Common Misconceptions About Back Muscles and Violin, Viola Technique

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That ‘coming from under’ feeling can be accessed rather than using the shoulder to control bow arm.

by Rozanna Weinberger

Some of the most common beliefs string technique beliefs is  that somehow the back should be involved when playing, particularly when it comes to bowing. This can seem illusive at best since for many it seems like the shoulder wants to be the fulcrum for controlling arm movements bow technique rather than the the illusive back. Monitoring excess tension and elevation in the shoulder are a constant challenge. So which muscles exactly are we talking about when we say back muscles and how on earth can we access the the back muscles including the lower trapezius and latissimus dorsi  under the scapula. Making sense of this muscle and utilizing it is a key component that will go a long way towards allowing the shoulder to be more of a reaction to the of these muscles rather than the point of control in raising the arm to play as well as the entirety of the bow stroke.                    

And while it seems string players wonder how to solve the accompanying sloping shoulders and excess tension in the neck, it seems equally true that these attributes also seem present when not playing, i.e. in ones general posture. Which came first – the chicken or the egg?  In this instance one wonders – did poor posture influence a players bowing technique or have the practicing habits in the players technique influenced ones posture in a general sense?

Rehabilitation pioneer, Vladimir Janda (1928=2002) recognized a physical pattern comprised of a collection of imbalances which he referred to as the ‘Upper Crossed Syndrome.’ Upper crossed syndrome is characterized by over use of the upper trapezius, levator, sternocleidomastoid, and pectoralis muscles, while under using the deep cervical flexors, lower trapezius, and serratus anterior. Visually the clues to recognizing ‘upper crossed syndrome’ include sloped shoulders and head jutting out from base of neck. In short, this is similar to the posture many string players utilize as they jut forward the head in an attempt to secure the instrument while sloping the shoulders to play and experiencing pain in the neck & shoulders! 

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As the shoulders protract, the scapular shoulder blade stabilizers become inhibited and weak. Muscles that are normally quiet are utilized to help stabilize the shoulder girdle. According to Janda the result of this syndrome leads to overactive pectoralis minor, upper trapezius, levator scapulae. Rehabilitation pioneer, Vladimir Janda, called this collection of imbalances an “Upper Crossed Syndrome”.

Student Heal Thyself

Students with a genuine curiosity about their technique can, over time, improve posture in a general sense through observations made in the practice room. While teachers are important because they help point the way, ultimately some of the most valuable learning happens when we make discoveries for ourselves where our own bodies provide the necessary information to self correct.

‘Micro Practicing’ describes the kind of work where the most basic components of ones movements are isolated and ‘observed’. Differentiation is a key component because ‘noticing a movement’ has to have a reference point. The reference point is really ‘healthy and efficient movement’ or comfort vs. discomfort.  Its where the humerus bone tends to hang in shoulder girdle when muscle habits aren’t torquing the humerus bone forward.  If the player has ingrained a ‘bad habit’ to the point where it becomes the ‘new normal’ then recognizing patterns can seem nearly impossible to do. 

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Noticing positioning of humerus bone when shoulders are not slouching.

So the starting point for accessing and properly utilizing the latissimus dorsi and other underutilized muscles can begin by noticing at what point the shoulder and upper trapezius muscles begin to take control of elevating the elbow. So long as the player is overusing these muscles to control elevation of the elbow and the bow arm in general, the player will eventually feel a chronic level of tension and tightness in the shoulders & neck.

Notice the natural position of the humerus bone in relation to the shoulder girdle. Most string players tend to thrust the shoulder forward or curve the shoulder which creates a myriad of technical issues as a result.

Starting With How We Elevate The Elbow In Preparation To Play

Micro practicing can involve elevating the elbow away from the side of the body minutely. By minutely we mean barely any movement at all. But in this tiny motion one can access the sensations of the latissimus dorsi right underneath the scapula. Allow the arm to rest back to the side. Elevate the elbow once again, this time a light higher then drop back down to the side.  When doing this micro movement be sure to notice the point at which the shoulder and trapezius muscles try to take over the lifting of the arm. While the shoulder does engage eventually when raising the arm for the string player the ideal is to discover the ability to utilize the fulcrum relationship with the bow arm that is initiated from under the scapula.

Chicken Wing

  1. While standing, begin with right arm resting naturally against the body.
  2. Bringright palm to the left shoulder, creating a ‘V’ with the arm.
  3. Elevate the elbow then allow it to relax onto the chest
  4. Repeat this movement 4 or 5 times. As this movement is being done, notice the sensations in the back, and the scapula. 

