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Mendy Smith

A Well Tempered Practice Diet - Relaxation

September 23, 2011 at 2:03 AM

It started seemingly minor at first, a little tension at the chin.  Then later a little tension in the right arm when bowing fast passages.  Then it moved to my left hand when learning vibrato.  Then it creeped up to the right side of my neck and made it down to my fingers.  Then one day, I had a shooting pain that traveled from my shoulder all the way down to my fingertips in my bow arm that caused me to loose feeling and drop the bow.

Since that day, I've been chasing tension all over my body while both working and playing, trying to get my muscles to relax.  Over time, it only got worse, no matter what I tried to the point where I'm at now, having to cut seriously back on my musical activities to seriously address the problem.

During lessons, my teacher pointed out that the tension is affecting other areas of my playing:  intonation, tone quality, vibrato... a whole host of techniques where being tense hinders the musical quality, not to mention the pain.  Rather than focus on my bow arm pain, she zeroed in to my left hand tension and had me simply slide up and down the fingerboard with the pressure that is needed to make a harmonic - virtually none.  Even then, my left hand was getting "stuck" from just first to third positions.  My homework assignment for the week...

While practicing at home tonight, I spent several minutes simply trying to glide up and down the fingerboard.  Without fail, the downwards slide was jerky and tense.  I noticed that from my 4th finger down to my elbow was as tight as my viola strings and became sore after a minute of this exercise.  Recalling a Simon Fisher exercise, I moved my thumb up to between the 3rd and 4th finger.  The slides were much smoother.  As I moved my thumb down I noticed that when it was near the 1st finger, the tension came back.

I also discovered that when my left hand was relaxed with the thumb closer to my 2nd - 3rd finger, my bow arm and neck relaxed as well and did not become sore after several minutes of practicing.  

It is funny how tension in one area tends to make its way to other areas of the body.  Just when I was convinced it was a right hand issue, I'm beginning to realize that it is a whole body issue.   

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 23, 2011 at 2:19 AM

I recently fell and fractured a few bones.  Now I don't have full use of either arm or either hand.  My doctor gave me permission to do some range of motion exercises with my right arm.  (I can send you links to these exercises on Youtube.  Just ask me.)  I am making slow progress with these exercises.  I really should not play  my violin, but you know how that is...I play for only a few minutes, and when I'm almost to the pain point with my left hand, I stop.  I find it very helpful to focus on keeping my left wrist straight and avoiding using my fourth finger.  I hope that some of these things help you.  You have to listen to your body for signals.  I know that it's too late for the following advice, but I'll say it anyway.  Stop and make adjustments as soon as you feel tension or pain.  All problems are harder to solve when you let them progress.  The exercise you teacher gave you about playing harmonics sounds good.  I will try it, since I have very little ability to press my fingers down.  It may be worthwhile to see a physical therapist to help you relax your muscles.  I hope that some of this helps you.  Please take good care of yourself.

From Emily Liz
Posted on September 23, 2011 at 3:36 PM

I once had a teacher ask me to make a fist with my left hand, as if I was going to punch someone. I screwed up the exercise because I'm apparently one of the few people who puts the thumb on the right side of the index finger. Normally people put the thumb between the middle and ring finger, which gives them greater stability. This illustration was useful to me to remember where the thumb should be to give my other fingers the most relaxed strength.

Oh, one more thing to try...a tip that I got from a fellow member...are your hips lined up with the music stand? Or are they twisted? Lots of people unconsciously point their scroll at the music, which causes their hips to twist. I still catch myself doing that! The eyes should be on the music stand and the scroll should be pointing away from it. This has helped straighten my posture and made it much easier for the left arm to swing under, which in turn helps fourth finger stability. Crazy how turning your hips affects fourth finger stability, but there you go.

