David Slabotsky

Play Violin Without Pain or Injury? Yes, You Can!

July 3, 2013 09:36

Playing violin can seem so hard on your body because it is so hard on your body. Not only the hours of practice needed to reach any level of skill, but the fact that most violin technique is self-destructive. No matter how well the technique seems to accord with every known principle of form, ergonomics or bio-mechanics, it almost always transgresses the most fundamental principle of movement, be that movement playing violin, dancing samba, or lifting a cup of coffee.

The principle I am referring to is this: in order for any action to be controlled and strong, able to be repeated and sustained without causing stress, strain or injury, it must emerge from, and maintain itself in, a low center of gravity, and not a high center of gravity.

In this blog post, I will:
Describe low and high center of gravity as it applies to playing the violin.
Explain how center of gravity issues undermine technique.
Show how a violinist can play continuously in a low center of gravity and avoid pain and injury.

I would like to add that when you switch from a high to a low center of gravity, you will notice an immediate improvement in the richness and clarity of your sound, and increased control without any extra effort. In fact, playing will feel, and actually be, more natural and less effortful.

The center of gravity is the place in the human body where most mass is concentrated, which is around the pelvis. With the mass concentrated around the pelvis, the body is said to be in a low center of gravity. But if you assume a military posture, chest puffed out, shoulders pulled back tightly, it causes the center of gravity to rise. The military posture illustrates a high center of gravity, as the tension in the upper body now concentrates the most mass on top. With a high center of gravity, the body is top-heavy, therefore it is unstable. The body responds by tightening muscles in an effort to control stability and balance. So, when you play violin from a high center of gravity, a certain percentage of all your available muscles is taken away from your playing to deal with those issues of stability and balance. But when you play violin from a low center of gravity, those muscles are not required for stability and balance (because in a low center of gravity you are already stable and balanced) and now those muscles are available to you for making music.

But the most insidious and destructive problem associated with playing from a high center of gravity is competing muscle action. This is when muscle groups contract at the same time, but in competing directions. This problem of competing muscle action affects almost everyone, to one degree or another, but for most people it doesn’t matter. It is not important if you have competing muscle action when you lift a cup of coffee. But it is very important when you play the violin. Any interference with how the body works is a serious issue for a violinist.

So think of your shoulder: Because of the way the shoulder joint is constructed, your arm can move up, down, sideways, inside, outside, it can rotate, extend and flex, and it can combine those movements in a wide variety of ways. The reason this is possible is because there are muscles that attach between the shoulder joint and the arm. When those muscles contract, the arm moves.

How the arm moves , in which direction, will depend on what muscles contract. If the biceps muscles contract, your arm will bend upward at the elbow. If the triceps muscles contract, your arm will straighten at the elbow. But keep one idea in mind here because it will become important in a moment: The biceps and triceps work in opposite directions. In order for the biceps to work effectively, the triceps have to relax. In order for the triceps to work effectively, the biceps have to relax.

If they contracted at the same time, with the same amount of force, your arm would be frozen, being pulled in opposite directions at the same time with the same amount of force from each side. This is an extreme example. What happens more commonly to the violinist is the following: The biceps try to bend your arm at the elbow, as you bend your arm to raise the bow, for example, and the competing force of the triceps is present but not overwhelming, so the biceps can still do their job, but not as well, not as freely, because they have to work against the gradient, opposing force being exerted from the triceps. This is an example of competing muscle contractions, two sets of muscles competing to execute a movement in two different directions at the same time.

But in order to play the violin, you will be using muscles in many planes of movement, in varying degrees of speed and intensity. All this will be accomplished through the agency of muscle contraction/relaxation sequences. One set of muscles will raise the bow to the strings, another set of muscles will move your arm to move your hand to move the bow across the strings, and another set of muscles will apply a downward pressure to create resistance between the bow and the string to produce sound. Ideally, as you do this, the muscles producing the opposite effects (lifting the bow off the string, putting the bow arm down) will be quiet and not contracting.

Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. What usually happens is that all the muscles of the shoulder, arm and hand, regardless of their action, are in an increased state of tension. So when you raise your bow arm, you are not creating a smooth and relaxed movement, even if it appears calm and graceful to the audience, even if it feels calm and graceful to you.

In fact, you are raising your bow arm against the gradient resistance of the muscles contracting in the opposite direction. And in fact, it is actually worse and more complicated still, because you do not just have muscles pulling in the opposite direction, you have muscles pulling up, down, in, out, rotating, bending, straightening - all at the same time. In order for you to simply raise your bow, you need to fight for control against all the muscles pulling every other which way.