Circular Movements & Arm Weight

Learning to access the lower back underused muscles rather than the neck & shoulders is the starting point to healthy bow arm. One of the main reasons is that the weight of the back & arms can best be utilized this way vs. hovering over the string. Once we’ve established this feeling learning to make circular movements initiated in the elbow will facilitate dropping weight of back and arm into string. Technique also effects the sounds being produced. So long as the upper traps & shoulders are relied upon to control the bow, the player will tend to use vertical pressure from the fingers, hand, etc. Such pressing action may lead to crushing the sound vs. a producing a round sound. The elbow will end up being higher than the wrist while the tense neck & shoulders will cause the arm weight to hover above the bow.  Some players get a false sense of security from this type of control but the player may also discover this type of ‘control’ leads to pain and fatigue vs. release both on a physical and emotive level when playing.

Screenshot 2017-06-16 00.13.51Circular Movements

  1. ELEVATE BENT ELBOW TO CHEST LEVEL
  2. IMAGINE HAVING A PENCIL ATTACHED TO THE ELBOW AND BEGIN DRAWING CIRCLES WITH THE ELBOW
  3. THIS IS THE EXACT MOVEMENT NEEDED WHEN BRINGING THE ARM WEIGHT TO THE STRING WHEN PLAYING THE VIOLA/VIOLIN.

Common Misconceptions About Shifting and Holding the Viola/Violin

Muybridge_race_horse_animatedby Rozanna Weinberger

Its fascinating that the discovery of the motion picture was a result of researching whether horses hooves completely leave the ground when racing at a gallop. While shifting on the violin or viola is a very different set of movements than a horse galloping, for a string player to shift with the greatest ease its paramount the hand and wrist have a split second of freedom from ‘holding’ the violin so the wrist/hand can release. This split second of releasing the instrument is not unlike the horses split second suspension in mid air as it resets the galloping movement. Because for a split second the instrument is not being held by the hand..

This releasing back of the hand from the wrist can really be applied to all shifting from upper to lower positions. Scary as it may sound, the player has to be able to ‘catch’ the violin or viola once arriving at the desired note. The weight of the instrument must be a nominal factor when shifting with speed. 

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It really is amazing to see all the movements involved in a gallop. What would your slow motion picture of shifting look like?

The study which proved horses completely leave the ground when galloping is called Sallie Gardner at a Gallop or The Horse in Motion; it shows images of the horse with all hoofs off the ground. This did not take place when the horse’s legs were extended to the front and back, as imagined by contemporary illustrators, but when its legs were collected beneath its body as it switched from “pulling” with the front legs to “pushing” with the back legs. – Wikipedia

AND WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE DISCUSSION ON HORSES?? If for no other reason than to suggest there are times when the instrument will be suspended in mid air much like a galloping horse. Much like a racing horse has a split seconds when it is suspended in mid air as it switches from curling to straightening their legs, the string player must have a split second when instrument is completely suspended in the air so wrist can react to arm motion of reaching to a lower position by simultaneously ‘falling back’ to the lower position with the wrist. And because the releasing wrist can help reach the desired note, the upper arm moves less. When this happens, arriving at the destination note will feel like one is ‘catching’ the instrument. It will also be a more efficient motion since the player will be distributing the movement to all the joints of the arm & hand rather than maintaining a rigid hand position.

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Allowing the hand & wrist to react to the forearm.  

Therefore it shouldn’t seem like such a stretch that part of the challenge in learning to shift with ease is to find a way to release the fingers from the violin or viola entirely for a split second while going from point A to point B. Its the only way to move with maximum speed and to readjust the hand to the new balance required of the fingers as notes change.

This approach to shifting  flies in the face of string methods that encourage players to keep a ‘shifting finger down’ while essentially sliding up and down maintaining constant instrument contact with shifting finger.

 

Cause and Effect in Left Hand

What much of this comes down to, from the standpoint of string playing is being able to freely utilize the natural movements/reactions of the wrist action in reaction to the forearm and rest of the arm & back. To bring this point home try the following:

Motion Study For Shifting/Vibrato Prep

When working on  this technique its recommended the player practice over a cushion or some other safe surface in case instrument slips while one is developing balance.

  1. Drop left hand & arm to the side.
  2. Bring up forearm by bending the elbow, allowing the palm to face the body.
  3. Allow forearm to drop back down then up again a few times.  Its not necessary to make large movements.
  4. As this movement is being done what is the REACTION of the wrist and hand?  What do these parts of the body do as a natural reaction to movements in upper arm and back?
  5. Chances are it will be clear the hand bends back & forth effortlessly. AND WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THE DISCUSSION ON HORSES?? Much like a race horse has a split second suspended in air when switch from curling to straightening their legs, the string player must have a split second when instrument is completely suspended in the air so wrist can react to arm by ‘falling back’ to the first position for example.
  6. Sometimes when aiming for a specific pitch it may inhibit the players ability to release the wrist.  Batting average i.e. accurate pitch is the end game. But the player should first isolate the most basic feeling in the arm. To that end it may also be useful to practice shifting to a lower position without a specific pitch in mind, but rather aiming first for a freer feeling in the limbs.
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When the wrist is relaxed rather than poking out, its easier to release the hand back  going from higher to lower positions. This does however require complete release from point A to point B. Shifting from 3rd to 1st position is a good opportunity to discover this feeling.  See below.

