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Laurie Niles

Does it hurt when you play?

June 16, 2006 at 6:18 AM

BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- Does it hurt when you play?

I returned to the lecture tent at the Colorado Suzuki Institute today to hear Suzuki pedagogue and University of Minnesota professor Mark Bjork address this issue.

Musicians repeat the same motions hundreds, even thousands, of times, he said. "All of this puts stress on the body," Bjork said. "We can use the same principles of good body alignment to avoid repetitive stress injuries."

Teachers should think well about how they set up their students with the violin and bow. Sometimes this can mean re-thinking traditions or going against the recommendations of former teachers.

"Even though the great teacher so-and-so taught us to do something, maybe we need to do something else," Bjork said. We don't want to set up our students, or ourselves, for future injury.

For example, Suzuki students first learn how to stand, and commonly they are taught to step the left foot forward to achieve the proper playing position. But this position twists the pelvis and back. It might be better to simply put play the feet shoulder-width apart, side by side.

Shoulder tension often afflicts violinists, and it can be avoided by making sure a student is comfortable before attempting to play. Bjork recommended simply straight ahead, turning the head and dropping it. The shoulder and head should not clench the violin.

Excessive finger pressure can lead to forearm tension, and that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Sometimes exercises meant to increase finger strength actually lead to too much finger pressure. When the fingers are pressing too hard, Bjork suggested having students play a harmonic on the notes, then gradually depress the string only to the point where the note sounds. The brain needs to know where that threshold is, so that it can send the proper message to the fingers to press enough, but not too much.

He said that a wrist vibrato tends to be less stiff than an arm vibrato, and that the wrist vibrato should be cultivated first, then supplemented with arm vibrato as needed for dramatic parts of music. Having only an arm vibrato can lead to tension.

An excessively tight bow hold can result from exercises aimed at developing thumb strength. When the bow thumb is gripping too hard, a student can try holding the bow out in front, loosely, then releasing the thumb and letting the bow drop just a few inches. "Find where that point is where it's being held just enough to keep the bow from dropping," Bjork said.

The chin rest and shoulder rest combinations can make a huge difference in a violinist's comfort level. But the same solution does not work for everyone. "There are many different sizes and shapes of people," Bjork said. They have different jaw lines, length of necks, collar bone placement and shoulder shapes.

To have every student buy the same shoulder and chin rests would be like requiring everyone to buy size 9½ shoes. "We are all very, very different," he said.

Injuries tend to happen during changes: when one gets a new instrument, practices extra for a performance or audition, or when one is playing repertoire that is too demanding.

Pain is the body's way of saying something is wrong, and it should not be ignored, Bjork said. "We want to be really careful what we do with our bodies if we are going to use them to play the violin.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 16, 2006 at 6:33 AM
Laurie, I love reading your blogs about violin teaching, and this one is no exception. I agree that it is important to keep the body as relaxed as possible and that this means different postures for different students. The idea of not scrunching the neck and shoulder is good, but it is difficult for those of us with long necks. Violin playing has contributed to my severe case of TMJ. I have found adjusting posture to the individual's body is especially important for adult beginners who have accumulated years of stress, wear, and tear on their bodies. When concentrating hard on doing something correctly, people often tense the involved muscles. One of my trainers in the gym tipped me off that I do it, and I see my students do it frequently. In fact, I am learning a lot about playing and teaching violin from my own experiences with physical therapists and athletic trainers. The human hands and arms are capable of many kinds of movements, and often, the muscle skills needed for playing violin are not used for anything else in our daily routines. Playing violin is so complicated physically that I often wonder how I ever learned to do it, but I'm glad I did.
From Samantha Hiller
Posted on June 16, 2006 at 1:43 PM
Mark Bjork was my teacher at a Suzuki Institute last summer and I was having major wrist problems at that point, and he helped me out a TON...almost to the point of the wrist problems not bugging me anymore....
From Jon Holland
Posted on June 17, 2006 at 6:16 AM
I liked what this teacher had to say, but I would invite readers to read the threads I wrote about injury on this site. I would also invite you to read what Dylana Jensen wrote about it too. As well as the comments about this from Ricci and Perlman. The bottom line is that most of what is "orthodox" today was not orthodox before, and the way the old guys played (no shoulder rest, violin more infront of them and much lower, thumb out, not under the neck, simple write vibrato, etc.) led to a lot less injuries. Yet I doubt if many teachers today wout put up with Perlman's or Ricci's left hand thumb way out position, or with Milstein's and Francescatti's violin positon, which was very low.

I think teacher's should think about that!

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