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Clayton Haslop

Avoid THIS Playing Pain

November 18, 2009 at 4:21 PM

Just returned from a quick weekend jaunt over to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I cavorted in the back-country with a friend.  On Sunday we ran through snow showers, arriving well above the 10,000 foot level before making the turn for home.

Got a great, old-fashioned ‘Rocky Mountain High’ on THAT one let me tell you.

Today, however, I’m sitting at my desk facing the red-rock buttes of Sedona.  And I just spent a good hour or so reviewing some wonderful videos on YouTube.

Amongst them was one featuring Zukerman in an interview on violin playing and the importance of learning to play properly. 

The interesting, or perhaps a little confusing thing about this particular video, however, was that Maestro Zukerman begins his remarks by saying how much physical pain he suffers while playing.  And it is within this seemingly ironic context of pain that he expresses the need to learn to play ‘correctly’.

Now, Zukerman is an extra-ordinary violinist, and my comments here should in no way be taken as a criticism of his playing or musicianship. 

I also don’t want to give you the impression that I don’t experience any discomfort whatsoever when I play.  As Zukerman himself points out, the very positions we take when raising the violin are undeniably unnatural to the human body. 

Yet there are things we can do to keep the discomfort to a minimum; to where it does not overwhelm or detract from the pleasure of playing the instrument. 

After all, one of the great pleasures of the playing the violin or viola is the close proximity they have to our ear while we play them. 

We are literally enveloped by the tone.

The irony of Zukerman’s comments, however, arise from his emphasis on learning correctly, on the one hand, and the specific pain he experiences in his neck and shoulders from his ‘hold’ on the other.

You see, Zukerman was taught to secure the instrument to the shoulder with his chin.  Most of us have been taught this, actually.

Yet fortunately for me, and now potentially for you, 3 decades ago I came under the tutelage of a fairly decent fiddler by the name of Nathan Milstein, who had something quite different to say about this important subject.

He said, very matter-of-factly in his heavy Russian accent, ‘hold the violin with your left hand, not with your chin.’

Wow, what a concept.  ‘Can this really be done,’ I thought to myself.

Yet there the man was, standing in front of me playing the G Minor Caprice – he always referred to them by key, not by number; #16, in this case – playing with the violin slid half down his shoulder with absolute ease.  It would have taken the neck of an ostrich to reach the chinrest from where it was.

Ok, I’m exaggerating just a tad.

Yet the point remains, you can alleviate much of the neck pain and chin abscess issues you may be experiencing by weaning yourself away from the constant reliance on the chin, and to keeping the instrument pinned to your shoulder.

In the process you may also learn a thing or two about how to balance and organize the fingers of your left hand.  And guess what, by doing THAT your playing immediately becomes more seamless and fluid.

Not a bad addition to the bargain, I’d say.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop

P.S. By the way, last Thursday we finished recording the music to ‘Avatar’ which required some 60 or so hours of recording over the past couple months.  I also learned that I will be given screen credit for the violin solos; a welcome exception to the general and very arbitrary practice of excluding musicians from such recognition.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on November 19, 2009 at 12:19 AM

Hi, poor Zuckerman. Hope his wonderful playing is not too painful.  

I agree that the chin is not as important as we think. I, too, as the amateur student I am, was told to secure with the chin... but my neck is very long and when I took off my shoulder rest, I never wanted to put it back on my violin. I just find it so comfortable for the bow arm when the violin is well "seated" on your collarbone.  But with this, my long neck and my jaw that is not very wide (I don't have a round face and cheecks to offer full of contact with the chinrest), I just very slightly touch to the chinrest. Of course, I can bend my neck but outch...   I hate the feeling of not beeing 100% secure but it works. In fact it's even necessary to lift a little my head off of my violin as I play to change the angle of my violin sometimes (don't know if this is correct however) Happy to hear someone talk officially about that.

Thanks for this intersting post!  


From Kypros Markou
Posted on November 20, 2009 at 1:10 PM

Mr. Clayton, Thank you so much for bringing this subject up. I was fortunate enough to study with Antonio Brosa at the Royal College of Music in London. Mr. Brosa encouraged all his students to play just like you describe Milstein's approach. Sometimes people tell me I can do that because I have a short neck (true) but that's not the point. By not holding the violin in a fixed manner but by balancing the violin between left hand (thumb, side of index finger) a little shoulder (sometimes touching and sometimes not) chin weight (but sometimes extremely light) one holds the violin through a balance that changes according to the needs of the moment. I did also study with Ruggiero Ricci and Max Hobart and they also had a wonderful sense of ease in the way they taught how to handle the violin. Well I am over 60 and have never had neck or back pains from playing the violin. Students resist the idea of not having a "fixed" hold of the violin because it makes them feel insecure. But I would encourage anyone to give it a try with an open mind.


From Corwin Slack
Posted on November 20, 2009 at 4:15 PM

 When I was 14 and had been playing the violin for a few years I came across the Applebaum book With the Artists. It included an interview with Nathan Milstein where he says that the function of the left hand is to hold up the violin. I couldn't do it but it stuck with me and from time to time I tried it out but it never worked. Finally in 1998 I met a fabulous (almost) self taught violinist  who insisted on no chin and shoulder hold and I started my journey. It took 6 months to play without it and 2 years to become comfortable but learning the function of the left hand was HUGE. For me it was the beginning of technique. I didn't have any technique before the change and now I have a technique. My "method" previous to the change could be characterized as habituation. Habituation may work with the very talented fast-twitch prodigies but it didn't work well for me. 

I credit Milstein's little aphorism quoted by Samuel Applebaum as the little seed that has grown up to be something of a tree. I am very grateful that I found someone who could water that tree.

From Connie Sunday
Posted on November 22, 2009 at 4:29 PM

In my experience, the violin is held neither by the left hand, nor by the chin, but the combination of the collarbone and shoulder.  Holding it by the left hand is also contrary to Suzuki training, as I understand it. 

Love to have the URL to the YouTube video featuring Zukerman?

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