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Its quite common for teachers to instruct students to have their wrist slightly bent in the opposite direction of the instrument as in the photo above. But this posture is really not the most effective position even if it is taught widely. Simply put, the wrist has the capacity to respond to the movements of the forearm while accommodating the changes in balance points of the fingers. 

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Pads of Fingers and Balance

Balance of the hand & finger is very much dictated by the fingers. The idea of not poking out the wrist when playing is based on accommodating the balance in the hand and fingers. One of the obvious issues is that by poking out the wrist we are actually moving counter to the direction of the fingers. Why, for example have the wrist poking out when trying to reach the 4th finger? Its difficult enough to play with the 4th finger when its shorter than the rest of the fingers and considered weaker. Therefore allowing the wrist to bend in slightly when reaching with the 4th finger is an economical use of the hand and wrist. Its also wise not to baby the 4th finger but use wherever appropriate.

A tactile sense in the fingers is a good starting point. Discovering the variety of sensations that occur when touching different parts of the finger tips, one will eventually find the fatty center is where the nerve endings have the sharpest sensations and also happens to be the best place to balance the finger.

While efficient technique does necessitate ‘tracking’ the distance on the finger board with the fingers for kinesthetic purposes, if we keep the fingers down without release, the hand will not be able to readjust to a new balance points when going from one finger to the next throughout fingerboard. This also means the ideal hand position is not static, but changes from one balance point to the next. Make no mistake, the hand most certainly adjusts to every place on the fingerboard and the body must adjust and balance on the most subtle level requiring a refined sense of balance that can be felt in the finger tips and entire hand.

Last But Not Least

In the last blog post we discussed the importance of not gripping the instrument with the head & shoulders like a human vice.  Suffice it to say it will be impossible to balance the instrument in the manner described above if we are holding on for dear life with the head & shoulders.  This tightening of the upper extremity will be manifest throughout the rest of the arm, wrist & shoulder. Patience patience and joyful awareness are key. Sure the destination is important in terms of practice goals, but when micro practicing to transform basic playing patterns, please let the path stay joyful and interesting.

 

Most Common Misconceptions String Players Have About Posture & Muscle Strain in Shoulders, Back & Neck

Screenshot 2017-05-21 21.54.57by Rozanna Weinberger

It amazes me when speaking to students that say they have excess tension in their playing that causes pain but feel at the mercy of the tension because they don’t even know when it begins. Its true once we’re in the state of compromised physical patterns, the challenge is to relieve the pain and self adjust. Being able to do so, even in a performance situation is really the ideal. But I also believe players are less helpless than they believe. Discovering that the inefficient patterns in playing a violin or viola occur in preparation to play and contribute to a host of new problems once we start to play.

The truth is most inefficient patterns occur as we prepare to play. The way we organize ourselves to hold the instrument and prepare the bow arm to produce a sound are hardwired for the very first impulse to raise our arms in preparation.

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The natural unforced weight of head is a simple and effective way to secure instrument against the shoulder & clavicle, so long as there is no tension in neck, rather the passive weight. Head should be facing forward with very slight tilting to the left when playing.

But its even more interesting that some of the most crucial ‘practicing’ and mindful awareness needs to happen as we’re ‘positioning’ ourselves to play – the moment when we hyperextend the shoulders to engage our bow arm or thrust the left shoulder forward in an attempt somehow hold the instrument.

Its also in that split second when we thrust the head forward in the mistaken belief it will enable us to secure the instrument against our shoulder, when in fact the weight of the head can easily be accessed without jutting the neck and chin forward. And the more one hyper extends the limbs to play, the more ones technique will be based on movements of the limbs rather than accessing the entire torso..Indeed just getting ready to play is when some of the key problems happen and worst of all, once we’ve contorted our bodies its very difficult to change after we start to play. Thats why its valuable to be hyper vigiliget about everyone movement we make from resting position to picking up our instruments because it forms the basis of most of our technique.

The Unfailing Function of the Abdominal Muscles

In contemporary society people try to work out in the gym in hopes of getting in good physical shape.  When it comes to improving our abdominals people often do sit ups to strengthen that muscle group. Yet considering their function and how the abdominals can improve our overall ability to carry ourselves, it is an important consideration and perhaps not discussed enough except when doing Pilates, Gyrotonics, Yoga or other forms of exercise that address lengthen the limbs and functionality.. For great posture, we don’t just need strong abdominals, we need them to lengthen and support our upper bodies effectively. If they don’t do this, other problems will occur as a result of compensation, such as raising and tensing the shoulder in the mistaken belief we holdup our upper bodies by elevating our shoulders.  Other problems will include slouching.

And when it comes to string playing the use of the abdominal muscles is almost never addressed. For sure the abdominal muscles are never discussed in technique books. And yet the abdominal muscles are so crucial in supporting our torso and lengthening out the space between the vertebrae. This support is at the heart of being able counter the effects of gravity when supporting our instruments and at the heart of being able to effectively balance a violin or viola.

