How can a violist or violinist achieve a pain-free set-up?
This difficult issue was the topic of a panel discussion by violists Christiana Reader, Kayleigh Miller (founder of the Musicians Health Collective blog) and Daphne Gerling on Wednesday at the American Viola Society Festival at the Colburn School.
Sitting behind two tables that were covered in dozens of different kinds of chin rests and shoulder rests, they talked about how to address both one's basic posture and also how to choose the right amount of height in a chin rest and shoulder rest combination.
"Making something comfortable in the short-term doesn't mean it will be comfortable in the long-term," Reader said. It may not even be comfortable after you leave the room -- Gerling described a high-sitting and well-sculpted shoulder rest that looked great and felt great when she tried it on, but then after a few minutes of actual playing she realized that it did not allow for the mobility that she needed.
And it's not just the fact that a shoulder or chin rest may work in one situation and not another -- another issue is that the body changes over time.
"The way your body is today is not necessarily the way it will be in 10 years," Miller said. "The body can change, month-to-month, year-to-year." That means that a setup that works perfectly for three years may suddenly start to feel painful or imbalanced, requiring a reevaluation and new solutions.
Add to this the fact that "there is no one set-up that works for everyone," Miller said, because people have a different slope to their collarbones, curvature in their shoulders, length of neck and shape of jawbone. It's no wonder that there are so many different designs of shoulder and chin rests to help us cope with all of this. But how do you choose the right one? And how do you know, if you have been playing with the wrong one?
Basically speaking, violists and violinists tend to have two main kinds of problems with their set up: they are either "under set-up," without enough height to help create a proper position, or "over set-up," with too much height.
This can occur when a student or player has a flat, low chin rest. One can see that the player is hunched over, with a curved neck and a lot of clenching as he or she looks for security. The left hand will tire more easily, vibrato is more difficult, and the player tends to experience neck pain. Miller gave us the medical name for this hunched-over phenomenon: "kyphosis." The solution for this is to build some height, but be sure to balance it from above and below. Changing the height of the shoulder rest affects left-hand positioning, so one may want to look to the chin rest for more height, and also consider whether the chin rest is placed in the middle or to the side, the comfort which will vary with every person.
In this scenario, everything is too high, and this takes away a person's mobility, as the instrument is completely stuck in place. Symptoms of this: sometimes you'll see a space between the instrument and the chin, a detachment from the instrument because it has stopped resting on the collar bone. Most often the solution is less height from below, i.e. less height from the shoulder rest. It's also important to consider the shape of one's shoulders and choose a chinrest and shoulder rest accordingly. Things like the Kreddle chinrest, which is adjustable, can be good for narrow shoulders.
Excess weight -- of the instrument itself and/or its attachments such as the chin rest and shoulder rest -- can also cause positioning problems. If your instrument is already heavy, you might think twice about a heavy wooden shoulder rest.
Another issue is simply how one places the instrument on the shoulder. Sometimes violists and violinists hold their instrument either too far to the right or to the left, which puts the shoulder socket into a stressed position. This can also happen with holding the instrument too high. The problem with this is that the shoulder actually does not have a lot of attachment to the body, Miller explained, giving it more potential for displacement and injury. In fact, most of the shoulder mechanism is held together with soft tissue, muscle and ligament - there is no bone holding it together.
To determine the natural placement of one's arms for playing, Gerling demonstrated a simple posture exercise:
As demonstrated in the video above: First you relax your arms by your side and shake out your hands. Then you flip your forearms out, into a position we generally associate with asking a question. Then you turn over the right forearm and slightly raise the left arm (but not too much!), and that tends to be a natural playing position.
"The more you deviate from the natural way your body wants to be, the more your body is going to get tired with what you are doing," Gerling said.
Then there is the placement of everything else. "It starts with a supportive and engaged torso," Reader said. The collar bone provides stability, and the head provides a counter-balance. If the shoulders are rolled too far forward, this can affect the way muscles function and cause the development of both weakness and pain. Make sure the fingers move from the base knuckles, the thumb is mobile and not stuck; the wrist does not protrude. The elbow should support the left hand in moving from string to string, coming under to reach the lower strings.
"I don't believe the thumb has a perfect place where it lives," Reader said, noting that in viola playing especially, the thumb needs the option of being placed a little farther forward, and the wrist needs the option of collapsing in slightly, to allow for the wider finger placement that is required by the viola's larger size.
If you are going to make changes to your set-up, make sure to do it in a deliberate way. "Any changes in set-up need to happen gradually," Gerling said. If you are trying a new shoulder rest or chin rest, be sure to test it in various settings: in rehearsal, in performance, in the practice room. The body can change, when under the stress of a performance, and your set-up has to support that scenario as well as a low-stress practice session.
Sometimes people fall into the trap of thinking that "by getting an expensive shoulder rest, it will solve their problems in five minutes," Gerling said. Sometimes the problem isn't your setup; it's your own basic posture, muscle strength and overall wellness. If you are starting with bad posture, weak muscles and a lot of stress, then buying an expensive shoulder rest and changing your setup will not solve the problem.
A few non-setup solutions that you might consider include exercise such as pilates, Tai Chi or yoga, exercises athat both strengthen and stretch muscles while calming the mind. Be sure to incorporate warming up in your practicing, approaching your instrument in a slow way each time you start. Frequent massage with a qualified therapist that works well for many people. After all, in many ways we are athletes! Sleep well, eat right, maintain health.
Also, if you are practicing for long periods of time, keep in mind that "no one can have good posture for two and a half hours," Gerling said. Go for 20 minutes, then take a break.
For teachers, "create health instead of injury," Gerling said. Good advice for us all!
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