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Kinesiology and Violin-Playing: an Experiment

Laurie Niles

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Published: September 23, 2005 at 7:40 AM [UTC]

Playing the violin can be a pain in the neck.

And in the shoulder, the back, the forearm, the wrist, the name it. It can become so excruciating that it makes us stop playing, and that gives one another type of pain... in the soul.

So in a sense, I suppose Lauren Deutsch aims to save our souls from that type of deprivation.

Lauren is a fellow teacher in the Suzuki program where I teach, and in her other life, she is earning her master's degree in kinesiology from the University of Southern California. She is conducting a study that will analyze the way violinists use muscles when holding the violin, playing in various positions and shifting.

“Most violinists have problems with their left arms, and mostly with overuse,” Lauren said. “Physical therapists will try to change their position to lessen the load, but how do they know what to change the position to? My study aims to get more experimental evidence for what a physical therapist would know instinctually.”

And this noble object is what convinced me to volunteer as...Lauren's lab rat!

Lauren Deutsch wires up Laurie in the lab.

Actually, she will have nine such rats, the main requirement being that each subject has played the violin for at least 10 years, so that his or her setup is fairly fixed.

For the first part of the experiment, Lauren simply measured how far my muscles could bend my arms, hands and neck to various angles. She took the measurement against a blue grid that she and fellow student Laurie Held had painstakingly made with masking tape and then painted to the wall of the lab.

Then I got the treatment: with the help of expert Witaya “Dan” Mathiyakoh, Lauren's team affixed 16 electrodes to specific muscles in my arm, back, neck and torso. Some of the muscles included biceps, triceps, finger flexors, upper trapezius, deltoids...I had to push against Dan's arm at various angles so that they could find each specific muscle and get it properly hooked up.

This took a good half-hour!

Then, they had to test to see how much juice I could put out, using each of these muscles. So I did the same series of pushes with Dan, and they recoreded a baseline of each individual muscle, getting what was my personal maximum contraction.

When this was done, in swooped Lauren again, to adorn my left side with 15 little silver, reflective balls on black patches. Several sat atop my head, held there with a nylon swim cap, and one was right at that little sensitive spot on the throat. Cameras would pick up these reflectors so that Lauren could run computer analysis on the various angles I'm holding while playing the fiddle.

There I sat, feeling like the Prom Queen, or at least a elaborately wired “Carrie,” a train of silver cords trailing me, electrodes and reflectors all over, basking in the bright light of three stage lamps, with five cameras trained on me.

“Now that you have all this on,” said fellow lab technician, Laurie Held, “We want you to be as natural as possible!”

Hah! My actual playing assignment was more a test of endurance than of violin chops. Lauren aims to see which muscles fire when a violinist holds the violin in first, third and tenth positions. So my job included: just holding the violin in the three positions, with three recordings of each; playing a small bit of a transposed “Perpetual Motion,” and playing a four-octave, G-major arpeggio. (Screech!)

For each item played, I started with my violin held in my normal playing position. Then she switched my violin so it was positioned 20 degrees farther to the left of my normal position, sending the violin way out to the side, for the same series of measurements. Then, she positioned it 20 degrees to the right, making the violin almost straight in front of me, for another round.

The idea is to see how much muscle is used in the players “preferred” position, then in the two “not preferred” positions, and to see if different muscles get fired up as this angle changes.

“Since most violinists' left hand injuries are treated by correcting harmful arm positions, we feel that it is important to study the musculoskeletal consequences of varying arm positions,” Lauren wrote in her experiment proposal.

Lauren's proposal also cites a 1986 survey by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which showed that string instrumentalists were particularly susceptible to injury, and violinists as a group suffer more injuries to their left arm than their right. Lauren's study aims to provide information that will help people develop methods to minimize the risk of injury in violinists by defining better playing positions.

Good to have a scientist among us!

By the way, if you live in the Los Angeles area, have played the violin for 10 or more years, and would like to volunteer for Lauren Deutsch's study, she still needs people! Send her an e-mail.

From Amy F.
Posted on September 23, 2005 at 2:37 PM
that sounds like an interesting experiment. let us know how it all turns out!
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on September 23, 2005 at 6:55 PM
Laboratories. Gear. Things can go wrong. Very wrong.
From Natasha Marsalli
Posted on September 23, 2005 at 10:34 PM
Oh neat! I've played for 11 years and I constantly have problems in my back, hand, and left arm...and I'm only fourteen years old! Keep us posted with these developments! WE HAVE TO SAVE OUR BODIES!
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 26, 2005 at 6:38 AM
In the past, I've been the subject of similat studies, but none as complex and sophisticated as these. I believe that the results of the study will be very interesting and helpful. Please let us informed. That's quite a get-up you're dressed in, with radiant silver discs and streamers. All for the advancement of science.

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