Developing good body awareness is key to preventing injury, playing with little to no pain, and producing a good tone on the violin
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Playing the violin is a physical activity. Like dance or gymnastics, it’s a taxing activity that only appears like effortless art to the observer. Ask any professional violinist and they will tell you that performing takes a toll on their body and some have even been injured playing the violin!
Developing good body awareness is key to preventing injury, playing with little to no pain, and producing a good tone on the violin. However, body awareness is the key component that many teachers either don’t know how to teach or forget to address fully in lessons.
As a young violin student growing up, I remember my teachers emphasising basic posture including things like standing up straight and keeping my knees bent. They would tell me to relax when tension crept in, but nothing about how to use my muscles and anatomy effectively in my violin playing. It wasn’t until college where I was first taught how different muscles and joints work together when playing my instrument. Thankfully, there is more education available to violin students as they begin their journeys.
So, what does a violin student need to know? I would like to begin with a quick disclaimer as I am not an expert in this area. But, I have developed an awareness of my own over the years. As someone who struggles with Psoriatic Arthritis, I have had to be more conscious of how I move and use my body in order to prevent pain and injury and continue playing the violin.
First, it’s important that all movement is stabilised by your core and lower half. Just like when you’re performing an exercise, playing a sport, or doing physical labour, you need to have a strong core and foundation. Many times this is an overlooked part of violin playing. Teachers tend to teach posture and technique from the waist up and forget about the other half of our bodies. But, when you think about it, if we aren’t grounded and stable from the waist down, then our playing won’t be secure and our tone may suffer.
Second, having a basic knowledge of shoulder anatomy and function is crucial to good technique and preventing common areas of pain and injury. Many violinists struggle with upper back and neck pain and see chiropractors and massage therapists for treatment. It’s important to note that our bodies don’t like to be forced into one position or physical activity over and over for long periods of time. This means that violinists will most likely have some sort of aches and pains from the repetitive motions of playing violin. But while we may not be able to prevent 100 per cent of the issues caused by violin playing, we can dramatically reduce the frequency and intensity of the symptoms.
Finally, it’s important to know how the violin fits to the body and to have a good set-up. The violin should always be brought to the body and not the other way around. It should be resting on the collarbone and shoulder without the shoulder being brought up or moving in an unnatural way. Whether you play with or without a shoulder rest, it can be beneficial to experiment without one first to make sure you know how the violin fits to you personally. A shoulder rest can help prevent the instrument from slipping off your shoulder, but it’s important that it doesn’t detract from the natural position on the body. A chin rest can also be beneficial in bridging the gap from violin to jaw/chin.
So now the question is, how does one develop good body awareness? The following strategies have been proven to help build this area of your violin practice:
1. Implement yoga and/or pilates to build mind-body connection
The types of exercises practiced in yoga help develop core strength, balance, flexibility, muscle tone, and awareness of how your body functions as a whole. These skills will transfer to your violin playing helping to prevent injury and giving you an awareness of how your body is moving when you play.
2. Do specific exercises to build shoulder strength and stability
There are several physical therapy exercises available to you with just a quick Google search. One that was helpful to me was an exercise called Wall Clocks. Our shoulders have very different movements and jobs when performing, and this exercise helps improve stability and strength on both sides equally.
3. Challenge yourself to implement movement when you play
This doesn’t need to be anything extreme and could be simply walking around the room while playing a scale or open strings. You may be surprised at what you learn about your body movements.
4. Use a mirror for visual cues
Many times as violinists we are hyper focused on our left hand fingers and the notes on the page. We’re not always aware of what the rest of our body is doing. Watching in a mirror can reveal habits and tendencies we didn’t know were there.
5. Prepare to continue learning
If you want to really dive into this topic, find a teacher who specialises in the Alexander Technique and/or the Timani Method to learn more about anatomy and how our bodies move as musicians.
Pain and injury do not have to be the norm in violin playing. When we’re educated about how our body is connected and how it moves when we play, we’re better equipped to troubleshoot our pain and prevent injury. I’ve been excited to see the increased visibility this topic is getting in the violin community. I hope we’re getting closer to the day when injury and pain are not considered a normal part of violin playing.
Rachael Ridge is a violin teacher and runs the The Adult Violin Academy Facebook group.
Listen: The Strad Podcast Episode #26: Alun Thomas on Alexander Technique
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