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When we press down into the ground with our hands we can access the feelings of lifting and support the abdominal muscles contribute in supporting posture

Awareness of the Spine is Crucial

Stretching is another misconception. When it comes to supporting our upper body effectively its not just a matter of standing taller, but noticing and articulating the natural curvature and straightening of the spine. We need to cultivate the ability to access the sensations of our spine, to the extent that we can feel where we are slumping, where we are compressing the vertebrae and as well as the ability to elongate the spine without leaning backwards or forwards in excess. The curious student will discover many ways to develop kinesthetic awareness as well as ways to make the beneficial connection when it comes to playing with ease.

But when these supporting muscles are able to support the torso sufficiently, the shoulder and its accompanying bones, muscles & ligaments will do what gravity encourages and rest atop the rib cage. They may move and occasionally be elevated but the are a cog in the wheel and not the fulcrum. Screenshot 2017-05-29 20.18.31

Some find it difficult to isolate the movements of the rib cage vs. the shoulders and arms. A simple motion study of curling and lengthening of our spine with hands clasped behind the head, can be useful in isolating those muscles needed. 

The Most Common Misconceptions About Why We Freak Out When Performing Plus Awareness Studies For Bow.

by Rozanna Weinberger

The other day a colleague was warming up beautifully on a violin I was showing him.  I remember being impressed at the fluidity of his technique, which seemed confident and inspired.  When he stopped I praised him and then said I would like to  shoot a little demo video clip of him playing since the sound was so lovely and a wonderful representation of the instrument.  No sooner did I make that request than everything changed in my friends demeanor.  He needed to ‘warm up’ which I couldn’t quite understand since he had already been playing for awhile and sure enough, the effortlessness playing I had heard use moments before became fraught with uncertainty and mistakes I hadn’t heard previously.

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What is it that happens to string players that makes everything change in a pressure situation? Why is that passages that seemed to be perfected in the practice room – when under the gun- prove unreliable? In some cases I’ve seen the most naturally musical players lose their ability to communicate their musical intentions when they think they believe they are limited by the tools of their technical ability or overly focused on the technical side of playing. Sure we all have to build technical skill but very often when players are focused on the musical intent, their bodies naturally produce the requisite movements to execute that musical idea.

Its not uncommon for string players to practice for hours on end, often repeating certain

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Batting Average When It Counts Awhile back I coined the idea of technical mastery in performance being akin to a baseball players’ batting average. We are able to, overtime assess the likelihood of a batter being able to hit that ball effectively.  I wonder if players have ever tested how many times they are able to play a technical passage accurately when repeating it 5 or even 10 times in a row.

passages hundreds if not thousands of times over the course of learning a piece of music.  And yet how many times do we find that when we’re under the gun in front of an audience something happens. Its as if all that practicing is forgotten and the physical experience is completely different.  If thats not bad enough we may be pervaded by an inner voice reminding us of all the technical challenges ahead often with a fearful anticipation.

Sure experts can explain away adrenaline and other factors influencing the brain when a pressured situation comes up. But truly there is so much the player can do in the practice room, through CULTIVATING AWARENESS, which can be the basis of overcoming technical/emotional patterns that are likely to manifest under pressure. By awareness, we are talking about a subtle, almost meditative state in which the player learns to observe what the body is communicating to the brain so that learning takes place.

Its also essential that the player develop a refined sense of what their bodies are doing.  It really amazes me when I come across players who have ‘suddenly developed carpal tunnel syndrome, or some other similar ailment, which should have been producing pain and tension in the effected areas for months prior because it really does require a lot of physical abuse of a particular muscle or ligament to eventually produce a chronic condition like carpal tunnel.

Why Trying To Copy A Teacher Isn’t The Most Complete Way To Learn – If only an ideal technical command was as simple as copying what a teacher does with reinforcement through practice. Sure many teachers teach that way and many students try to copy what they see their teachers do. In theory this approach seems to make sense, and yet it is one very big reason players develop physical habits that can lead to big problems down the road. This is because unless our own bodies and kinesthetic awareness can help us fine tune our movements, there will remain a level of crudeness to our approach if we don’t make our technique ‘our own’.  By this I am referring to  the ability to learn from the physical sensations of a movement, whether they give a feeling of prolonged tension that leads to physical pain, or a pattern of movement that does not use the joints efficiently.

For example, most players don’t connect the movements of the bow arm to the lower back and momentum produced by the weight of the hips but its really true. It is actually possible to play a whole bow from frog to tip using the movements of the torso and back entirely, without ever engaging the arm. While it certainly is convenient to use the arm, players need to discover the momentum that comes from other parts of the body, such as the back & hip.

