Is pain from playing a modern invention?

December 30, 2017, 10:01 PM · Another thread about pain while playing got me thinking- Has anyone ever read any pre 1900s accounts of pain caused by violin playing? Suggestions from books or letters on how to deal with/correct it? Or is this strictly a new phenomenon?

Replies (40)

December 31, 2017, 10:24 AM · What kind of pain?
Edited: December 31, 2017, 2:23 PM · No gain without pain . Define pain.
December 31, 2017, 11:38 AM · Any kind of pain, I'd guess.
December 31, 2017, 1:03 PM · My understanding of “pain” in this context is that it means any lasting discomfort, of whatever degree, arising solely out of playing the violin. It usually comes on after a short period of playing, if often present long after playing has finished, and is of a degree to inhibit playing and further progress. It is clearly different from the natural muscular and mental tiredness you can get from an intensive orchestral rehearsal or performance, a tiredness which disappears after a few hours rest and sleep and is gone the next day.

Pain through violin playing is usually a consequence of tension and poor posture, which are inextricably interlinked. I'm excluding pain arising out of injury or disease, which would need medical attention.

Here is a brief timeline of add-ons (shoulder and chin rests), which I think is relevant:
1820 the chin rest was invented and patented by the teacher, performer and composer Louis Spohr, and was adopted throughout the violin world during the remainder of the 19th century.
1950 (approx) the shoulder rest came into use and was well-nigh ubiquitous within a remarkably short space of time. I don't know who invented the first one.

The function of the chin rest is to stop the violin from sliding forward, particularly when coming down from high positions, by providing the rest with a depression in which the chin can catch. All chin rests are shaped in this manner. The chin rest should be of a height such that the player does not have to significantly drop their head in order to get the chin into that depression – all that is needed is gravity, no muscular effort by the neck. In addition, the violin should be supported underneath by the collar bone, which takes a significant proportion of the weight of the violin, not necessarily by violin-skin contact – a layer of clothing is quite normal. The remainder of the violin's weight is taken by a relaxed non-gripping left hand that can slide up and down the neck as necessary.

I'll just mention here that before 1820 violinists were taught ways and means of moving easily between the positions, high and low. These methods are still in use by Baroque violinists today.

It follows from the above that a shoulder rest is unnecessary; so why was it invented sometime about 1950? My thinking is that, perhaps for reasons arising out of WW2 and its aftermath, teaching of good posture and relaxation fell into abeyance, with the result that pupils were getting tension and discomfort and having problems in shifting. The quick fix turned out to be the shoulder rest. About 1952, in my school orchestra, in which I then played cello, a couple of violinists showed up with shoulder rests, to the amazement of the conductor who had never seen such “contraptions”. Within the year, all the violinists were using them. The word had got around and the shoulder rest makers were on a roll.
The thing was that unless the shoulder-rest is very carefully fitted to the user and – this is most important – used in conjunction with proper teaching of posture and tension-free playing it was not going to solve pre-existing pain problems. Inevitably, another shoulder rest would be purchased to solve the problem, which it may not have, so another one would be got until perhaps some sort of playing comfort was eventually achieved. All more good business for the shoulder rest makers, I have no doubt. This still goes on, as we can deduce from some postings on this forum.

I wonder if in the 1950s era the generality of violin teachers weren't placing as much emphasis on posture and relaxation, the shoulder rest now being seen as a quick solution and being considered an integral part of the violin which pupils were expected to use.

I must make it clear that I am not against the shoulder rest as such provided proper care is taken in its selection and there is proper teaching of tension-free posture and relaxation.

December 31, 2017, 1:17 PM · “Ubiquitous” seems about right.

It seems that these days using a shoulder rest is a “given”. As soon as a child is given a violin, a SR is immediately strapped across the back of it, “just because”. A shoulder rest can certainly be a significant asset, but only if adjusted properly for a given persons physique. And for some, perhaps it is better not used at all. I’d advocate for SR education not indoctrination.

I have never read the book, but perhaps “Playing Less Hurt” May have some more historical background info on pain and playing?

December 31, 2017, 1:45 PM · Scott, I was thinking generally of discussions of pain or discomfort in early violin literature. It's pretty common today to pick up a book on violin technique and get very specific descriptions of avoiding pain or discomfort, but not in the really old sources.

Trevor, you bring up an excellent point- these apparatus inventions- and there were many, even before Sphor indicate that people were trying to solve particular problems.