For anyone not conversant with muscle physiology, a tense muscle is a muscle that is partly contracted. If you have tension in your shoulders, then your shoulder muscles are partly contracted. A muscle contracts by contracting, i.e., shortening or pulling the muscle fibers closer together. The operative word is here is “pulling”. It means that, in this example, your shoulder muscles are pulling. But be aware that pulling is movement in a direction. In other words, all your tense shoulder muscles are pulling your arms toward varying directions simply by virtue of being tense. So even if you are standing still, or sitting still, you need to exert effort to control your body and keep your body from moving. Imagine how much more effort you need to exert when you are actually playing a violin against all this pulling.

How you ever actually get to play the violin (or lift a cup of coffee without spilling it) is by learning to override competing muscle contractions. This means that if you need x amount of strength to raise your bow, and the amount of resistance from all the competing muscle contractions is y, then the amount of strength you need to expend to raise your bow is not x, but x+y.

And if the amount of control you need to control your bow to play a scale is x, and the amount of control you lose because of competing muscle contractions that are trying to pull your bow every other which way is y, then no matter how much natural talent you may have to control your bow and play the scale well, your ability is diminished by a factor of y.

And imagine playing a difficult piece where precision and control are crucial, where you need maximum speed and strength and endurance, and think of how much natural talent you possess, and all the skill you have managed to accumulate through years of practice, and reduce it by a factor of y. Until you resolve the problem of competing muscle contractions you will never realize your full potential, no matter how long you practice, no matter how hard you try.

Not to labor the point, but imagine you have ten ropes attached to your bow arm and the ropes are being pulled in different directions all at the same time. Try to raise your bow arm against all that pulling. Think of how hard you need to work to keep control of your chosen direction, and think how your control and strength are diminished by the struggle. So while competing muscle contractions may not be important when you are lifting a coffee cup, they become crucial when you are trying to create beautiful music that requires your full attention and every bit of your physical ability. You simply cannot perform to your full ability when you are being pulled in different directions at the same time.

Competing muscle contractions have another consequence: they increase your risk of pain and injury, and raise your risk of career-ending disabilities. This is because competing muscle contractions cause constant strain in the joints, muscles, and connective tissues, the tendons, ligaments, bursas, and fascia, because no matter how you move, you are always working against yourself.

Competing muscle contractions are happening all the time, in all circumstances, but most of the time it doesn’t matter. As I mentioned above, if you have competing muscle contractions when you lift your coffee cup, it doesn’t matter at all. But when you are playing the violin, it matters a whole lot.

So does everyone play with competing muscle contractions, and suffer a diminution of their performing ability, leaving themselves prey to pain, injury and disability? Pretty well everyone does, unless they have been coached properly, or trained themselves out of the habit. Most people are unaware they are experiencing competing muscle contractions. And even if they are aware, they do not know why it happens, or how to unlearn it, how set their music free, and protect their bodies. Let me address these important issues now.

Competing muscle contractions occur because we stand, sit and move from a high center of gravity and we need to stand, sit and move from a low center of gravity. The reason this is important is that a low center of gravity produces stability, whereas a high center of gravity produces the opposite. Think of building a snowman. Everyone knows that the big ball of snow goes at the bottom, the middle-sized ball goes in the middle, and the smallest ball goes on top. No one builds a snowman wrong more than once! Or look at skiers racing down a hill: their posture is crouched and low. We all know what happens to a skier with a high center of gravity.

In the human body, like the snowman, or the skier, a low center of gravity provides a stable foundation. With a stable foundation at the bottom, the upper body feels secure, and the muscles of the upper body relax. In contrast, when the center of gravity is high, the body is unstable, and therefore muscles in the upper body switch to alert status. They tense because an unstable body is at risk of falling.
This post is going to focus on the muscles of the upper body because those are the muscles that play the violin. Notice here that if you play violin from a low center of gravity, you create stability, and the muscles in your upper body relax, whereas, if you play from a high center of gravity your muscles are automatically tense. This tensing and relaxing is an automatic neurological response to how you maintain your body in space and how you move through space. Learn to control your center of gravity, and you get control over the muscles that play the violin.