BOW ARM AWARENESS STUDIES

Here is a simple study to cultivate awareness of hips, back & arms in essential bowing. Sitting in a chair, position oneself squarely, with hips aligned to shoulders. By ‘scanning the body’ one may notice what they weight feels like from our hips and bottom in relation to the chair.

1. Notice each hip and observe whether it feelings like one side is pressing into the chair    more than the other.

2. Notice the effect this weightiness effects the angle of the shoulders and the head. 3.Does the head tend to tilt in the same direction of the favored hip or in the opposite direction?

Observations on the bow ‘arm’.

  1. While still sitting in the chair, bring the right hand up to the left shoulder. Swing the hand/arm backwards as far as the arm can go then bring hand back to the shoulder. This step can be repeated and if arm feels slightly fatigued, allow arm to fall back down to side and relax.
  2. Bring right hand back up to the left shoulder in ‘chicken wing’ type position once again. This time, while keeping hand on shoulder turn the shoulders and upper body to the right so that whatever is to the right of oneself can be viewed. Then allow body to swivel back to original position. While repeating this movement slowly notice how the spine is effected. Where does the movement seem most active?  What part of the spine does this occur? After a couple repetitions, rest.
  3. Bring right hand back to left shoulder. This tie player will turn to the right using only the waist & hips to turn. Again notice the sensations in the spinal chord as well as the hips. What happens to the weight of the body as one is turning? Are their any parts of the movement that feel tight?  Any parts of the spine that are difficult to sense? After repeating a couple times, rest.
  4. Repeat step 3.  But rather than keeping the right hand on the left shoulder the whole time, this time, allow the hand and arm to swing back in response to the movements of the spine & hips. 
  5. Turn the body back towards the left and notice how arm swings back from the momentum of the rest of the body movements. 

Understanding The Right Shoulder: The shoulder is a favored topic because its the source of so much confusion. We are told not to raise the shoulder quite often and yet it is impossible to move the arm & back without the shoulder being engaged in some way. It may take the student months if not years of self discovery until they can feel how the shoulder is a part of the whole. Its not the fulcrum, but it must function in relation to the back and arm. As such the shoulder is elevated but its more a reaction to a circular movement that should be happening in the elbow.  The shoulder elevates but then it drops down, and with it the weight of the arm that produces the sound on the string as the bow draws across it. it seems many players can elevate the shoulder, but cultivating sufficient awareness of the shoulder and muscles surrounding it, is necessary to feel the sense of tension and release when the weight of the arm is released as a result of a drop in the shoulder.

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The feeling that everything is somehow different from the practice room may very well be an accurate reading when our emotions take over and find expression in exasperating tensions in the body. It may very well be that the excess tension is also manifesting in the practice room but under pressure, manifests to an extreme. There may also be cases where our general technical approach is not optimally efficient movements and the body tries to literally protect itself from the embarrassment of a mistake manifest in ones performance.

The player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills; he discovers a true basis for self-confidence; and he learns that the secret to winning any game lies in not trying too hard.”
W. Timothy Gallwey, Inner Game of Tennis

Something So Basic As Learning to Feel Our Bones

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Simple observations of where the humorous bone is in relation to the shoulder girdle and the muscles that may compromise that relation with muscular patterns that are not efficient.

From a technical standpoint, as a frame of reference, most people tend to think about the muscles. But I believe the issues goes deeper to the bones. By developing the sensitivity to differentiate when we are hyper extending our humorous bone in relation to the shoulder girdle, is a pivotal way to begin to use the back when bowing and not just from the arm.  All these things can and should be addressed in the practice room. Teachers need to help students discover what can be learned through kinesthetic awareness and the ability to do so will play a pivotal role for the best teachers of performance to come. At the same time the teacher must understand efficient movement sufficient to be able to guide student in differentiating between efficient and inefficient movement, as well as awareness of uncomfortable and excessive muscle movements that can also effect the placement of the bones, the skeleton. And sure, the muscles are indicators of how we move, the skeleton must also be taken into account.

It is the weightiness of the skeleton and its components, and their relationship to each other that creates a natural momentum as well as the weight necessary in the arm, with the help of the back torso and hips, not force, to produce sound. in bow technique. Sure its possible to isolate the arm alone and produce movement and sound, but its also possible to feel the initiation of movement in the bow arm, from the left side of the pelvis and hip – and when that happens, one starts to feel as though the arm is ‘being moved’ rather than initiating movement. Of course, the ideal is when the student comes to discover this possibility for themselves.

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Young violinist Alex Cameron discovers musical freedom!

 

Most Common Misconceptions About Posture In Viola/Violin Playing

by Rozanna Weinberger

Have you ever noticed how many string players tend to carry themselves with a

JaschaHeifetzPlaying

Jascha Heifetz Now that’s posture!

curvature of the spine and sloping  shoulders and back, even when not playing the instrument? Its amazing how we can develop physical habits unconsciously. The thing is, you’d never see a dancer develop a slumping posture over time. Sure its in their skill sets to develop a super fit body but its also part of their skill sets to learn how to use the body optimally.  When you think about it, why shouldn’t such considerations as optimal body movement be part of a string players skill sets?

