I teach a Pilates class for instrumentalists at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Virginia. Though open to all instrumentalists, this class is primarily composed of violinists and violists. I think there is no coincidence there; while all musicians benefit from exercise and physical conditioning, the violin and viola bring some unique physical considerations.
I asked this group of students if they have any physical challenges in playing, and if so, what are those challenges? Two answers from the students caught my attention, and they both have to do with posture. One student talked about trouble with maintaining good posture for long periods of time, like in an orchestra rehearsal. They find themselves fighting the urge to slouch and ending up with back soreness. Another student talked about feeling increasingly stiff and rigid the longer they play. While slouching isn’t the issue here, the end result of soreness is the same.
I see slouched and rigid posture as two sides of the same coin. In Pilates, we focus on balanced muscle development to support healthy posture. Slouching is essentially a muscular imbalance. Simply put, the muscles in the front of the body become relatively shortened and tight while the muscles of the back become relatively lengthened and slack. Rigidity is a strategy to avoid slouching. The body decides to grip its muscles indiscriminately in order to remain upright.
I can certainly relate to both of these. I became interested in movement techniques while I was an undergraduate music major, and I felt that learning to move well would solve many of my playing challenges (to a large extent, I still do).
In my early orchestral career, I decided I would feel great if I sat with excellent posture 100 percent of the time. It only took about 10 minutes of trying to maintain this idea of great posture for me to feel stiff and exhausted; that was rigidity, saying "Hello!" So my body slumped into a slouched position, and from there the back and forth between slouching and rigidity began. I had more to learn about what healthy playing posture is all about.
For many people, the idea of good posture conjures images of sitting or standing bolt upright, shoulders pinned back and chest stuck forward. Instead, I encourage viewing posture as a matter of adaptability. We are built to move, and our bodies have an incredible ability to adapt to accommodate a wide range of movements. While there are guidelines to healthy posture (i.e. ribs over pelvis and shoulders directly under the ears), the key is to cultivate a feeling of buoyancy and lift in the context of moving.
Here are a few ideas for how to develop healthy playing posture:
Your body will change over time, so developing and maintaining healthy posture is a job that’s never finished. I see this as good news! Getting interested in movement will help you feel better in your body and enrich your life as a musician. Ultimately, that’s what working on posture as a musician is all about.
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I remember watching my daughter perform in Regional Orchestra. There were 10 stands each of firsts and seconds, etc., a huge orchestra on a large-ish high-school stage. The chairs were so close to the stands that there was no way anyone could sit on the edges of their chairs as I was taught to do. I experience this in pit orchestras too. In these situations I bring my own stool -- a stool intended for keyboard players but it works fine.
Elena Urioste, who runs a yoga program for violinists with Melissa White, once said to me of yoga practice, "You know, it's just that little bit of extra strength that makes all the difference." She is so right. Something like yoga, which creates extra strength and flexibility in a balanced way, across the entire body (even affecting internal organs) - just creates a foundation that makes everything else a little bit easier to manage.
Yehudi Menuhin said his yoga instructor was his best violin teacher. I’d like to improve my flexibility and core strength. I may try yoga.
Thank you, Susanna! Paul, I think that’s great when you can bring your own stool. We’re all built differently and it’s really good when we’re able to sit in a seat that fits us well. Laurie, I love the idea of the foundation that makes everything else easier to manage. John, I totally encourage you to check out yoga, and you might try Pilates too (of course as a Pilates teacher, I’m a touch biased. :))
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January 28, 2022 at 04:22 AM · Great blog post. Love the idea of springy spine and micro movements. Thank you!