December 31, 2017, 1:47 PM · I think really young kids start with sponges because there really aren't a lot of good shoulder rest models for tiny violins. Plus, kids have been known to complain about the hardness of certain shoulder rest models. I think that the decision to use a shoulder rest or not is largely dependent on physique except for Baroque performance. Some people really need shoulder rests, some can make do with a pad, and others are fine with nothing. The chin rest must fit the player's physique. The shoulder rest shouldn't be used to compensate for a low chin rest.
December 31, 2017, 2:31 PM · Shoulder rests have a tendency to create more problems than they solve . The art of playing without them can be acquired by anyone of any physique.
December 31, 2017, 4:00 PM · Really? If you have a long neck, you would need a really high chin rest, and there's a limit to that. In the olden days, repertoire was less challenging. Now, we need a really secure hold because the repertoire is more challenging.
December 31, 2017, 4:40 PM · "In the olden days, repertoire was less challenging. Now, we need a really secure hold because the repertoire is more challenging."

To be devil's advocate, I want challenge that assumption. If musicians like Biber wrote music that went up to at least 7th position and played the violin on the chest (below the collarbone), what does that tell us?

Not saying I will play Tchaikovsky concerto with the violin on the chest, but from historical sources, violinists played incredibly difficult music without the head securing the instrument (and of course without chin rest or shoulder rest).

December 31, 2017, 5:10 PM · Some people have suggested that the topic of pain was avoided because talking about until the second half of the 20th century could jeopardize one's career. If you mentioned any kind of discomfort, orchestras can see it as a sign that you won't last long, so people kept their issues to themselves. Seems plausible!
December 31, 2017, 6:48 PM · Pain is older than (wo)mankind. Acknowledging pain is a more recent thing.
December 31, 2017, 7:52 PM · I think Dorian's right, I'm wrong, but how did they do it? They definitely didn't spend as much time in the high positions, I guess, and vibrato wasn't as important.
Edited: December 31, 2017, 9:03 PM · > The art of playing without them [shoulder rests]
> can be acquired by anyone of any physique.

Except that for some physiques, the amount of tension and pain that would cause, or limitations to their technique, would render playing unsatisfactory.

There are definitely more than a few people for whom the standard height of a violin rib + a chinrest is not sufficient to provide a stable hold given the physical makeup of a person's jawbone, collarbone, and shoulders.

Children starting at a young age (3+) grow rapidly and their physical layout does not grow proportionally in all areas equally, simultaneously. At times, they may need a sponge, a shoulder rest, a thin cloth, sometimes nothing, sometimes something. It is a dynamic challenge that has to be met with analysis and a problem-solving approach, and not "all or nothing" dogma.

December 31, 2017, 9:31 PM · There is one more aspect of violin players life style. In 18-19th, violinist were practicing, performing, eating and sleeping. The rest of the time was a permanent hard physical work. No cars, no water in the tap, no wc, no elevators, no sitting in front of computers etc. Have you tried to live without electricity? Did you ever take care of a horse? Did you try to bring a water bucket from a next street and lift it up the 5th floor? What about to bring it back down full of....?
Did you chop woods for your house? Do you walk 10-15 km a day as average to rich all you daily activity? In the childhood, did you spend all your time outside?

All the pain violinist get is partly due to tension during practicing, but mostly due to not relaxation after. And physical activity helps to train all the muscles, balance all the tensions and assure the blood circulation. In 17th-19th, even first half of 20th century, the whole life was a fitness center. Today you do 40 min yoga twice a week, keeping all the tension from practicing with you.

Put on top the diet of former life: almost no meet, bread and sugar are luxury, as well as salt. only fresh milk, eggs, and organic veggi and local season fruits, whole corn. No preservatives, no glutamate, no fat, no fast food. And everything of those things in limited amount. The diet affects a lot the liquid circulation, and thus pain in muscles.

December 31, 2017, 9:44 PM · Does that mean people who exercise frequently, or have an active job, are less likely to develop music-related injuries?
December 31, 2017, 9:46 PM · There's always pain after playing for long periods of time. You can reduce the pain you feel, or increase the time you can practice before you feel pain by stretching before practicing, and taking breaks in between. Personally, I prefer to not take breaks in between because the blood flow from playing keeps me from feeling pain quickly, and if I take a break, the blood flow slows down so I have to warm up again. It really depends on how taxing on the muscles whatever you're doing is.

A good way to try and increase this time period is by slowly increasing practice periods each week. The Navy SEALs go by the rule that each week your bones can handle 10% more exercise, and that should generally be the rule violinists abide by, unless they have superhuman bone regeneration.

January 1, 2018, 2:38 AM · I think there's an interesting more general question: How did the whole of society treat pain before about 1950?

I'd guess that modern violinists spend more of their lives playing the violin, and doing more demanding things with it, than previous generations - so are more vulnerable to violin-induced pain.

