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Pauline Lerner

Body Maintenance for Violinists

September 15, 2009 at 3:24 AM

We violinists abuse our upper body muscles every time we play. We hold some muscles still for hours, and we make repetitive motions with other muscles. We introduce a severe asymmetry into our upper bodies. On our left side, the muscles of the head and neck become chronically contracted. The corresponding muscles on our right side become chronically hyperextended. It's no wonder that we get chronic muscle stiffness. If you're not aware of this in your own body, you have only to watch a beginning student. He stops playing after a short time because his upper body is uncomfortable. The affect is most pronounced in adult males because they have the largest muscles.

How should we take care of our affected muscles? There are several techniques that work well. I will focus on simple, quick, and effective muscle stretches that require no special equipment. You can do them all in your office or at home. I teach these stretches to my students, and I'm always surprised at how few adults know the names of the muscles or the stretches. I suppose that's because I've spent years as a gym rat and a yoga student, and most other people don't work out. Yoga works well for stretching and relaxing muscles, too, but it is too complex to describe in this article. I'll leave the Alexander technique for Buri to address.

Stretches Kids Like To Do

Kids like to do "wet dog shakes." They shake their arms from the shoulders like a wet dog trying to dry off. The kids often get carried away and shake more of their body, and that is good because they loosen more of their upper body muscles. They also like to do shoulder rolls, making large circles with their shoulders, first clockwise and then counterclockwise. (I've done shoulder rolls with light hand weights.)

Stretches for the shoulders (deltoids)

The first stretch I will show is part of a series on "Office Chair Yoga Stretches." Don't be put off by the instructor's soft voice and gentle manner. These are not wimpy exercises. When you try these stretches, notice the difference between your left and right shoulders. Your left shoulder will be tighter because you use it to hold the violin. (I refuse to be dragged in to another fight on shoulder rests.)

If you prefer to see exercises done by a hunk, the next video is for you. He does the stretch with one arm against a wall. Again, you should feel a marked difference between your left and right shoulders when you do these stretches. Note the advice on coming into and going out of the stretches.

Stretches for the Upper Chest (Pecs)

The pectoral (upper chest) muscles (pecs) are just in front of the armpits. The ones on the left are contracted by holding the violin, and the ones on the right are used in moving the bow. Again, the first video is from the Office Chair Yoga Stretches. A word of warning: If your neck is weak or you have any neck problem, you should go slowly on putting your head back. You may start by putting your neck back just a little and increase the range of motion of the neck gradually.

The next brief video shows three different kinds of stretches for the pecs. In the first one, done with one hand on the wall, the body is stretched / rotated away from the wall. Caution: If you have had shoulder rotator problems or any other shoulder problems, you should not do the exercise with one hand against the wall.

When you do these exercises, notice the difference between the left and the right side. The pecs on the left side will probably be stiffer and harder to stretch than those on the right because we use the pecs on the left side to hold our violins.

Stretches for the Neck

When you try the next exercise, your neck will feel different on the right and on the left. Again, the neck will feel tighter and be a little harder to stretch on the left side because we use the left side of the neck to hold the violin in place.

Here is another good video from the Office Chair Yoga series on neck stretches.

Stretches for the Wrists

I have not had very many students who need to stretch their wrists, but those who do have found this very helpful.

Stretches for the Upper Back

The last group of exercises that I'm showing works several muscle groups at once: the upper back, shoulders, chest, and arms. My students and I use it mainly for the upper back and pecs.

These exercises should ideally be performed before, during, and after exercising. I do them as stretch breaks when I'm practicing and when I finish practicing. I don't do them all every time I practice. I listen to my body telling me where it feels tight, and I choose one or two exercises to stretch out the affected muscles. After years of doing this, I can predict pretty well where my trouble spots are. I also use these exercises as stretch breaks when I work at my desk for long periods of time. I can feel the relaxing and regenerating effects of these stretches during and after doing them. They always make me feel good.

Every body is different, and the exercises that are good for me may not be the best for you. Youtube has many, many exercises taught by professional trainers or other health care professionals. I suggest that you try the exercises I've shown here and/or any other helpful exercises on Youtube. They're relaxing. They're free. They don't require a doctor's prescription. You can tailor them to your (violinist's) needs. Give them a try.

Here's to your health.

From Christopher Liao
Posted on September 16, 2009 at 7:47 AM

Thank you for these exercises! In addition to violin, school has consistently been my primary source of stress, both physically and mentally. Helpful indeed. :)

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 18, 2009 at 6:50 PM

Christopher, most of these stretches are also good for people who spend a lot of time at a desk or at a laptop.  Of course, school-induced stress can make your muscles tight, and the stretches can help.

From erik engelmann
Posted on September 20, 2009 at 10:37 PM

Swimming is a good exercise too, for me, results perfect....

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