Who actually plays without tension?

May 31, 2009 at 03:35 AM ·

There is a lot of discussion about pain-free or tension-free playing.  How many of you can actually say that's your successful experience, at least the majority of the time when you play or teach?  And what made the biggest difference for you?

Replies (51)

May 31, 2009 at 10:11 AM ·


interesting question. Actually I would qualify it.  Playing pain free is essential.  If you experience pain you are doing something wrong. End of debate.  Playing without tension is not possible.  In fact the issue is of correct application and release of tension.   I think what you are asking is who uses this ebb and flow at the highest possible level an d how close we get to it.  (the highest levels would be Heifetz,  Milstein, Casals, Rubenstein,  perlman,  Oistrakh,  et al)

Personally I am too damaged to play at the level my potential suggested when I wa s  young.  The actual misuse of the body that affect me most seriously (misuse being the term from Alexander technique) is in my legs.  Violin playing is about the whole organism and as Mimi Zweig pointed out ,  even unnecessary tension in the toes (actually -very- common=)  can hold someone back from realizing their full potential.



May 31, 2009 at 12:49 PM ·

 Here’s a list of all the mistakes I had to corrected over the years  to be able to play pain free. 

             Not holding the violin at a 45 degree angle from center

              Not using a center chin rest

              Improper shoulder rest adjustment, "wolfe secondo" is a good rest for adjusting properly (hold the violin with out the shoulder rest at a 45 degree angle. Mark where the shoulder rest ,rest on your collar bone>Next place the shoulder rest on your shoulder at your marks and adjust the rest so it doesn't wobble or has gaps. Next attach rest to violin, but have the left side angled as close as possible to chin rest).

            left hand fingers too high from finger board  when not in use, or coming down to hard.

           First finger not facing you when placed on E string 

          First finger not lifted off string when using 4 th finger 

       Hips not in 

     Left shoulder not down 

   Not leaning slightly forward 

 Not moving elbow to get to lower strings 

Now that I've corrected all  these errors I can play for hours at a time, pain free with improved accuracy and consistency .But between the age of 23 to 35 I couldn't practice ,After 15 minutes of constant  playing ,the pain in the left hand was so bad I had to stop playing .The above list of corrections is mosttly self taught, but I perceived it to be excellent technique if most if not all is followed .

May 31, 2009 at 01:17 PM ·

I wouldn't say I qualify but I used to have so much pain and tendonidus I though I would never could play without.  With a new teacher and better posture I have no more at all. Also my switching from shoulder rest to not help so much to realize how much tension I had.  Probably this is the biggest issue that helped me. 

On the other hand violin is good for avoiding pain and posture. (my family's bodies are very "cheap' made and everyone except me who curiously use it much more because I'm the only musician has chronic shoulder, back, knee, neck pain.  Everyone in my family even men have giraffe necks and sit for too many hours studying each day... )  When I was young, I had a bad posture and since violin I have a straight back and shoulders (hopfully for life :)

Tension?  A lot less than before but definitivly always more than some greats like Oistrakh and Perlman because my physique is smaller.  A small and narrow hand that streches for the same "gap" has for sure more tension than a broad and often warmer hand who stretches for the same gap.  A long neck who does not want to play scroll down for shifting and sound issues must "lift" the violin slightly higher because the head is located slightly higher...  etc  So, yes more tension than some others but maybe more conscious I have to be very careful about it :)


May 31, 2009 at 02:26 PM ·

I'd have to say I play without tension, at least when I practice.  When I play in public at a jam or performance, I have to work pretty hard at not tensing up.  It's funny, because I don't have any fear of embarrassment - I guess I just tense up because I'm trying to focus more, and it backfires.

I have a conscious routine where I inventory my body every few minutes for signs of tension - shoulders rising, chin crunching down, neck stiffening, frowning.  I also have a specific routine for relaxation that I do a lot, based on some qigong and aikido exercises that I have learned over the years.  Same with postural and balance issues.  I taught some of them to my teacher and she says they make a big difference to her.

There's a book by Peter Ralston called Zen Body-Being that I recommend very highly for learning to function while relaxed.  From what I understand, Alexander Technique addresses many of the same issues.

May 31, 2009 at 04:18 PM ·

Our SLCO principal cellist, even when playing solos, is so relaxed I wonder if he's awake. He is also an incredible player. Could the two go together? Ya think?

May 31, 2009 at 10:55 PM ·

Yes Ray it's true that the most relaxed players look like if they were sleeping...  lol I always find this!


June 1, 2009 at 03:11 AM ·

One thing I have found very helpful is to remember that very little physical effort is needed to produce a full sound. The natural weight available in the arm is already more than enough to draw a full tone from the string so additioinal physical effort by torquing too much or pressing with the fingers leading to tension will go against the natural relaxed weight available. There are positions we move into from one end of the bow or another and from one end of the fingerboard or another or from E string to G string and vice versa with both left and right sides and these are all connected through our spinal column and a stable alert posture can help us make the most efficient movements without tension. Sometimes it is useful to remove or have someone remove the violin and bow from you and just observe the position you happened to have found yourself in while playing a given note or group of notes to see  and feel if your given position is creating unnecessary strain on your body.  As an example, I think it's very useful to be aware of ther most comfortable position you can find yourself in when playing the tenths in the last movement of the  Bruch concerto and create the most efficient and relaxed pathway to get from point A to Point B. There is always friction, there is always physical effort but careful observation using your sense of touch, hearing, and seeing can help you pinpoint inefficient and tension producing movements. We are often so preoccupied with learning notes and engraining them into our physical memory that we fail to notice if we are moving with as much ease and the least amount of work as possible. It  always is interesting to note that an animal seeking its prey so naturally springs into motion to pounce -they have an innate, instinctive sense of moving their bodies that we  as human beings, gradually lose as we leave infancy and early childhood. We end up learning, sometimes just by casual imitation,  very inefficient movements that wear and tear on our bodies until something serious happens to give us a wake-up call. As teachers it is our duty to constantly monitor our students and teach them how to be aware of movement so they can learn to  spot a potentially destructive movement before it gets to be a habit. The mind can really do a number on our bodies- we sometimes analyze in the wrong way instead of allowing for a process of discovery as to what actually sounds better and feels better. The goal, given the aging process, is to last as long as possible so one can enjoy making music for a lifetime.

