V.com weekend vote: Do you feel physically at ease when playing the violin or viola?

January 4, 2020, 8:26 AM · Playing the violin requires an awkward set of physical motions, and sometimes that can get in the way of "feeling the music" and of creating a sense of "flow" for your listeners.

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Nicola Benedetti, in an interview this week about her new Benedetti Foundation, said that one of her goals in devising curriculum for students is to help cultivate their sense of physical freedom. "If you don't experience an enjoyment through the physicality of playing, sense of freedom and a sense of trust in your hands to go in the right directions, then the question is, why are we playing?" she said. "This is missing the point of playing."

How does one do this? Really, it's the whole point of practice: to arrive at a point where the physical concerns are conquered and the music can flow through the musician, into the instrument and out into the world. If only it were so easy!

For the violinist and violist, some of the problems that can block that flow are: holding the instrument, holding the bow, placing the fingers, shifting, moving the blow. etc. Since we have to actually create our sound, the potential for blips in the process is great. That's why our practice includes so much technique work; so that when we put it together, our interaction with the instrument is a well-oiled machine.

But when it works, it really is quite a beautiful synthesis, and that part about creating the sound can make the musician feel even more "at one" with the music.

How does the physicality of playing work for you? Do you have those moments of "flow," where you feel at one with the instrument and the music goes through you both? Do you find that the physical demands of the instrument get in the way of that flow? Do you sometimes feel that your technique is completely separated from what you would like to do musically? Did you have that feeling of limitation and then find a way to get beyond it? What did you do?

Please participate in the vote and then share in the comments how you have worked with the physical demands of the instrument, and how (and if) you are able to get close to the music you would like to create.

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Replies

January 4, 2020 at 02:55 PM · I'm an adult beginner who has been playing for one year with my 7 year old daughter who began when she was five. Just beginning Suzuki Book 2 this week! I admit I haven't worked on my bowing enough. Hopeful that I will find the grit to push through that aspect and move onto the next so I can fine and enjoy some level of flow this year. :)

January 4, 2020 at 03:11 PM · yes, but the rest of the time no

January 4, 2020 at 03:23 PM · I've yet to meet someone whose wrist I know to turn as little as mine, as regards turning to put fingers on fingerboard, so I'm never THAT at ease physically, and there's music I'd never be able to play, however much time I gave it. Nevertheless, I think the music flows most of the time, so I'm nowhere on the voting spectrum.

January 4, 2020 at 03:35 PM · Everyonce in a while I get that total comfort-flow feeling where I'm just making the music together with the violin, ease in holding, bowing, fingering, rather than struggling to tackle the instrument. Wish it could be more of the time (returner, replaying for 2 years)! I get the sensation that the violin is small at those moments, small and compliant!

January 4, 2020 at 04:45 PM · The only time I feel physicality is an issue is when I’m learning a new piece and I’m unsure of tempo, finger placement, basically the technical issues. Once I’ve practiced the piece 3 or 4 days it starts to flow!

January 4, 2020 at 06:52 PM · I am often aware of my physicality and so I result to simple exercises for posture (whole body), left hand, and right hand (bow hand) to get them oiled before attempting to play music. This makes me flow better.

January 4, 2020 at 07:08 PM · I've been up and down on the issue of "physicality" with two main contributors - injuries and age.

I had a bicycle fall over 25 years ago that fractured and dislocated my left clavicle. Once it was healed I discovered I needed a shoulder rest after 20 years of playing without one.

Now it is osteoarthritis developing in my hands - primarily the thumbs now, and that keeps me topping out in fourth position. Any higher and the pain in my thumbs is just too much. Hence, I pass along students once they are conversant in third position because I cannot launch them into fifth.

I stopped performing because of the arthritis. Most days I can play with only the occasional twinge but, sometimes, totally unpredictable, the pain is so intense that my hands are useless. All I need is to be in an orchestra or playing at church or a senior center and get all bound up unable to play. Therefore, no more performing.

Yet there are days when the music just flows - joy erupts.

January 4, 2020 at 08:52 PM · I find it difficult to keep my jaw positioned on my chin rest and am constantly shifting it back into place during performance. I have tried many different chin and shoulder rests.

January 4, 2020 at 11:37 PM · I struggle with short pinkie, short left thumb, and tight ligaments that reduce wrist rotation. Last year my orchestra was doing a Mendelssohn symphony. Others said they love the way the notes fall under the hand, but that wasn't my experience. Finally in the concert I said "sod it, I'm going just to play and have fun". My whole being relaxed, the notes fell under my hand and I had fun. What a learning experience.