I'd also guess that since the first violins, the rest of life has become significantly less painful. Don't forget that for most of the history of the violin, children were routinely beaten (including for not doing music practice properly ;) ), painkillers and anaesthesia were unheard of, if you had any kind of surgery you would be awake throughout (maybe with some alcohol if you were lucky), most of the population was engaged in back-breaking labour (which probably resulted in far worse postural pain than merely waving a light piece of wood around), toothache could only be solved by wrenching the tooth out entirely...

So whatever has happened with the level of pain faced by violinists, I suspect that the level of pain in the rest of everyone's lives has reduced significantly.

January 1, 2018, 4:01 AM · Some more thoughts:

Gigging string musicians in the 17th-18th centuries often doubled other instruments (often wind) instruments. Their challenges wasn't in mastering the up bow staccato and tenths, but learning (what we might think to be really easy) repertoire that was often played by memory, and unifying ornaments and to certain degrees in different regions, unifying bowings, all without music.

The virtuoso composer-instrumentalists wrote stuff they excelled at. Locatelli must have been really good at super high stuff (certainly he wouldn't had tortured himself if he was bad at it!); Corelli was not so great beyond 3rd position-ish by multiple accounts but played with incredibly beautiful ornaments and tone, and was given the name "Arcomelos".

Corelli didn't try to be Locatelli, and vice versa. People mostly played their own music and their music reflected what they were good at.

We as modern musicians are expected to be able to play music by all composers. It takes no great leap of imagination to think what would happen when lots of people spends lots of hours in the practice room trying to nail their runs in fingered octaves or highly specialized technique for lessons/juries/competitions/whatever.

Without doubt the modern violinist has a larger technical palette, but I believe at a cost of higher rate of injury.

January 1, 2018, 5:19 AM · With apologies to Trevor's, I also want to put his neat timeline in context.

---> "1820 the chin rest was invented and patented by the teacher, performer and composer Louis Spohr, and was adopted throughout the violin world during the remainder of the 19th century."

Yes it's true he patented the chinrest in 1820, but it wasn't taken up by practically anyone. Certainly by the towards of the 1800s we see the pros (e.g. Joachim) using the left side mounted chinrest, or Sarasate and his hook device, but I'm hard-pressed to find any photos of amateurs or fiddlers with a violin that had a chin rest. Paganini didn't use it. Joachim in his earlier career also didn't use it.

I only want to caution that when we read "Spohr invented the chinrest in 1820", it's easy to assumed that BOOM — everyone went out and bought one. And that would be as just as crazy for someone in the 23rd century to say we all use a self-driving electric car in 2017.

Re: Ella's question on high positions and "how did they do it" — you often find an "escape" note that is an open string, that gives you time in some fashion get back lower positions. Random example that comes to mind is Bach's Laudamus Te violin solo, it's entirely possible to do it chin off and I have seen it done chin off too. After all the brilliant high stuff you are given an open A string to return to earth.

I fear the chin rest, which has great benefits, has also erased an older system of fingering that for the most part did not demand the chin to stabilize the instrument, but by extension, neck-pain free. Johann Prinner in 1670s would of course famously argue otherwise, but he was in the minority (or ahead of his time).

January 1, 2018, 6:13 AM · To be honest "how they did it" becomes fairly apparent if you spend much time playing Baroque repertoire on a Baroque-setup instrument.

1) you use "stepping shifts" where your thumb remains in position supporting the instrument until the fingers have moved, then use the base of the first finger to support the instrument when moving the thumb
2) it's possible to temporarily use the chin for support on the tailpiece during a shift, even if mainly you are 'chin off'
3) as Dorian notes, largely Baroque music is composed to make shifting possible (funny that ;) ). Not only are there conveniently placed rests and open strings but the whole musical concept is far less legato, so it's easier to find time to shift.

January 1, 2018, 10:41 AM · Good points, guys.
January 1, 2018, 2:02 PM · And, maybe they had just as many problems as we do, but did not have access to modern medicine, physical therapy, x-rays, etc., so they just dropped out of the business and became unknown.
January 1, 2018, 2:38 PM · Another possibility. Thanks everyone.
January 1, 2018, 3:03 PM · Sorry, I must quibble with a couple of points:

1. I'm with Ella- Baroque music is much easier than more modern music. *It's not easy, especially for the right hand, and baroque players added a lot more of their own ornamentations, but it's still nowhere near as difficult as a modern concerto.
2. I played the Rosary Sonatas at church a couple of years ago and a couple of his chamber works, and those parts don't go up to 7th position. I could be wrong, but I don't remember anything that high. Prove me wrong, :)
3. "There's always pain after playing for long periods of time." Hmmm... there really shouldn't be, provided you're in reasonably decent shape- no existing neck, back, etc. injuries. I can play for 5 hours without pain. 8+ and I start getting into muscle fatigue.

