turn causes a compression of the left side of the rib cage and of the lower back. Too much weight and pressure are put on the left hip and knee, and the pelvis is tilted downwards to the right – a condition known as scoliosis.
All of this results in a restriction of movement in the neck, shoulder, back, ribs, hip joint and knee joint. This in turn interferes with the free movement of the left arm and reduces the capacity of the left lung. Check your friends! You will generally find that the right side of the ribcage of most violinists and violists expands and contracts more than the left when they are playing.
Lifting the shoulder to support the instrument is another common problem that usually occurs in combination with a poor use of the head and neck in relation to holding the violin. This has the disadvantage of severely limiting the freedom of the left arm and shoulder and of creating potential injury. Players hold the shoulder like this for many hours at a time, very often resulting in damage to the muscles, tendons and, in the worst cases, the nerves.
There is, of course, no way of holding the violin or viola that will suit everyone. There are, however, certain principles that can help with finding a suitable position.
Firstly, the shoulder rest and chin rest should be adjusted to allow the head and shoulder to support the instrument without the shoulder coming up towards the ear or the head falling more than a few millimetres. More often than not, people will be convinced that they are not lifting the shoulder when they are actually doing so. Unreliable sensory appreciation is one of the side effects of poor bodily use. Look in a mirror to see if what you are actually doing matches what you feel you are doing. Secondly, the head should be placed in contact with the chin rest without you losing the full length of the neck and back. In other words, you should be maintaining your full height when playing. You should also keep the full width of the shoulders and the free movement of the ribs in relation to the spine. Many string players are poor breathers, and this does much to limit technical and musical freedom, tone production and the ability to listen.
The following exercise helps to put the instrument in position and to hold it while maintaining a healthy relationship between the head, neck and back. Throughout the process it is important to maintain the full length and flexibility of the spine and the freedom of the breathing. Working with the help of a teacher may make it easier.
1. Stand with the head upright (nose vertical)
2. Without turning the head, put the violin of viola in place – preferably in contact with the neck. If the instrument is held too far away from the neck and is gripped by only the edge of the chin the neck will tend to fall forward in relation to the back.
3. Keeping the nose vertical, turn the head until it meets the chin rest. If the shoulder rest and chin rest are correctly adjusted then the jaw should make good contact with the violin.
4. Without collapsing the neck, allow a little of the weight of the head to rest on the chin rest. This should be done by allowing the head to nod at the joint between the head and neck, which is situated between the ears. The weight of the head should be sufficient to hold the instrument in place but not so much that the head collapses on the chin rest. There should therefore be no need to grip the violin by making a lot of unnecessary tension in the neck and shoulder. The violin is held in place by the controlled use of weight and not by muscle tension.
Once the instrument is in position it should be easier to start playing while maintaining the full length, breadth and freedom of the body. Bear in mind, however, that playing an entire piece in this way will take considerable practice and self-observation.