Where this doesn't work is up in the stratosphere, where my whole hand is under strain simply reaching the notes. I fear I won't master the fast E minor arpeggiated passage that finishes on E 2 octaves above the E string, which is right at the end of my current symphony.

Times like this I wish there was a chunk cut out of the shoulder of my beloved violin to make reaching easier. A virtuoso climbs nimbly over the entire fingerboard like a dancing spider. My hand strains and struggles, which makes me slower and less accurate. Sigh...

January 4, 2020 at 11:49 PM · I play both instruments. I feel the music. The finger placements are easier for me on the viola because of my larger hand size. Playing either takes time to know where to go and how to get there.

January 5, 2020 at 12:39 AM · I play a Pelegrina viola made by David Rivinus. If more players could get past the unusual look they would find a full bodied beautiful tone and so comfortable to play. It added years to my professional life as Principal viola in a symphony orchestra.

January 5, 2020 at 12:50 AM · Posture is the key to everything, I think. And for a long time mine was poor, so playing my violin was unnatural and strained. In an attempt to improve that I recently purchased a set of wooden rings, as used by people doing gymnastics, and I use them by simply hanging from them to cause all the muscles, tendons and ligaments in my upper body to pull out and stretch, so an upright posture has become easy and natural again. This has been remarkably effective, with a dramatic transformation in just a few weeks. So I stand straight, hold my violin high on my shoulder, rest my chin lightly on the chinrest, and everything involved in the physics of playing my violin has become nearly effortless.

When I started hanging from those rings it was really quite a strain in my hands and upper body. But I found that I could position them at a height so that I could bear some of my weight on my legs as I hung from the rings. Now, after just a few months, it's very comfortable to let my full body weight hang free. I just wanted to share this, in case posture is an issue for you too.

January 5, 2020 at 01:17 AM · I feel comfortable most of the time when playing my violin and can easily play for hours at a time without tiring; but I often feel strain in my left hand, wrist and arm when playing my viola.

I find that taking more frequent, short breaks and stretching my left shoulder periodically helps somewhat, as did buying a different shoulder rest, but I've been considering looking for a viola that's smaller than my current, 16" instrument. I think my arms and fingers are just too short to ever feel at ease in higher positions on a viola that's 16" or larger.

I've also fantasized about trying an alto violin that's played like a cello and actually the optimal size for the Viola's acoustical range, but buying a smaller viola seems much more practical than learning an entirely new way of playing.

January 5, 2020 at 02:05 AM · I did play quite easily until late 2017, when a minor left shoulder injury threw me off balance, and then I kept aggravating the injury until it reached the point that I not only stopped playing viola for a few months but even had to stop working because I couldn't sit at a desk and use a computer for longer than half an hour at a time. After physical therapy, my shoulder is more stable, but I'm still relearning how to hold my viola without excessive strain on my shoulder. Sometimes I find ease, sometimes I don't; when I don't, having to think consciously about the mechanics of holding the viola definitely interferes with musical flow.

January 5, 2020 at 01:06 PM · Oh dear, drawing attention to this problem is enough to make anyone feel nervous, and therefore tense! The answer to this problem is obviously relaxation, but how can one relax at the same time as reading music, getting the bowing right, concentrating on intonation and avoiding dropping the damned thing! Why the hell do we do it? We do it because, when we get it 'right', it feels good and music flows from your fingers, bow, and then, the violin! One of the things that helps me is to internalise the music rather than reading it, that's one less thing to think/worry about, leaving space to make relaxation become a habit. Good luck! R Hood

January 5, 2020 at 01:26 PM · I voted that I feel at ease, however there is a somewhat similar phenomenon when playing in an ensemble: All of a sudden things seem perfect: the intonation is fine, the rhythm is fine, everyone plays well together and a good balance is also there. The music is free to emerge. This feeling can last for a few minutes to a whole movement and sometimes longer and it is just awesome so long as it lasts. I have experienced it most clearly with string quartets.

I do not think it has its origin in exclusively physical causes but I can't explain how it comes about (except that good preparation usually precedes it in my experience; either one plays a piece that everybody knows well or--even better-- one has rehearsed properly).

January 5, 2020 at 03:27 PM · Someone commented posture is key - I absolutely agree! I used to have terrible posture and playing was struggle. For the last year I've been trying to improve my posture and the impact on the playing was significant. Playing is now easier but there is still bit of unease when playing more demanding pieces. I'm wondering how those pro violinists can play pieces by Wienawski, Paganini etc. while looking so relaxed. I will try to improve my posture even more but I think other things like breathing,positioning and relaxing shoulders and hands or even mind is important too.

