Injury Prevention For Every Violinist: Body Mapping with Jennifer Johnson

June 23, 2023, 6:05 PM · Do you really know how your own body works? Here are a few questions - and some answers that you may find surprising:

These are just a few of the common "mis-mappings" that people tend to have about the body - that is, deeply-held misconceptions about how we move, where we bend and how we balance. This may not seem like a big deal, but it can become a problem when we try to do something like play the violin. Those misconceptions can lead to harmful movement patterns, which develop into habits, which can develop into injury.

This was the topic for a set of workshops on "Body Mapping" at the Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at the Juilliard School. Our teacher was violinist Jennifer Johnson, who has spent the last 20 years studying and explaining the issue of "body mapping" to violinists and other musicians.

Jennifer Johnson
Violinist Jennifer Johnson, author of 'What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body.'

"The quality of our sound depends on the quality of our movement," Johnson told us at the beginning of the first workshop. And as her mentor, Barbara Conable said: "Nothing could be more important than basing the movement of making music on the truth."

Johnson has written an important book on the subject, and it has been in my studio for a number of years: What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body (2009). It is truly a must-read for violinists, not to mention a great resource for looking up information about the body and particular problems that come up. Johnson has also written two other related books: Teaching Body Mapping to Children and Musician, Heal Thyself: Free your Shoulder Region through Body Mapping.

Motivated by a playing-related injury that occurred while she was second violinist for the Atlantic String Quartet, Johnson started her own body-mapping studies with Conable, founder of the Association of Body Mapping Education, where Johnson is now a licensed teacher trainer.

"We were taught that we have five senses," Johnson said, "actually we have at least 14." One very important one is "kinesthesia," which is an awareness of the position and movement of the parts of the body by means of proprioceptors in the muscles and joints. "All the connective tissues around our muscles send messages to our brain," Johnson said.

This is part of our "somatic sensory system," which has to do with movement and positioning.

When we instruct our body to do something that goes against its design, then neurons re-organize for a different "normal," and that creates a "mis-mapping." For example, if you are told to "sit up straight" you might push out your chest, creating a curve in the spine; pull back shoulders, causing tension; tuck in the chin, constricting breathing. If this becomes your concept of "sitting up straight," you'll have a "mis-mapping" that is working against your body that can potentially cause problems. To break this, you have to re-train, or "re-map," in order to work towards a sitting position that works for your body.

"Most of us are carrying some mis-mappings," Johnson said.

It's not too hard to see how "mis-mappings" could occur with the many movements and positions involved in violin-playing: holding the instrument, using the bow, placing the fingers on the violin, sitting while playing, even breathing while playing.

Johnson went over quite a few specific "mis-mappings" and solutions specific to violinists, but they get quite technical! I'll describe some of them here, just to give you an idea of the movements and mis-mappings that can cause problems for violinists. But if you find yourself relating and you want to explore these concepts more in-depth, get her book - it is by far the best resource!

Neck Pain and Violin Placement

If you have neck pain, it's important to consider how you are holding the violin, and if you have any "mismappings" causing you to hold it in a way that is causing that pain. Here is where it important to find the point under the earlobes that is a fulcrum for the bottom of the head. Also try putting a hand on the back of the head, just to become aware of it.

"When we lose awareness of the back of the skull, down our head comes," Johnson said. The idea is to find a balanced head that is poised over the spine, which allows neck muscles to release out of their tendency to chronically "hang onto the head."

"It's a rotational movement to come down to the violin, not a coming forward with the head," Johnson said. This is a starting point for playing with a free neck.

And where does the head go, in terms of the violin?

"There is no one right place on the chin rest for a head," Johnson said, "the contact point can be anywhere along the entire side of the jaw." Importantly, the "chin rest" is not really for your chin, it's for your jaw.

Knowing where the jaw is and finding a centered place for it is also helpful. One way is to lie down and find where the jaw feels relaxed, with the back molars parallel. Then continue looking for this same sense of released neutral in the jaw when playing. To play with a released jaw, allow for a little bit of space between the teeth - certainly no clenching!

Collarbone vs. Shoulder

A lot of people "mis-map" where their arm joins to their torso, thinking that it attaches at the "shoulder" like on a Barbie doll. In reality, the "arm joint" is actually at the collarbone. Ideally, the violin should rest on the collarbone. Since the collarbone moves together with the shoulder blade, it can be problematic when a violinist is instructed to "keep the shoulders down." Pulling the collarbone down causes it to be immobile and rigid - and that puts us in danger for rotator cuff damage.

Here is one trick for finding a more balanced collarbone when placing the violin: hold the violin high in the air and then bring it down slowly, and you should be able to find the collarbone correctly.

Left Hand

As mentioned before, there is no joint at the base of the index finger - the joints are at the knuckles, and the bones inside the palm are actually finger joints as well. Finger motion does not come from the fingers themselves but from higher up: the inside arm muscles curl the fingers, and the outside arm muscles straighten them.

Back pain

Allow your lower back muscles to remain free when raising the violin and bow - don't tighten the lower back in order to "sit up straight."


We think of our ribs as being in the front, and expanding in front when we breathe. But we have even more lung in the back. Because the ribs form joints with the spine in the back, the source of the movement of the ribs is actually in the back. So "a good breath should be felt on the front side and back," Johnson said.

There is so much to explore when it comes to how our anatomy works and the many possible "mis-mappings" that violinists can have. In her book, Johnson lists 26 "mis-mappings" for the violin side, 19 for the bow side, and four more general mis-mappings involved in practicing and performing. It's a lot to take in, but for anyone dealing with pain, fatigue or injury - or just wanting to keep oneself and one's students in balance - what a lifeline!

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June 24, 2023 at 06:57 AM · Thanks, Laurie! Jennifer's seminar is a good reminder of just how much violinists need to be aware of, if they are to play safely and comfortably.

June 25, 2023 at 07:58 PM · This is great! I came very close to quitting my viola lessons last week because my sports pursuits (rowing and weight lifting) were working at cross purposes with my viola playing. Instead of quitting, my teacher is working on body movement with me. I'll ask her if she's aware of this topic.

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