Shoulder tension problem

July 25, 2008 at 09:35 PM · Hello,

I posted a question about shoulder rests a week or two ago because I have always been raising my shoulders to balance my violin. I was recently told that this was not proper, as I should be able to play relatively tension-free. I had always played with tension.

My problem, unfortunately, still exists. I have tried about 5 different shoulder rests and 4 different chin rests, in different combinations, angles and heights and have yet to find a combination to allow me to play tension- and pain-free.

I really have not been able to practice due to the discomfort I have been experiencing. At this point, I am desperate for help, and wondering if you know of someone in the Maryland/Washington area who I could consult about this or if there is someone who custom makes shoulder & chin rests. Any advice is appreciated. Thanks.


July 26, 2008 at 02:44 AM · Shellby, if you are habitually raising your shoulder and have tension in that area, using a particular rest will unlikely to solve the problem because the problem is not the instrument itself that is in need of fitting (like a shirt a couple of sizes too small), but it is the way you have been using your body or the thinking that you are used to that created and sustained the problem. Does this make sense to you? In other words, if you’ve tried a few shoulder rests already, before you spend more money and effort to invest yet another one and hope it will solve the problem once for all, you may want to sit back and look at the problem from a different angle, like we deal with our technical problems in violin practice.

I suggest you look into the Alexander Technique and to see if you can rethink how to use your body more efficiently. There are a lot of discussion on the Alexander Technique on this site. Buri for instance wrote extensively and extremely helpful on this matter. You will need to have a certified teacher to give you some guidance to begin with. A quick google I find this site appears to be near you.

Good luck!

July 26, 2008 at 09:13 AM · I second Yixi's good advice. An Alexander Technique teacher helped me with back and neck pain. I found her essentially by chance 15 years ago and now I'm tickled to learn that this is almost a mainstream thing for violinists to do.

But this seems like also a good thing to work with your teacher on, if you have a teacher. I'm a little surprised that your teacher hasn't noticed it already, but regardless of that, I think that s/he would have good advice and be able to work with you week to week and keep you on track with improving.

July 26, 2008 at 02:24 PM · Not so long ago I posted a question about playing discomfort and was disappointed to get only one response. That was from Ray Randall, who usefully suggested stretching exercises. After all sorts of contortions, I found a particular position that hurt, presumably because of a tight muscle. After a couple of weeks of stretching, it freed up and has been much better since.

Other things that have helped have been consciously keeping the chin just off the chinrest, and playing with one had at a time, ie fingering or left hand pizz without bowing and bowing open strings without using the left hand. This seems to help in releasing tension.

And the Alexander Technique is great of course.

July 27, 2008 at 02:54 PM · Does anyone know of Alexander Technique teachers in New York City who specialize in working with violinists? Or, a particular violin teacher who is expert in dealing with tension and pain issues?

July 27, 2008 at 06:43 PM · Are you picking on me Nate, or just trying to be funny?

July 28, 2008 at 09:22 AM · Nate, I was merely relating what has helped me, so I can’t really be wrong can I? Some folk play without a chin rest at all, so to say that ‘the chin should be on the chin rest’ is not right. I find that letting my head go forward and up in an Alexandery way reduces tension due to clamping with my jaw. Left hand pizzicato and bowing open-strings are perfectly valid techniques. I find that using either arm produces tension on the other side of the body and it helps me to isolate this. Rather than being a boor, why don’t you offer something constructive to the debate?

July 28, 2008 at 11:40 AM · I've also been advised that occasional (slight) lifting of the chin off the chin rest, especially during a rest or a long note, can help with tension due to clamping down too hard. It may be less useful for the issue of raising the shoulder that Shelby describes, but I found that its real value was to make me do a periodic "reality check" while playing. I can be concentrating on other issues (i.e. intonation, vibrato) while playing and then all of the sudden find myself clamping down and tense halfway through a piece. Just lifting my chin slightly for a second can defuse that.

July 28, 2008 at 12:05 PM · Dear Shelby,

I had a similar problem to you. I would always play with some degree of tension, and often raised my shoulders whilst playing. I was so used to playing with tension that I didn't even realize what I was doing was wrong. What I ended up doing was dedicating some time to learning how to relax with the violin. I thought I didn't have time for this, being that I am a college level student and have a lot of music to learn, but it was very imperative to do so. I went into a practice room with a mirror, and i put up my violin and concentrated on trying to be as relaxed as possible. I played passages of music trying to feel the gravity naturally pulling down my hands. (Does this make any sense?) If at any moment I felt some degree of tension, I would stop and start over. (This can be very time consuming but I believe it was worth the time) I think the first way to go about fixing your problem is to know what it feels like to play completely relaxed. You should give it a try.