January 5, 2020 at 03:47 PM · I think about bow hold, how I’m holding the instrument etc. only when doing exercises such as vibrato, shifting. string crossings using different voicing. I tend to finish my practice sessions by putting on some music and playing along or just closing my eyes and play whatever comes to mind whatever I’m feeling. Try doing this for an hour or so not thinking of anything but the music ,the tone allowing yourself to get in the zone and see if it improves the amount and or quality of flow in your playing. It definitely has with mine. The longer you stay in the zone when you get there is tremendously important.

January 5, 2020 at 05:49 PM · Well, I feel at ease while I'm playing. But then later my upper arm hurts right below my shoulder. Kind of annoying. Always in the same spot. Much worse if I play a lot of viola.

January 5, 2020 at 11:15 PM · Physical and mental ease of playing, on violin and viola, are at the heart of comfortable and expressive music making, and are central in my pedagogy. I've studied physical movement through the Alexander Technique, the Rolland approach, yoga, ballet, and modern dance, across decades of my life. Together, these have helped me formulate an approach to teaching that encourages ease and efficiency of motion as well as healing from physical injury and effects of aging. I've helped many students of all ages and all kinds of physical status, play at their best and more comfortably. It's a whole approach, so i can't sum it up here, but I'd be glad to have anyone contact me for more information, at

Wendyzohar.com.

January 6, 2020 at 02:00 PM · John wrote: "I've yet to meet someone whose wrist I know to turn as little as mine, as regards turning to put fingers on fingerboard, so I'm never THAT at ease physically, and there's music I'd never be able to play, however much time I gave it."

I had exactly the same problem. Is it possible you have a teacher that requires you to keep a straight wrist? For some people this does not work Also (if you have not yet) try the following- swing the elbow out further than 'correct'; point the thumb back along the fingerboard especially when you are playing on the G string and contact the neck with the last joint of the thumb as if the violin is balanced almost on the tip.

Last, realize that the curvature over the violin is not only by the wrist/pronated forarm but also requires curvature within the hand itself. Often the latter is over looked as an area that can be improved. Good luck!

January 6, 2020 at 02:13 PM · It can go both ways. Usually I'm at ease and at times just get lost in the music/piece I'm playing. As time goes by I start hitting "The Wall". Years ago, Donna Cole, i9n Corpus Christi, Texas recommended that I take a one week sabbatical, hiatus, from playing. 10 days later when I picked my violin back up and resumed lessons and practice I had gotten past what was hanging me up and I felt physically refreshed.

January 6, 2020 at 06:08 PM · My answer is not on the list. I avoid being too comfortable because I assume that I would be slipping into less than optimum posture.

January 6, 2020 at 06:27 PM · My neck always begin to hurt when play violin and this physical issue makes music not to flow... My teacher accepted my posture. anyone has this problem ?

January 8, 2020 at 12:21 PM · Scar in the neck can be minimized using a backing kerchief covering the chin-rest and corresponding side and bottom portion of the violin while playing.

January 9, 2020 at 01:59 AM · Mendy here. The older I get, the more unease I feel from arthritis and degenerative disc disease. It’s a struggle to maintain proper posture when your body starts failing you. When I have good days, it flows and is easy. On bad days I can only stand or sit for a few minutes at a time.

January 10, 2020 at 04:38 AM · Most of the time I do feel at ease and at one with the violin. The violin and bow feel like they are part of me - like detachable limbs. As has been said, proper positioning and relaxation are important keys and I try to pass these things and more to my students.

But that said, it also depends on what I am playing. There are certain passages in Bach fugues, for example, which pose significant challenges to ease and flow of both hands.

Raphael Klayman

January 11, 2020 at 02:07 PM · I voted "I feel at ease." I started playing in elementary school, so holding the instrument is second nature to me.

Although I went through instrument size changes along the way -- 1/2, 3/4, 4/4 -- I found out early what works well for me and what doesn't. Like most players, I use a shoulder rest -- although I'd played restless till 18 y/o. The way you orient the device can make a lot of difference. As you view the back of the instrument, I orient mine SW-NE. If I try NW-SE, I can't play comfortably -- I'd rather play restless than go through such contortions.

Chin rests make a lot of difference, too. Better to find the right CR before deciding whether or not you need an SR. I use a Strad Pad on the CR -- this eliminates slippage and helps me hold the instrument more lightly. No pain or skin irritation, either -- even after practicing and playing 3 hours a day, which is all my current schedule will allow.

Something else that helps me: Before practicing, I go for a 20-minute walk to get the blood pumping fast. This way, my feet and hands stay warm for a long time afterward, which means more secure hand and finger grip. After the walk, I have a stretching time, then a warm-up routine for bow arm and left hand fingers -- about 20 minutes -- before hard-core practicing.

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