An extreme but clear example of a high center of gravity is the military parade posture. The chest is puffed out and held tight, the shoulders are pulled back and held tight, the chin is held down forcing the neck into a rigid position, the low back is arched, the knees are forced into extension. In this posture, the contraction of the upper body raises the center of gravity to the chest and shoulder area.

In playing the violin, the extreme example of a high center of gravity is the violinist who stands with the violin held high, shoulders raised, arms raised, neck tilted stiffly and held down with force, shoulders tight. I said this was an extreme example, but in terms of body mechanics, most violinists adopt this posture to a certain extent and play, therefore, from a high center of gravity.

In this high center of gravity posture, the upper body is top heavy. Because of this, as soon as the body starts to move, and all the while it is moving, the muscles of the upper body contract involuntarily, ready at any moment to correct the body’s position in space, to fight for balance, to protect against a fall.

This is important to violinists because most violinists play from a high center of gravity, and this tenses the muscles of the upper body, the very muscles needed to play the violin. If the violinist tries to hold the upper body still, that raises the center of gravity even more, and if the violinist tries to move while playing it exaggerates the off-balance posture and muscles tighten further to keep the body secure. It is a lose-lose situation. No matter how well you play, if you play from a high center of gravity, you are working against yourself.

You can see that the high center of gravity creates muscle tension, and this means that all the muscles in the upper body are spring-loaded. When one muscle contracts, others fire, as well, even though they may have no part in the desired action. This is how the competing muscle contractions occur. You deliberately fire one of the numerous muscle groups in your shoulder, but all the muscle groups turn on at the same time, leaving you to make that extra effort to over ride the unwanted ones. This extra effort is effort that would have been put to better use playing your instrument, and this extra effort is also time, an extra step, a micro-instant, but a micro-instant of lost time is enough to drop a performance from brilliant to good, or from good to bad.

Very important: If your opposing muscle groups, or the whole raft of muscle groups at the shoulder, fired at the same time with the same force, your shoulder would freeze, you would be unable to move it. You would be painfully aware of this condition at once, and take yourself directly to a medical facility, which would be the appropriate thing to do. But the way competing muscle contractions operate is far more subtle, though deeply destructive. What happens in fact is that the competing contractions are rarely strong enough to stop action completely, rather they act as an interfering and dampening force: They limit the speed at which muscles can fire, they restrict quick and free movement at the joints, they make other muscles work harder to make up for the effort of working against them, they make fine motor action less fine and harder to achieve.

But if you play from a low center of gravity, the muscles in your upper body relax automatically, effortlessly, and you can move through space with speed and vigor and not generate competing muscle contractions. Your body will have all its power and focus available all the time.

So now for the most important part of this post: How to stand and sit and play the violin from a low center of gravity.

First of all, you need to feel the difference between a high and low center of gravity in your own body. Once the difference is clear to you, you will be able to correct yourself as you play.

Try this, to experience a high center of gravity:
Holding your violin, standing and then sitting, assume a comfortable playing posture and play a few scales. While you are playing, lean forward and notice how muscles start to tighten involuntarily. This muscle tightening represents muscle action that is lost to you as a musician. It is muscle action that could have been used to control your sound better, to shape it better, to finesse it. It means that the physical resources of your body that are dedicated to playing the violin are reduced and diminished. You have more to give, but the “more” is being cannibalized by the muscle contractions.
These muscle contractions also determine the physical range of possible movements you can make while you play, because, as muscles tighten, it becomes increasingly impossible to make technique work in an acceptable way. Eventually, the muscles just get too tight to play.This shows you the consequences of a high center of gravity. During this exercise, note carefully how your violin sounds. You will want to compare it to the sound following the next exercise:

Now try this, to experience a low center of gravity while playing seated:

Sit with one foot forward, and the other pulled back. The forward foot needs to have the foot flat on the floor, and the angle of the knee of the forward foot should be opened well past 90 degrees, but the forward leg should not be completely straight. You should be seated on your sitting bones, your back comfortably straight, your shoulders relaxed. Now allow yourself to rock forward supporting yourself on the sitting bones.

Move your body forward and downward, describing an arc. Note: do not collapse from the waist or the chest. As you move forward, your back stays comfortably straight, right up to the shoulders. As you move forward, you will notice that your shoulders (which should be relaxed) will start to roll forward and inward (as if you were hugging someone) - allow this to happen, do not pull your shoulders back.