When you discover what its like to play relaxed, you start to realize exactly what it was that you were doing to create the tension. Likewise, once you start playing more relaxed, any bit of tension in your arms will be more apparent. You have to teach your body that playing with tension is uncomfortable and the only way to do that is to teach it how to relax. Once you do this, your body will naturally want to stop playing when you feel tension. I hope this helps!

July 28, 2008 at 12:10 PM · Karen Allendoerfer wrote: "I've also been advised that occasional (slight) lifting of the chin off the chin rest, especially during a rest or a long note, can help with tension due to clamping down too hard."

Bravo. This is one of the most beneficial things a violinist can do for his playing. Watching videos of Heifetz and Milstein, with the specific intent of seeing whether and how they do this, is a profound lesson in violin technique. One sees a looseness that looks not unlike a bobble-head doll! If one watches, but without specifically looking for what is going on with the neck and head, it is easy for this to escape one's attention----because it is so natural looking!

July 28, 2008 at 05:51 PM · Taking Alexander lessons is the best you can do. Maybe you can look for a teacher who's also a violinist so he/she can give you advice about your chin rest and shoulder rest. To solve my tension problems I participated in a project ( at the Utrecht Conservatory where we combined Alexander lessons with adjusting chin rests and shoulder rest. This not only solved my tension problems but also improved my violin technique.

July 28, 2008 at 08:55 PM · Might I mention that holding the violin up with the left hand is a recognized technique for eliminating the need to lift the shoulder? I started on this path about 10 years ago now and it has made a huge difference.

July 28, 2008 at 10:27 PM · no, it is not correct to raise your shoulder to hold your violin. It should just rest on your shoulder, but you do need to put your head in a not-natural position to hold it in place. Your head will need to be cranked even more if you aren't using a shoulder rest your head will be even more in a weird position.

July 28, 2008 at 10:54 PM · Miss DeLay always told me to shrug my shoulders

every few minutes to help eliminate that problem. My Alexander teacher also helped a lot.

Have to laugh, one of the first things the Alexander teacher told me to do was raise my arms, when I did she said, "not the shoulders too, just the arms." She made a point that still sticks with me.

July 29, 2008 at 12:28 PM · Oliver, Karen,

After seeing your posts I watched a bunch of Heifitz and Milstein videos. It does seem to really help to move the chin off the rest from time to time - thanks for your comments.


July 29, 2008 at 06:50 PM · DON'T LIFT YOUR SHOULDER!!!!

I recently had a terrible case of tendinitis in my left hand and wrist caused from tension in my left shoulder. It has been about 7 weeks and I am still not 100%. I spent a month going to physical therapy 3 times a week.

Along with Alexander Technique, my physical therapist recommended Pilates. Pilates is very core-focused and will help your overall strength and posture and is the only option for me as I have been unable to locate an Alexander Technique instructor in my area.

Also, work on your posture on your own. Just standing in front of a mirror, without your violin, will help. Look at your shoulders, your lower back and belly. Make sure your shoulders are back and down and that you are not sticking your belly out. Practice doing this whenever you do anything (dishes, talking on the phone, showering, etc.) and you will notice a difference in your tension very soon. I too felt very uncomfortable with every chin rest/shoulder rest combo I tried until I learned how to stand. Now, I can use the setup I used before my injury, which is a wittner plastic center mount chin rest and a kun bravo with extra long legs/forks on both sides. (I have a very long neck, a high, protruding collar bone, and a boney face)

Good luck to you. It is hard at first, but definitely well worth the work! :)

July 30, 2008 at 10:58 AM · >Might I mention that holding the violin up with the left hand is a recognized technique for eliminating the need to lift the shoulder?

Good call! I've been doing this lately in the way that Karen "touches base" with her chin on the rest. I seem to be hunching over unconsciously as I read my music, and just a momentary awareness of feeling the violin neck in my left palm, then lifting up, arching slightly back (my whole body, straightening up, looking up, tucking my pelvis under to a more neutral standing position) really helps. I think any little cue that self-triggers periodically is a good thing. Awareness of what the body is doing is half the battle. Really, really an important thing to learn that will help thru life.

July 30, 2008 at 06:58 PM · I will try not to use exclamation marks here. Take corwin slaks advice and try to play without a shoulder rest. Just for the hell of of it. The violin does not rest on the shoulder, like somebody here said it must, but rather on the collarbone, lighly gripped by the chin. To do so just keep your head straight, rotate it slighly to the left and lower it untill it touches the chinrest. It's a very small movement.