Particularly in orchestras, players often carry themselves with shoulders sloped inwards. This is not a criticism but an observation and may in part be an effort to get closer to the music stand or could be a result of fatigue. The subtle workings of the upper body and abdominal muscles are only recently becoming understood when it comes to their impact on optimal string playing. And while its certainly possible to ‘get away’ with sloppy posture with respect to string playing it ultimately comes down to the ability to do difficult things (playing the instrument) easily or with great difficulty. Herein lies the difference between players that are considered naturals vs. everyone else and if they do seem natural chances are they’re moving efficiently to a large degree.

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Google photos The clavicle forms a wonderful natural ‘shelf’ for the instrument.

In general, anything  that makes it more difficult to counter the effects of gravity, with respect to violin hold, will inevitably lead to gripping the violin between the head & shoulder. While curving and simultaneously jutting forward the shoulders is a typical stance of many string players, a healthy relationship to the instrument requires the exact opposite impulse. Otherwise the instrument will want to fall because of the angle created while slumping the shoulders forward. The tendency to jut the shoulders forward is a way of compensating for a sense of insecurity in holding the violin. On the other hand, if the upper toros is sufficiently supported by the abdominal muscles then the upper body can also effectively counter the weight of the violin and head in supporting the instrument. Turns out,  all those illusive muscles we have trained in Pilates, and the like, really did have a use in daily life besides helping us have a better shape.  When the shoulders are free to rest atop the rib cage, they can also support and counter the weight of the instrument and head, in a more efficient manner.

While it seems that many virtuosi tend to hold their instrument up high in reality this is a more effective way to counter the effects of gravity, so long as the overall posture is not slumping. This makes possible the use of the clavicle as a perfect natural ‘shelf’ for the violin. But if the upper body is slumping, if the torso is not sufficiently supported by the right muscles, the upper body and will instead be curved forward, making it easy for the instrument to fall to the ground, thanks to gravity.

Most players struggle with keeping their shoulders ‘relaxed’ and the propensity for the shoulder to be elevated stiffly to support the viola/violin and the impulse to tense the shoulder upward in bow arm technique are born of the same fundamental misunderstanding.

Most string players use the shoulders to replace activities that should be happening in other parts of the torso.  The notion that we ‘hold ourselves up’ by elevating the shoulders could be replaced with utilizing those muscles we’re encouraged to use in Pilates.

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Enter a caption Courtesy of link provided.

A simple motion study of sitting in an arm chair, or any chair that enables one to press the hands against either the arm rests or seat itself. While in seated position, start by pressing the palms of your hands against the arm rest to get out of the chair and notice how the torso responds, elevating itself upwards as the hScreenshot 2017-04-01 14.39.07ands press down and push off against the arm rests. Those illusive muscles that enable us to elevate the torso should also be engaged when playing the viola or violin.  If these muscles are doing their job, the shoulders will not be as likely to replace this support. Further, the improved posture will support a body angle less likely to cause instrument to fall.

What does it look and feel like to balance the instrument vs. gripping with shoulder and head? Learning this process can feel like a vulnerable state. And it really does take time, patience and observation.  And lest the player confuse the use of a high shoulder rest with a balanced and genuinely  secure position, unless the player masters the ability to respond to the ever changing balancing act of holding their instrument, similar to an aerial artist on a tightrope, the player will have to deal with shoulders that are not sufficiently unencumbered. Because when our shoulders and head aren’t engaged in gripping the instruments, we are left to discover the extent to which we seem to have little or no control over the instrument. But that is also the point where balance can be happen and self discovery begins.

 

 

Common Misconceptions About A Career in Violin (also Viola & Cello)

by Rozanna Weinberger

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Young Shira follows her unique path..

While I don’t really enjoy drawing attention to how far I go back, I can confidently say there was a time when the choice for string players primarily included orchestra, chamber music, teaching and if you were very lucky, a solo career. There also seemed to be a more widespread appeal and respect for classical.  No doubt the lack of music education for many children has meant lack of exposure to these refined art forms.

Still its interesting to note string players have gravitated with greater frequency to idols like Jazz, New Age, Rock,etc. In modern times, the chances of getting into an orchestra is becoming increasingly competitive vs. the number of capable musicians graduating from schools. And while most students are probably advised to seek other musical options, most students are trained to fit into some kind of ‘pre formed’ group or institution.

And thats the rub..

In that sense it is a misconception to think its enough to seek a pre formed ensemble vs. utilizing ones entrepreneurial and creative inclinations. While there was a time when striking out on ones own seemed rife with worrisome ‘unknowns’ the wise music student is better off developing the survival skills to create for oneself – and others – where possible, a path that is incorporates ones unique skills while developing others to forge a path that is value creating, beautiful and sustainable.