I've spent the, five years or so trying to work on tension. By no means am I actually finished. But I do have fibromyalgia and a connective tissue disorder and miraculously I haven't had a playing injury for a very, very long time, whereas before that time I was constantly battling various injuries. So you will see results eventually, I promise! You just have to keep working and thinking...and relaxing. ;)

From marjory lange
Posted on September 23, 2011 at 4:29 PM

 Mendy, Buri and others have recommended Alexander Technique on this site, and I want to endorse it.  I've been studying for 9 months now, and the difference it has made in tension, awareness, and general playing ability is hard to articulate.  Before I started, I really believed I was going to have to stop playing altogether.  Now, I'm happier than I've ever been as I rebuild my viola and violin technique within the context of using my body 'better'.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 23, 2011 at 7:43 PM


Emily Liz, I do what you do with the thumb. Incidentally,  so does anyone who practices karate so don`t lose any sleep ove rit.

Pauline, I`m sorry to hear about your accident.  One day at a time.



From Christina C.
Posted on September 23, 2011 at 7:55 PM

oh Mendy.... you're mirroring the me-of-a-few-years ago again ... please please PLEASE nip those tension issues in the bud... mine are getting the better of me at the moment. From your posts lately it sounds as though you're on the right track what with limiting your group music stuff in favor of lessons. You strike me as being very good at analyzing what's going on & how things feel  & how to address the issues... I'm sure you'll take the sensible approach to this & beat it. I've been trying to be hyper-conscious of tension hot-spots lately too, they really creep in a lot more when I'm playing vs. when I' m practicing .


Pauline- So sorry for your misfortune, get better fast!

From Mendy Smith
Posted on September 24, 2011 at 12:46 AM

 Pauline,  Please DO send me those links!  I have a few stretching exercises that I do these days, but would like to a bit more.

An update since the blog:

I discovered after practice tonight that even with my thumb closer to my 2nd & 3rd fingers, I was getting stuck on the fingerboard when playing on the Cing.  I moved my viola more around to the left (it was almost directly in front of my nose to begin with), and a little higher up on the shoulder (meaning my chin was more towards the tailpiece), then dropped the shoulder-rest down under my chin.  This seemed to really release my left hand to allow it to move more freely around the fingerboard.  

It feels a little strange to have it more to the left, but if I focus on not clamping down with my chin, not only is my left hand free, but my bow arm felt pretty good also.  I also noted that this engaged the muscles in my back from bowing (which my teacher told me *should* be happening).  It will be interesting to see how this works over the weekend.

From marjory lange
Posted on September 24, 2011 at 1:30 PM

 Mendy, I have found similar adjustments necessary when playing viola (not the sr, but that's not the issue) and the only other necessary adjustment is to the right arm/shoulder to accommodate the changed bow-toing angle.  Dropping the right shoulder too gives me the extra length to meet the string correctly at the tip without hyper-extending my right wrist.

From Millie Bartlett
Posted on September 25, 2011 at 1:24 PM

Hi Mendy, it was interesting to read your blog because a few months ago I also had similar issues with tension and the ever increasing spread of it from one area of my playing to another.  It ended with a severe 'crick' in the neck which wouldn't go away and the top of my spine tightening all the muscles around it resulting in headaches, not to mention seriously bad playing.

A friend recommended a nearby Natural Therapies Masseur, who uses myotherapy amongst other things to locate and loosen inflammation and tension.  Bit by bit he found all my 'sore spots' and dealt with them in individual ways, sometimes 'twanging' certain muscle groups like a guitar string!  Slowly, over several weeks, we discovered the initial cause, which was clamping the violin with the chin and the shoulder very tightly. This was because of a shoulder pad that slipped about a little during playing and unconsciously I was trying to stop this by pressing both down and up at the same time. Naturally I have rectified this now and am much happier with both my playing and health. I have decided to visit him once a month for a while just to keep things ironed out, but boy, was he worth it!

From Amanda Clark
Posted on September 25, 2011 at 8:31 PM

This article from Red Desert Violin may help. It is about protecting yourself from repetetive use injuries. Pay particular attention to the part about "trigger points". Here is a


I hope this helps!


From Amanda Clark
Posted on September 25, 2011 at 8:39 PM

I just noticed Red Desert Violin owner, Loralyn Staples has a blog page on In part of her blog she talks about pain starting in the jaw. Here is a link.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 27, 2011 at 4:52 AM

 Mendy, I finally copied several exercises from Youtube, added my own comments, and published them in my own most recent blog.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 27, 2011 at 4:57 PM

 Yikes, take care of yourself! You too, Pauline.

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