January 1, 2018, 3:41 PM · It's normal to get mentally tired after playing difficult music after a long time. If you don't take breaks and play for 5 huors straight or the like, you might get tired from playing too much nonstop. Some insane-difficult Baroque music can include Bach's Chaconne, but the challenges are different from, say, Schaiovsky Concerto. Instead of crazy shifting stuff and fancy techniques, you're faced with loads of double stops, a different challenge.
Edited: January 1, 2018, 6:22 PM · For high notes in Biber...try his 1681 sonatas:

For even higher and more difficult stuff, Locatelli comes to mind:

Jump to 12:20

January 1, 2018, 6:42 PM · Sorry if I have moved the thread away from the original inquiry...it's a very interesting question. I'm not an expert on historical sources, but can only say from the few dozen of instrumental treatises I've come across, the authors would only describe what they considered to be proper way of holding the instrument.

Indeed why would anyone go about advertising one's pain from playing if one is trying to sell one's method?

But there were of course hundreds and hundreds of books on curing maladies since people had pain just as we do now. Here's a historical treatment for your neck pain from Bald's Leechbook:

"For neck pain boil the lower part of nettle in o's grease and in butter, then smear the thigh for neck pain, and if the thigh should be painful smear the neck with the salve. Again, boil the lower part of nettle in vinegar, put ox's gall in the vinegar and take the plant out, smear the neck with it."

January 1, 2018, 6:49 PM · Not violin but cello related — an analysis on poor Boccherini and his scoliosis:

https://www.scribd.com/document/291209576/Case-of-Occupational-Disease

January 1, 2018, 7:13 PM · People in the 19th century didn't complain as much as we do. If they did, it was either about gout or the vapors. One or the other. That's it.
Edited: January 2, 2018, 2:41 PM · As is usually the case, I would have to say the answer lies in "it's a bit of everything."

People in the olden days probably thought pain was just normal.

The repertoire, in general, was just less difficult for the average player.

People exercised more.

Things like pain weren't well-documented. Most of the time, a violinist in pain probably just told the guy next to him "damn, my shoulder really hurts.... oh well." And that was the end of the record-keeping trail.

Not to mention the classic: "well, I have to do this to feed myself, so pain is my last concern."

Edited: January 2, 2018, 4:14 PM · That Locatelli recording above is fantastic! Reminds me why baroque violin music is my favorite.

I'm not into heavy metal guitar music, but my sense is that people who are have a similar reaction to someone shredding as I do to this. I have a similar feeling whenever I hear some Bach organ music just played fantastically, for which Bach was clearly to the organ what Locatelli was to the violin.

January 2, 2018, 7:35 PM · Scott, you forgot consumption, syphilis, and the grippe.
January 3, 2018, 8:21 AM · My usual musical bookshop in Paris must have a group of customers roughly my age. When I tried to slip discreetly into my 50s, I found they started to stock books on musician's ailments..
Edited: January 3, 2018, 1:32 PM · Certainly any pain resultant from using the chin as an aid to steady the violin would only date back to the 1750's. I think they had more sense before then. Geminiani calls it a distortion. In the same period piano hammers got heavier and heavier and key dip deeper and deeper.
January 3, 2018, 2:33 PM · I don't think heavy hammers and deeper dip came about till the 20th century.
January 3, 2018, 2:58 PM · Not according to Hummel.
January 6, 2018, 12:06 AM · I’m not really answering the poster’s question but in my own case I would have back, neck, and shoulder pain when playing with a SR for long periods. I bought every SR on the market to try and get comfortable. I only became pain free when I ditched the SR. I still use a CR however. I stress this was a solution for me, but it will depend on your physiology and technique what is best for you.

Cheers Carlo

Edited: January 6, 2018, 3:02 AM · The modern piano was established by 1900, it hasn't really developed in a good way since then, from 1750-1900 it evolved gradually from a harpsichord case with light hammers to the heavy modern piano we know today. The compass of the piano also gradually evolved from under 5 octaves to the 88 keys we have today, I have an 1862 Broadwood upright, It has a wood frame instead of metal and instead of three strings per note in the treble it only has two, and it has 82 notes instead of 88. Broadwood was famous for making one of Beethoven's pianos in the early 1800s.
January 6, 2018, 3:36 AM · Biber's Rosary sonata goes into 6th at bar 67. That's as high as the Rosary Sonatas get. The others are almost exclusively in 1st, with a tiny bit of 3rd and I don't think anything else. (He got the effects he needed from scordatura, not from going high up the instrument!)


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