Lindsey Stirling

Lindsey Stirling successfully forged a unique path unlike any violinist that came before her!

Sure its clear there are different types of options requiring different sets of skills.  For example Jazz, Fiddle, Rock reading charts and knowing chord changes.

Still, thinking that these skills alone are enough, may lead the most talented players to a frustrating place if they don’t discover ways to take matters into their own hands and ‘create their fate’.

In contemporary times it seems more musical institutions are inching towards course work that better prepares students for contemporary society. Jazz, Blues, improv, are options frequently offered to string players and the teachers, performers and educational programs are filling these important roles. And while its true it makes perfect sense to try to prepare students for these options, the truth is students must ultimately forge a path based on many unknowns and uncertainties. So the real question is how to prepare and empower students for these uncertainties. 

The following are basic components of the creative entrepreneurial artist. 

  • The Creative Process
  • Value Creation
  • Working Independently
  • Working With Others
  • Implementation and Actualization of Idea

The Creative Process

A creative education should address questions such as: How do these insights happen? What allows someone to transform a mental block into a breakthrough and why does the answer appear when it’s least expected? While creativity seems like an obvious component of a musical education, music teachers can afford to treat it like the science it has come to represent with some of the most creative and successful institutions, whether it be a manufacturing giant like 3M or a creative animation company like Pixar.

According to author Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine – How Creativity Works, every creative journey begins with a problem.  It is a dull ache and frustration at not being able to find the answer. While such an experience often stops many artists in their path, it’s important for students to realize that such an experience is actually an important part of the process and that is a fact based in science!  For many students that ‘dull ache’ may be the sense there is a dream deep inside yet nothing in the world that matches that possibility.

The entrepreneurial student will hopefully realize that we may be called upon to create that perfect tailor made job, group, artistic endeavor. it is at the point when we realize that we must create our ideal creative path, that we can also recognize the skills we lack, that must be strengthened and cultivated in order to build for ourselves a fabulous future. This ability to land on ones feet in the face of such unknowns is also a product of the creative life.

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Miles Davis forged his unique creative path as an artist.

 

There are many entrepreneurial programs already in existence that teach skill sets needed and these will always be important considerations.  But fostering creativity, and a students’ ability to forge a path that can be successful in modern society encompasses a whole world of skill sets that the music school of the 21st c. should  hope to foster.

Value Creation

The concept of value creation originated from the pioneering educator,  Tsunesaburo Makiguchi, encompassing the goals of the modern educators, namely beauty, good and gain. While beauty and gain are fairly self explanatory, the idea of ‘good’ is slightly more illusive as the relation of what one does and its effect on the world, are rarely contemplated. But I do believe that if an artists perspective can mature by addressing ways of resonating with peoples hearts and minds without stooping to any means possible to garner attention.

 

It’s a funny thing, the state the world is in today with the economy and no jobs. This is the perfect setting for a relationship of courage and creativity to manifest within many walks of life. It is a time for great creativity.    

Wayne Shorter, Adventures On The Golden Mean, Interview,   Jan. 2012 

Value creation is a very important aspect and can be addressed from many points of view. It can suggest a ‘supply and demand’ perspective, such as providing a service or product that is needed. But it can also be cultivated by ‘purpose’ ‘a calling’ or the will to positively impact our world. It is a common misconception among artists that if our art doesn’t resonate with the world around us, the problem is the world. Sometimes we’re the problem, if we are unable to adjust to the changing times and if we do not recognize ways we can grow as artists and human beings.

The basic question, then, is toward what ends and in the interests of what values human creativity is to be directed. Proper education…that enables each individual to perceive life in the context of its nurturing community, human beings will choose to use their creative capabilities both to enhance their own lives to the fullest and to create maximum benefit for their community. Tsunesaburo Makiguchi,  Educator

I’m in the environmental business also. I’m in the business of improving the environment for the human spirit.” And that’s what the arts do. They expand our view of the world. They allow us to be enlightened, to be engaged, to be happy, to be sad, to be introspective, to be extroverted. The arts make us human. Dr. Joseph Polisi, President, The Juilliard School

Working Independently

Many people have dreams and goals for themselves but most people suffer because they believe the power to move forward with a dream is dependent on others.  While it’s absolutely true none of us can live in isolation nor is it possible to accomplish a dream in isolation, there is much that the individual can do. Much action that can be taken before funding and outside support comes into play.  Learning how to do this and developing the confidence to do this is key to fostering new ideas and projects. Objectives can include using one’s natural gifts, using untapped skills, and developing needed skills.

Working With Others

What do we learn about certain groups that are more productive than others? Why is it that working with only fellow artists you’re most comfortable with isn’t always the best way to get great results? 

