Sometimes it feels like violin teachers are picky just to be picky. Straighten your thumb, bend your thumb, change the angle of your elbow -- what is this all about?
Most of us can accept that good posture is a good thing and that bad habits are best avoided.
But sometimes these tiny little tweaks to the fingers, hand and arm can feel non-sensical and wrong. To confuse things even more, any change to an ingrained habit will "feel wrong" even when it's right.
So how can you tell what is wrong, what is right? When do you trust your teacher and when do you trust your instincts? Is there a way to do both?
It helps to know what is at the root of some of the basic "truths" about violin posture. While everyone has different-sized hands, arms, necks, fingers, etc. - we all share the common goal of creating certain basic violin mechanics, using what we have.
If you can understand the mechanics behind a particular position, as well as the problems that come from the "wrong" position, this can help you find what will work properly for you and your particular physicality.
Here are some explanations of five of the most common posture "problems" that can lead to poor mechanics. In this blog, I'll focus on violin position; Part 2 will be bow position.
Head straight, spine straight, shoulders relaxed.
Generally all the talk about shoulder rests and chin rests can be boiled down to a few necessary points about how you should hold the violin: You should be able to keep your head straight, your spine straight and your shoulders down.
Why: If your head is tilting to the side, you will strain muscles and nerves. If your spine is hunched over or forced into a crooked position at the neck or anywhere else, you will strain muscles and nerves. If the shoulder is scrunched upward you will feel strain that will likely affect the other muscles in your arm. All this strain will cause you to tire more quickly and can lead to injury down the road. So any set-up that you create for your violin should have end-goal of good alignment of head, spine and shoulders.
The consensus on the violin thumb is to keep it straight, touching the fingerboard somewhere next to or behind the placement of the first finger
Why straight: If your thumb is curved, that can point to several potential problems:
Legitimate reasons your thumb could be curved:
Why thumb is generally placed next to or behind the first finger:
Legitimate reasons you would bring the thumb forward usually have to do with reach:
Elbow under the violin
The elbow should be under the violin, and even slightly forward.
Why: If your elbow is pointing backward, then so is your arm. This brings your thumb over the fingerboard and the base of your fingers under the violin. And if it doesn't, it puts a crook in your wrist. The violin should hit the side of your hand at the base knuckle of the index finger to provide maximum mobility for the fingers. If your fingers and hand are place below that point, then every time you place a finger, you have to come around the fingerboard and strain your hand to do so. This slows your fingers because instead of simply dropping from above, they have to come around. Another reason: it can cause slouching, because when the elbow and arm go back, the violin starts slanting forward.
Reasons to actually bring your elbow backwards:
Sometimes a player places the elbow too far forward, and this can create strain in the shoulder and back. It's not a matter of "the farther forward, the better." The elbow should be under the violin, and a little forward, to the degree that it enables the hand. No more, and no less.
The left wrist should be straight, not collapsed inward or pushed outward.
Why: This position aligns your muscles, tendons and ligaments in a way that puts the least strain on the system and allows for the movement that you need. A collapsed wrist generally causes the fingers to move in a grabbing motion that involves the whole hand, rather than a mostly-finger motion that comes from a stable hand. That can cause inefficiency and even injury. A pushed-out wrist (often caused by over-correcting the collapsed wrist) causes unnecessary strain in the forearm. A straight wrist is best because it helps provide that stability in the hand.
When placed on the fingerboard, the fingers should be curved, not collapsed. They should hit the string generally more on the fingertips than on the pads of the fingers.
Why: There is more strength, precision and speed with curved fingers that come from above. It's also easier to vibrate in that position, though you'll want that finger joint to be loose for vibrato. Collapsed fingers tend to go down with less precision, so intonation will suffer. It's also a sign of using the "grabbing" motion, which over-uses the hand.
The ultimate goal of a "good position" is to enable each of use to enjoy efficient violin mechanics and ease of playing. If you have a problem with your position, the best way to correct it is to find the position that achieves the right mechanics, without straining. You might need to build muscle strength and new habits to get there, but ultimately you need to work with the demands of your own individual body. Happy practicing!
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