Common Misconceptions About Violin/Viola Technique (And What I Learned From Dancers)

Learning from the skeleton

Learning from the skeleton

by Rozanna Weinberger

Going to school at Juilliard, the music majors were often surrounded by dancers, actors in the school cafeteria. I remember how easy it was to distinguish the dancers from musicians for strictly on appearance. While a clear give away for dancers was their lean limbs, they always managed to carry themselves with amazing posture . Turns out theres much to learn about how dancers move and how these observations can improve string playing. Sure I may never wear a pair of point shoes or a tutu, but if a dancers craft is built on moving with ease, efficiency and beauty there may be lessons for the string player as well.

Wonderful dance posture!

Wonderful dance posture!

It’s true they often held themselves with an almost rigidly perfect posture, even when eating lunch, but turns out all

that training was so they could do what they do at the optimum level – move beautifully and for the most part using their physique to maximize the potential of movement. Dancers couldn’t possibly do what they do on stage if they hadn’t been trained to use their bodies as efficiently and ‘naturally’ as possible. Just as ‘naturals’ are the ultimate in string players, dancers no doubt strive to move their bodies to optimize balance, strength and beauty.

Learning movements, for all human beings begins at birth, from an infants’ learning to roll from side to side in a crib to eventually attempting to crawl on hands and knees, eventually managing to balance on feet, putting one in front of the other to walk.  The arms learn to flow while the muscles seem to act and react simultaneously. Indeed these seemingly easy tasks for adults took much trial and error as infants, where the brain learned from each fall and every movement that caused physical stain, to move better and with ease.

A common misconception among string players is that sloping shoulders and posture comes with The territory and has no real effect on playing. Sure its’ tiring to sit in an orchestra for hours at a time or to be on ones feet for hrs. standing in front of music and playing. But should slumping be part and parcel to playing? And is it possible that learning to open out chest and shoulders ultimately makes playing easier? Chances are dancers don’t slouch because its not as pleasing aesthetically but it’s also not the most efficient way to use ones’ body.

  1. A simple arching and curling motion study can facilitate in accessing the potential of the upper body. Start by clasping the hands together and putting them behind the neck at the nape just below the skull.
  2. Curl the rib cage as the abdominal muscles press into the spine. Notice how the arch is emphasized as the abdominal muscles press into the spine.
  3. Now move into the opposite of curling by arching the back and spine in the opposite direction towards the back. It is key to lengthen the space between the vertebra while at the same time arching the back. It is to not simply stretch from midway down the back but to lengthen that portion of the torso as well.  It is helpful to think of ‘lifting the heart’ to get a sense of the lengthen and range of motion in the torso and our ability to open out the chest rather than cave it inwards.
  4. Because the hands are behind the neck, this is useful for isolating the movement of the torso and allowing the arms to go along for the ride.

What all this is leading to is the possibilities of the bow arm when the overall frame is not torqued in a curve but rather boyent in relationship to gravity.  While fatigue or lack of strength in certain muscles can exasperate slumping, simple awareness observations, and physical warm up, can assist one in this endeavor.


Now that's posture!

Now that’s posture!

How we orient the upper arm in relation to the bow determines whether a sound is ‘pressed’ or ‘spun like silk’.  If the upper arm is torqued forward (which is a natural reaction to curving or slumping the upper body then ones sound will also tend to be pressed because the chance of crushing the sound is greater. (Imagine what would happen if one pressed the weight directly into the bow/instrument. Yes bow speed ensures a decent sound can be achieved but the more that sound is produced is a result of direct force into the string the more likely one will crush the sound and resonance of the instrument.  Further, while its possible to compensate for this more difficult way of moving the arm in general, there are easier ways to orient the arm for optimal technique, depending on the relation of the the upper arm to the forearm and bow.

The simple act of hanging the arm to the side then rotating the arm from the shoulder towards the back then forwards is a clue to the range of motion in the arm, specifically the upper arm. This potential to rotate the upper arm back can be cultivated, and will become a natural counter to the tendency of the bow hand and forearm to swivel in the opposing direction, causing one to lean bow arm weight on the index finger.



5 thoughts on “Common Misconceptions About Violin/Viola Technique (And What I Learned From Dancers)

  1. Hello, Rozanna! I’m an adult starter who’s been learning to play a viola since age 38. Reading this post (as well as your other posts) and going through the exercises solved a great mystery that’s been bothering me. I finally figured out how to loosen up the top 2-3 thoracic vertebrae and the right shoulder!? It’s had a tremendous effect on how the viola is balanced on me, as well as freeing my bowing arm. It no longer feels like the viola is a static object, and my bowing arm a mechanical device. Now both sides of my body feels like they are working together (almost like Taichi movements!) Thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Rozanna Weinberger

    I’m an amateur viola player. Maybe it comes from my shortage of English knowledge. I can’t quite understand the meaning of the last sentence of this article.

    You wrote:
    This potential to rotate the upper arm back can be cultivated, and will become a natural counter to the tendency of the bow hand and forearm to swivel in the opposing direction, causing one to lean bow arm weight on the index finger.

    1. What is the relationship (that is a natural counter) between:
    (1) to rotate the upper arm back
    (2) the bow hand and forearm to swivel in the opposing direction
    (In what way do the bow hand and forearm swivel in the opposing direction? My understanding: The bow hand and forearm go or move in the same direction.)

    2. In what way and what causes one to lean bow arm weight on the index finger?

    Thank you very much


    • Dear Kazoo, Thank you for your message. I will try to explain further.
      1. In terms of upper arm ability to rotate opposite to the forearm try this:The simple act of turning the hand back and forth so the palm faces upward then back to the floor can help you feel the movement that is possible in upper arm. You can have elbow slightly bent while doing this if it makes it more comfortable.While you do this you may also discover that the forearm reacts to the hand movement. the underside of the forearm faces upward then back towards floor. But it is also possible to swivel the forearm without including the upper arm.
      2. Next try elevating the elbow ‘higher’ than the hand. Notice how, when you do this the entire angle of the arm torques inward.This angle forces the entire arm weight to be on the index finger. That is why its necessary to organize the bow arm so weight can shift from index finger to pinky and back, depending on whether one is playing at frog or tip of bow.


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