Here is the most important point: When you continue moving forward, allow the muscles in your forward leg to tighten to stop you from falling. This is so important, I need to clarify it: you need to practice this so that you get the following sensation: you can fall freely through space, without tightening muscles in your upper body, because the muscles in your forward leg will stop you from falling. And when you want to return your upper body to an upright posture, do not pull yourself up with your back muscles - just push back from the forward leg.

If you did not know that the muscles of the forward leg would stop you from falling then you would tighten muscles in your upper body (front and back) to prevent a fall. But the forward leg will stop your fall, so as you rock forward and downward, relax your upper body completely. Your upper body has nothing to do but float through space.

So here is what happens: You rock forward and the forward momentum is stopped by tightening muscles in your forward leg, and then your forward leg pushes you back up. So as you move forward and backward through space, you do not use the muscles in your upper back at all, for anything, except playing the violin.

At first, before you get the knack of stopping the forward motion of your upper body by contracting the muscles in your forward leg, you may feel muscles contracting in your back and shoulders. But once you get it right, you will see that you can let yourself go forward, keep all the muscles in your upper back relaxed, and stop the forward motion with your forward leg alone.

Now try this:
Sitting, start playing a scale, and as you play, practice letting yourself “fall” forward, allowing the muscles of your forward leg to stop you going further forward. When you have moved forward as far as you want, your left leg pushes you back. Let your leg muscles do all the work, do not use your back muscles to pull you back up. Your shoulders should feel soft and relaxed throughout. Continue playing the scale as you practice falling forward and letting your leg push you back. Focus on letting the muscles of your upper back relax completely.

Notice how the sound improved as you played the scale in this low center of gravity exercise. (You may want to play the scale now from a high and then from a low center of gravity to hear the difference better.) And know that if it can change so obviously in such a brief amount of time, imagine how much it could change when you have spent some time working and perfecting this technique.

Now for playing the violin in a low center of gravity from a standing posture: Holding the violin ready to play, place one foot ahead of the other so that the heel of the forward foot is ahead of the toes of the back foot. Keep your feet a comfortable width apart. Lean forward so that the knee of the forward leg is bent. At least 90 percent of your weight should be on the forward foot. Let your abdominal muscles relax, do not tighten them. At certain points in this exercise, your abdominal muscles will spontaneously contract when they are needed. Let the abdominals contract and relax as your movement through space dictates. Now allow your chest to relax so that your shoulders drop slightly and rotate forward and inward, as if your chest were hollowing. Do not use muscle action to make this happen. Just relax into your forward knee and forward foot and let go, and the shoulders will fall forward on their own. If you use muscles to make it happen you will be defeating the purpose. The idea here is to allow your center of gravity to drop, and if you do it as I have just described it will happen quite naturally.

When you have achieved the low center of gravity, your lower body will feel strong, you will feel your thigh muscles more engaged than usual, and your upper body will feel comfortable and relaxed.

(An interesting thing to notice is that, if you go too far forward on the forward leg, the muscles in your upper body will start to tighten again. There is a “sweet spot” that is not too far forward, and not too far back, and in that range your upper body is free. Experiment, and notice that as you move forward into the forward leg your upper body relaxes, but if you move too far forward, it contracts again. If you do this experiment as you play a scale, you will actually hear the sound change.)
Now allow your elbow joints to relax. It will feel as if your elbows are falling vertically toward the floor. You may feel a kind of heaviness and fullness in the arms. Do not think this “heaviness” will slow you down. On the contrary. You are just feeling the arms relaxing. Relaxed muscles are fast!
In this position, play a scale. Notice how the sound has improved. If you like, play the scale back and forth in a high and low center of gravity.

The most difficult part of playing in a low center of gravity is that, as you move, there is a tendency to revert to a high center of gravity. Try this: Settle yourself comfortably into a low center of gravity, and then move to another position. Notice that, as soon as you start to move, your upper body spontaneously tightens. You need to train yourself to move without triggering the high center of gravity. This is not simple, but the reward is immense. I will devote other blogs exclusively to this issue.

What I have described here is how to play from a low center of gravity, standing or sitting. There are other important mechanical issues regarding how to move through space as you play the violin, issues that impact on playing without pain or injury, or recovering from pain or injury. And there is also the question of on-demand inspiration. I am going to save those for other posts, as well.

For now, practice allowing your body to slide into the low center of gravity position, seated and standing. Notice how your sound improves. Let that sound be your guide.

Thank you for reading!

David Slabotsky, R.M.T. (Applied Biomechanics)

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