  • Have workshops to develop ideas and problem solving with a variety of  people. What skills can students learn to effectively make something interesting with other participants.  What is the ‘quotient’ for optimal productivity?
  • Eventually a possible goal will be to cultivate collaborations within the school  across disciplines that might not otherwise be developed. For example a musician may wish to work with a handful of dancers, an actor may wish to work with a composer to score a show.
  • Develop collaborations outside the school. Discuss project with other schools such as arts administration programs at Columbia, Brooklyn College. Get actual experience honing a performance, discover the challenges of booking an artistic event, go back to the drawing board, learn while doing, how to create something viable that can resonate and find an audience. Students may also wish to work with artistic disciplines outside the school such as costume & set design.
  • What can students build without the structure of pre-formed ensembles?
  • What would they do?  How would they start? Who to team up with?

Implementation and Actualization Of Idea

While transfer of knowledge has always been an important component of education, every human being has a personal learning curve in terms of weaknesses in one’s ability, vision, business acumen.  No two people can ever follow exactly the same path, so reading a book about how someone else had success, will really only show students part of what they need to know.  Discovering one’s own personal weaknesses along the way is an unavoidable step in the process.  How we recognize, remedy the situation will spell victory or defeat.

It is a common misconception to think a teacher or successful artist has the answers to another persons path.  While its possible to learn from others experiences or connections, ultimately no one can forge our path for us but ourselves. Any musician forging an authentic path in life will reach a point where its obvious its impossible to walk in anyone else shoes but our own!

Students should  ideally have the opportunity to get ‘real world’ feedback. They can gain invaluable experience in beginning something, even from a seedling, and ultimately becoming one’s own best teacher, learning on one’s feet what the challenges are every step of the way. Students can cultivate their creative resources and learn a valuable self-reliance and freedom that can pave the way to one’s future.

Students may be at various levels of development in their projects and may be encouraged to continue on their path as they employ skills learned from these seminars. Actualization is the process and ideally it is eventually a tangible result. For some it may be the seedlings of a new dance company, for others it may mean getting booked for a performance of a developed project at a venue outside the school.  For other entrepreneurs it may mean creating the seedlings of a new company from the nucleus of a well thought out plan. Execution means putting the project through the flames through individual experiences by each student, getting real world responses and thinking on one’s feet to shift as necessary to bring about a positive result.

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Alex Cameron facing infinite possibilities

 

 

Common Misconceptions About Holding the Violin: Balanced vs. Unbalanced

by Rozanna Weinberger

Violin hold is one of the biggest enigmas for many string players from beginner to advancing players. Sure its easy enough to grip the violin between the head & neck like a vice until the pain becomes incapacitating. Its even possible to consider pain a ne132619566_21ncessary trade off for playing a beautiful musical instrument.

Imagine if a tight rope walker tried to cling to the rope between its toes to grip the rope. It really doesnt work and the tight rope walker would certainly fall to the ground. Problem is, a violinist won’t fall to their death but they will make playing much more difficult for themselves. Isn’t accuracy hard enough without making it harder for ourselves to play?

Observations: Without the instrument, raise the left shoulder to the head while compressing the neck towards the shoulder.  Next bring up the arm as if to play the violin or viola.  Notice how much the range of the arm is shortened when the space between the head, neck and shoulders is also shortened. This contraction makes it difficult to comfortably bring the arm around the instrument and this is especially unfortunate when trying to shift in high positions.

img_2736Bring the arm down.  This time simply bring up the arm in a curved position as if playing the violin.  Of course theres no need to raise the shoulder or squeeze the head since theres no instrument to contend with.  But imagine if it were possible to play while maintaining a similar feeling of length in the neck and shoulder!

Notice how easy it is to touch the fingers to your nose when a similar distance on the finger board can feel like a treacherous distance to navigate while holding the violin or viola. At the very least a decrease in squeezing the neck & shoulder makes it so much easier to get around the instrument.

While there are various theories on how to get around this issue, many of which involve a shoulder rest or other such device to position the violin to the body, such methods can short circuit the potential to balance the instrument. Why is this? Balance is an active experience with subtle changes and adjustments. Positioning an instrument is a far more static approach.  

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Catherine demonstrates when violin is tipped too far to the right.

Mind you plenty of string players have to deal with a long neck or sense that the distance between the head & shoulder needs to be filled up in some way. To a degree there are case by case physical considerations. Still the way we understand how to carry our upper bodies is a very big piece of the puzzle.

One factor this entry will address is angle of the violin as a clue on balancing the instrument.  Notice how Catherine has the violin positioned too far too the right. This is one of the most common issues with beginners.  Feels right because the player can stare down the fingerboard. And because gripping the instrument is the knee jerk approach it may seem easier to bare down with the chin when violin is positioned to much in front of the body.

Ultimately the player must discover where the real support needs to take place. Suffice it to say if the upper body is sufficiently supported by those illusive abdominal muscles most people engage when doing such activities as pilates, dance and other spine lengthening activities, the player will be less inclined to elevate the shoulders, which to a large degree can passively rest atop the rib cage rather than be used to hold the violin and body up. Using the shoulders in this manner is ultimately inefficient.