BEAVER CREEK, Colo. -- Does it hurt when you play?
I returned to the lecture tent at the Colorado Suzuki Institute today to hear Suzuki pedagogue and University of Minnesota professor Mark Bjork address this issue.
Teachers should think well about how they set up their students with the violin and bow. Sometimes this can mean re-thinking traditions or going against the recommendations of former teachers.
"Even though the great teacher so-and-so taught us to do something, maybe we need to do something else," Bjork said. We don't want to set up our students, or ourselves, for future injury.
For example, Suzuki students first learn how to stand, and commonly they are taught to step the left foot forward to achieve the proper playing position. But this position twists the pelvis and back. It might be better to simply put play the feet shoulder-width apart, side by side.
Shoulder tension often afflicts violinists, and it can be avoided by making sure a student is comfortable before attempting to play. Bjork recommended simply straight ahead, turning the head and dropping it. The shoulder and head should not clench the violin.
Excessive finger pressure can lead to forearm tension, and that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome. Sometimes exercises meant to increase finger strength actually lead to too much finger pressure. When the fingers are pressing too hard, Bjork suggested having students play a harmonic on the notes, then gradually depress the string only to the point where the note sounds. The brain needs to know where that threshold is, so that it can send the proper message to the fingers to press enough, but not too much.
He said that a wrist vibrato tends to be less stiff than an arm vibrato, and that the wrist vibrato should be cultivated first, then supplemented with arm vibrato as needed for dramatic parts of music. Having only an arm vibrato can lead to tension.
An excessively tight bow hold can result from exercises aimed at developing thumb strength. When the bow thumb is gripping too hard, a student can try holding the bow out in front, loosely, then releasing the thumb and letting the bow drop just a few inches. "Find where that point is where it's being held just enough to keep the bow from dropping," Bjork said.
The chin rest and shoulder rest combinations can make a huge difference in a violinist's comfort level. But the same solution does not work for everyone. "There are many different sizes and shapes of people," Bjork said. They have different jaw lines, length of necks, collar bone placement and shoulder shapes.
To have every student buy the same shoulder and chin rests would be like requiring everyone to buy size 9½ shoes. "We are all very, very different," he said.
Injuries tend to happen during changes: when one gets a new instrument, practices extra for a performance or audition, or when one is playing repertoire that is too demanding.
Pain is the body's way of saying something is wrong, and it should not be ignored, Bjork said. "We want to be really careful what we do with our bodies if we are going to use them to play the violin.
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