Like most violin students, I was taught to hold my violin between my chin and my shoulder like so:
The reasoning behind this way of holding your instrument is that it will let your left arm be free for shifting, fingering, and vibrato. I held my violin this way for many years and never had any problems until I attended conservatory at Carnegie Mellon and started to experience pain in my arms, neck, and back while playing violin. Only after studying the Alexander Technique did I discover that this way of holding my violin may have been the root cause of my muscular pain. It was only when I learned to hold my violin more with my left hand so that the area between my chin and shoulder (read: “neck”) wasn’t so tight that I began to recover from my chronic pain. But don’t take my word for it – let’s do an experiment!
First, put your hands up in the air and wiggle your fingers. It’s nothing special - just see what you notice about how it feels and where your arms end up. Put your arms down.
Now, move your head down so you take a bit of a slump. If it helps, pretend you have a violin under your chin. Then, bring your hands back up and see what you notice. Is it any different?
You can probably see from this picture that my arms don’t go up all the way. You may notice as well that your arms and back feel a lot heavier, and it may be downright uncomfortable.
So here’s the next question: which way does your head move when you’re gripping your violin between your chin and shoulder – more up or more down? Of course, your head moves down onto your chin rest and your shoulder moves up under your shoulder rest, pinning your violin in place. Now, recall our little experiment: what will happen to your arms when your head moves down? The answer is: generally they’ll feel heavier and more effortful. Even if the interference is slight, over your career as a musician that slight wear and tear may have a big effect. Plus, since playing the violin requires such exquisite delicacy, any excess tension or interference in your neck and arms will play an outsized role in terms of your sound and movement efficiency.
Once you see the sense in this, you may see how much this could involve changing the whole way that you play. Here are some of the repercussions of this:
HOLD YOUR VIOLIN LIKE A WEB, NOT A SHELF. If your violin is no longer supported entirely by pinning it between your chin and shoulder (like a shelf), you need to support it in some other way. Think about all the contact points on the violin when you’re playing: chin, shoulder, left hand, and bow. All these four contact points play some role in supporting your instrument.
The way that I discovered through the Alexander Technique is to support the weight of the violin mainly on your shoulder and in your left hand. Don’t hike your shoulder up, nor push it down.
Use your chin or jaw mainly as a means of keeping your violin from sliding down your chest. The only time I find pinning my violin between my chin and shoulder necessary is when I’m shifting from a higher position to a lower position – otherwise my violin would slide along with my hand.
Lastly, your bow plays a role in this as well. Now that you’re not using excess tension and force to pin your violin in place, you may notice that your violin moves around more with your fingers and bow. When you’re making an up-bow, your violin will tilt along with that, and the same will happen with a down-bow. This small tilt may be enough to move your violin so that you need to temporarily grab it with your chin or readjust it with your left hand. Similarly, there’s also the possibility of using your bow direction in order to keep your violin up on your shoulder!
When you play, allow these four spots to “talk” to each other. Sense the movements of the bow and fingers through your chin and shoulder rest, and vice versa. I experience this as if my violin were suspended in a buoyant, flexible web, as opposed to being stuck stiff on my shoulder. If you refrain from pinning your violin in place, you will be allowing your violin to move more. This might be a little scary at first – you don’t want to drop your violin, after all – but I’ve been playing this way for years and I’ve never dropped it. You’ll get used to a more movable situation and will probably appreciate the lightness and freedom in your arms and hands!
YOU MAY NEED TO CHANGE YOUR SET-UP. Specifically, you may notice that you need a higher chin rest or shoulder rest. Ideally, you want to use your body in a similar way to normal sitting or standing, so that your head/neck/back relationship doesn’t change drastically in shape when you have your violin in place. When you’re not pinning your violin in place, you’re also not shortening the distance between your chin and shoulder. Consequently, there will be more space between your chin and shoulder. Some violinists I know compensate for this with a higher, or adjustable chin rest. Although I haven’t tried this personally, it seems like a sensible thing to do. Personally, I use the BonMusica shoulder rest, since it’s very adjustable and can be made very, very tall! It also has a part that wraps up over your shoulder, making less work for your chin in keeping your violin in place. Very useful!
My violin and shoulder rest set-up:
Here are some things I’ve noticed since I’ve changed the way that I play violin:
I use much less effort in playing
I no longer experience pain when playing
I have the sense that I’m in complete control of my arms and hands – that I could play anything of which I could clearly think.
I have a more resonant sound, since I'm squeezing my instrument and bow less.
I actually learn songs more quickly. It seems that when I bring a lot of tension to my playing, these habits actually interfere with my ability to learn.
Of course, I only discovered this through my study of the Alexander Technique, and although you can gain some insight into this on your own, I believe that the most effective way to change your playing for the better is to study with an Alexander Technique teacher.
Joseph Arnold is an Alexander Technique teacher, violinist, and composer living in Philadelphia, PA.
"The Secret of Pain-Free Music" is a method of helping musicians recover from and prevent playing-related injuries, based on the Alexander Technique. Learn how you can become pain-free at www.pain-freemusic.com