Optimizing Posture and Movement for Pain-Free Violin Playing

February 17, 2023, 8:24 PM · Violinist and Suzuki teacher Daina Volodka Staggs always had "perfect posture," according to her teachers.

But there was a problem: she was in pain.

"I didn't realize this pain was related to my violin playing and to the habits I was developing," she said. Her body started to give her clues: her back went out when she was just 16, and by her 20s, "I was exhausted from trying to manage my pain."

Adding teaching small children to the mix, with all its postures of leaning forward, kneeling down, etc. and Staggs was reaching a breaking point.

Staggs, who is Co-Director of the North Texas School of Talent Education and a Suzuki Association of the Americas Teacher Trainer, found help through a body movement specialist named Summer Jones. Jones has developed the SUJO Method, a way of analyzing body movements and helping people re-sequence the way they move, particularly following an injury. Jones initially began her work when recovering from her own injuries, which occurred during her professional ballet career. She also has a degree in mathematics and approaches the movements of the body with an analytical mind.

While scientists apply mathematical principals about force, weight and acceleration to the building of rockets or the movements of the cosmos, they tend not to apply those same concepts to the movements of the human body. "When people in science discuss the mechanics of the human body, for some reason we approach it differently." By contrast, Jones has analyzed body movement very much from that calculus-based perspective.

Together, Staggs and Jones shared their wisdom last month at a "Driving the Body Workshop," which I attended in San Diego. It was given through the Suzuki Association of California's San Diego branch. Jones, who has worked extensively with violinists recovering from injuries and bad habits, talked about movement, while Staggs talked about how she has applied the concepts to her own playing and teaching.

Summer Jones, Laurie Niles, Daina Staggs
Summer Jones, Laurie Niles, Daina Staggs, and various skeletal replicas!

Here are just a few of the ideas that they discussed - starting points for analyzing and optimizing the posture and movement involved in playing the violin.

First, they talked about the concept of "de-escalating" muscles.

In order to keep injury- and pain-free, "I have to make sure I am constantly de-escalating my muscles," Staggs said. What does that mean? When we first attempt a physical skill, we tend to over-shoot how much muscle we'll need to do it. The trick is to back off from that initial over-use and connect with how much muscle you actually need.

Here is a non-violin example of over-escalating muscles: when carrying a purse or shoulder bag, often people set their shoulder muscle tension very high, just to be safe and make sure not to drop the bag. But that creates unnecessary stress.

And here is another example: holding up the violin. "We treat this thing like it's made out of lead!" Staggs said. We scrunch our shoulder muscles, squeeze with the thumb, etc., and none of that is necessary. In reality, a violin is not all that heavy. It requires only a bit of well-planned muscle activity to hold it up, whether using the weight of the head, cradling with the hand or a combination.

They did discuss shoulder rests briefly: the shoulder rest can stimulate the muscle in the shoulder, the moment it is placed there, causing unnecessary tension. Instead, Jones recommends connecting, not to muscle, but to bone. So connect the instrument to the collar bone for the most stable placement, without stimulating muscles unnecessarily. Otherwise, every time you raise the violin to shoulder, a whole cascade of unnecessary muscle movement can occur through the shoulder and back.

Technique, Jones said, has to do with being able to achieve the maximum result with minimum physical effort.

Here's where it gets a little hard to conceptualize: when finding that correct muscle balance and usage, you need to choose where you "feel the weight," and to observe this from a place that is not moving.

In order to do this, it's important to understand "gross motor skill" vs. "fine motor skill." Gross skill comes from the spine. Fine skills come from extremities - the feet and toes of a ballerina, the hands and fingers of a violinist.

So choose where you feel the weight, from a stable, "gross motor skill" kind of place in the body. "Watch from a place that is not moving," Staggs said.

Balance is also part of the equation. Jones mentioned that children have somewhat different balance-recovery reflexes than adults. Children's balance reflexes are more in the abdomen, whereas adults have balancing reflexes in the calves, legs and hands as well as the abdomen. In the elderly, that abdomen-based "center-out" balance recovery can sometimes be lost entirely.

Here is an example of something that can throw around weight and cause imbalance: raising the violin to the shoulder. Does raising the violin cause a counter-balance or counter movement for you? Jones has observed that raising the violin, or even just the violin arm, can cause some funny stuff: you might curl your toes, tense your abdomen, hold your breath, tense your calves, tense your shoulders in advance, etc. The closer you are to neutral (or NOT having a big counter-reaction), the more you can limit fatigue. So put your concentration into a stable spine, and then observe any other movement from there.

To illustrate, Jones had us stand on some squishy balls to see what happened when raising the violin arm.

Laurie and Summer
Summer Jones helps me focus on balance.

The squishy balls required a little extra balance, and that helped throw into relief any other reactions or balance issues when raising the arm. The idea (at least as I was perceiving it!) is to find a way to raise the arm using natural weight and balance, rather than having to resort to the force of muscles to keep from falling or to achieve the position.

Another takeaway from the workshop had to do with fixing postures - something we do very frequently when learning the violin, and also something necessary for injury recovery. Jones emphasized the importance of fixing how you start a posture, rather than fixing the end posture. If you are fixing the end posture, then your movement already brought you to the wrong place, and you are ingraining an incorrect movement. You ultimately have to fix the movement into the posture in order to fix the habit of taking a certain incorrect or detrimental posture.

Ultimately, it is best if the mind can drive the muscles, rather than sensory information - such as losing balance, seeing something, or getting distracted.

At the same time, it's important not to be hyper-conscious about every detail of every movement. It has to be developed into muscle memory, building on "proprioception," and that requires giving the brain a lot of weight-based data. Not just telling muscles what to do, but building on physical repetition and experience. Like a baby learning to walk - it requires physical trial and error to achieve that balance, and a whole lot of repetition.

Another condition that helps in building easy and pain-free movement is - perhaps unexpectedly - joy. Whether you are learning something yourself or helping another person to learn, "an experience rich with weight-based data and joy makes for a happy violinist," Staggs said.

Sometimes music lessons can get almost to the point of being punitive, focusing on correction and catching mistakes. But when one is building physical patterns and muscle memory, one is also building emotional memory. Staggs quoted the author Michael Singer; to paraphrase, if the mind is telling you that you are not okay, then the heart can't sing. A positive and accepting learning environment builds not only healthy habits of movement, but also a healthy emotional attitude.

Reworking one's habits definitely requires more time than a weekend workshop, but I found the topic to be fascinating and eye-opening. I hope they give more such workshops!

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February 18, 2023 at 04:05 PM · I don't have "back problems" but I have found that my practicing (which I do seated) and my orchestra rehearsals, quartet play-ins, and gigs, were much less fatiguing when I brought my own keyboard-style bench to sit on. The OnStage KT7800 is the model I prefer.

February 18, 2023 at 08:24 PM · I'm going to go over this several times and see what I can glean from this article. With my rotator cuffs being in such a poor shape I hope to learn what I can do to improve the quality of and the length of time playing.

February 21, 2023 at 01:21 AM · I found that the muscles at the back of my left shoulder were extremely weak, and contributing to shoulder instability and recurrent bursitis. I do exercises with free weights and the shoulder is improving with regard to getting dressed as well as my playing.

My left trapezius also needs to be stretched regularly.

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