As for the left hand techniqe, yes, playing without a shoulder rest makes resting the violin on the lefthand thumb necesary, but generaly only in moments of fixed position. There are some exceptions.

The raised shoulder...the higher the position, the higher the left shoulder will raise. It's a natural movement of the body so don't fight it. Use it. Also with the right arm, the shoulder will naturaly go up whenever playing on lower strings(the g) or when playing at the frog. The movement will be smaller on the e string and bigger on the g.

And finaly, before you go and pay Alexander technique teachers, search this forum. Somebody mentioned a website with alexander technique for violinists that is realy helpful. And free. Go at it. And good luck.

July 31, 2008 at 11:33 AM · Nate, When I first forced myself to hold the violin in the left hand I felt like I was drowning. It was panic. The better your real technique the easier you may find adopting a left hand hold. I had some decent facility for an amateur but no technique. It was a very challenging thing to do but I have no regrets. In fact quite the contrary it has been a huge plus. I am still an amateur but I have a basic technique. I am learning repertory that I would never have thought possible before learning to hold the violin in my left hand.

July 31, 2008 at 11:38 AM · Olivu, I don't balance the violin on the left hand thumb. I balance it on the base of the first finger (the fleshy part of the palm) with light opposing guidance from the left thumb,

July 31, 2008 at 01:40 PM · Nate, you made me curious when you said that tuning the e-string fine tuner with the left hand is somehow incorrect. Could you elaborate? How should it be done?


July 31, 2008 at 03:52 PM · Hi Corwin, yes I agree with you on the freedom that one can get out of learning to balance the instrument with the left hand. Playing without a shoulder rest also teaches the player how to learn proper shifting. If you jump from note to note without a shoulder rest, you will find it does not work out too well.

Bart, as far as tuning the E-string goes, the right hand should tune the fine tuner. Would you scratch your right ear with your left hand? This looks a lot more professional I think to tune the e fine tuner with the right hand; also reaching around the instrument with the left hand will make the shoulder lift and a risk for the violin to drop. Watch Heifetz tune, you won't ever see him tune the E with the left hand.

July 31, 2008 at 07:04 PM · People do ugly things when you tell them to "hold" the violin with the left hand. It's such an art; wouldn't you say Corwin that it's not exactly "holding" per se?

I would argue that you can have the same kind of relaxed technique WITH a shoulder rest as without, if you are simply playing the violin correctly. Clenching the violin with the shoulder and neck is not a recommendation, whether you play with or without a shoulder rest.

A balance between supporting the violin with your jaw and supporting it with your left hand is what works best. Achieving that balance for one person means stopping clenching the fiddle with the hand, achieving it for another means stopping clenching it with the jaw and shoulder.

In summation, don't clench, anywhere.

August 1, 2008 at 12:43 AM · At risk of speaking for Corwin, I think that is actually a very good summation Laurie.

I would agree that the balance between holding too much (not clenching) with the left hand and holding too much (again not clenching) with the chin.

However, if there's a balance problem, I think it's usually that people (myself included) hold too much with the chin, and do not hold enough with the left hand.

With or without shoulder rests!

August 1, 2008 at 10:31 AM · Holding does suggest grasping and clutching. Grasping and clutching shouldn't be a part of playing the violin at the left hand or at the shoulder.

A better word might be supporting.

August 4, 2008 at 02:29 AM · I had the same problem for over 2 yrs. and my teacher tried to help all she could, but we still couldnt' figure out why I was having pain.

Finally, I went to a chiropractor, and found I had scoliosis in my lower back, and my left leg was lower than the right, causing my hip to be tilted. After going to the chiropractor for about 4 months now, I have MUCH less back pain! I also have excercises to do that strenthen my back, shoulder, and neck muscles and relieve tension.

So...getting a checkup may be a good thing to do if you have dull aches or other pain in your back, shoulder, or neck.

Also, like all the other poeple have been saying, spend some time practicing to relax while playing violin. Don't press down with your head on the violin. Turn your head to the side on the chinrest every oncde in a while. It looks professional, expressive, plus relieves tension!

August 4, 2008 at 03:21 AM · "I would argue that you can have the same kind of relaxed technique WITH a shoulder rest as without, if you are simply playing the violin correctly. Clenching the violin with the shoulder and neck is not a recommendation, whether you play with or without a shoulder rest. "

I know someone who plays with a shoulder rest who placed in a big competition a couple years ago. At one point in the video she raises her head off of the chin rest and plays for a bit. It's in a really exposed place, and of course there's no disruption of any kind.

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