June 1, 2009 at 10:54 PM ·

I don't know if I'm tension free or not anymore. Recently, my "playing pains" have vanished. I stopped using a Shoulder Rest, but I find it a bit awkward at times when playing double stops.

June 2, 2009 at 02:57 AM ·

I think it is interesting that you stopped using a shoulder rest. When I first learned (6 years of classical lessons), it was in the 1960's. There were no shoulder rests - at least my violin teacher (symphony orchestra professional) didn't use one. so now that I've taken up violin again, I have not been able to get comfortable using one. I use a tall chinrest instead. This also keeps my ear up away from the violin and that lessens the impact on my hearing.

June 2, 2009 at 03:43 AM ·

Play Paganini's prepetuo moto 10 times without stopping, problem solved.

June 2, 2009 at 10:22 AM ·

I find it interesting also :)

I find that when you learn for what PURPOSE each body part plays in playing the violin, then you can minimuse your absolute tension.

I am practicing to rely only on my neck (or a quick shrug of my left shoulder) for either shifting/vibrato (I doubt a shrug would work well in vibrato :P), and my hand will do the balancing. My feet should feel comfortable in the ground and also distribute my weight evenly - I realised I had a habbit of leaning my most of my  weight onto one leg while playing.

By straighting my back, it allows my violin to play more parallel to the ground, without any extra motion of having to "lift" my arm.

Of course now I have to practice this way for a fair bit, but with time I'm sure it'll work in the long run :)

now back to practice.

June 2, 2009 at 12:46 PM ·

i think "tension free" is a misnomer.  as long as there is muscle contraction, there is tension.  the excessive tension may have a multifactorial basis.  

the issue may be related to the mental aspect, where anxiety/fear/apprehension lead to sustained muscle contractions/delayed relaxation at a level not needed for the task at hand.  how come we have not heard of people developing coffee or tea drinking related arm/shoulder dysfunction?

incorrect tech can lead to poor leverage and improper recruitment, thus to make things happen instead of letting things happen. 

a general conditioning and physical status may not be up to par for the job at hand.  if practicing pieces 5 times per day is the limit, trying to do it 20 times per day will possibly be met with issues of m tension, particularly if it is under time pressure as well, say, one is not ready but the lesson is tomorrow.  this issue is possibly more common with advanced players or even the pros, with impossible work load.  just don't have the luxury to take it easy anymore because one is expected to perform at high level all the time.

but cardiovascular fitness can be deceiving when it comes to fitness for violin because rotator cuff fitness is often overlooked or not well understood thus not evaluated by the teacher.   one can be a world class body builder with hidden, improper rotator cuff  function,( perhaps the reason that law enforcement people often disable suspects by leveraging against the shoulder region.)  to compensate for the dysfunction of the rotator cuff, we tend to recruit the neighboring muscles, piling up additional work load near the scapula and the shoulder, etc, leading to spine dysfunction/spinal muscle tightness.  and worsening posture.  then performance that deviates from the ideals of performance art.

the issue with excessive tension is particularly noticeable at the frog and at the tip of the bow, or when not arrriving yet at a comfortable violin hold with the left upper limb, which easily trickles down the entire body.   i see that with my kid often, but because she is young, her musculature seems to respond well to suggestions and reminders, but the forgetfulness on this issue seems eternal:).  don't feel the discomfort once lost in music because there is analgesic effect of classical music? when she was younger and weaker, with worse techniques, my hunch is that  if she would to practice some passages repeatedly against certain ideals, i could imagine that she would develop excessive muscle tension chronically because the task at hand required a level of exertion that she was not physically comfortable with yet.  i think to break the daily practice into smaller chunks help reestablish a "healthier" baseline, instead of going for the no pain, no gain route. my bias is that children tend to quit because of discomfort, but adults tend to push through because of ?maturity.

lastly, i think violin playing is indeed like a sport therefore a proper diet that works specifically for each violinist is worth exploring.  it helps cut down recovery and repair time and decrease the chance of reinjury or turning something acute into chronic.

June 4, 2009 at 04:00 AM ·

After my first semester of study with Paul Rolland, author of Movement in String Playing and the series of films by the same name (now available in DVD form at www.paulrolland.net), I played for my undergrad teacher.  He wanted to know what Mr. Rolland's teaching was about.  When I replied that it could be summed up in "tension-free playing", his observance was, "Well, if we all played without tension, we'd be puddles on the floor".  I think the remark was generated by jealousy and arrogance, but it certainly made me think about the role of tension in playing.  (And, to be sure, I'm not an advocate of continual tension).

Life has its natural cycles of tense times and relaxation, and this is reflected in the compositions that we play.  Our job as musicians is to monitor how our bodies react to the music and then to determine how and where to apply weight and lightness in playing.  To do all relaxation or all tension would  be detrimental to our playing and to our bodies.

And part of our job, too, is to think and sense how the equipment on our instrument affects tension and relaxation.  If a chinrest, shoulder pad, or even size of instrument (as in viola) causes us to continually contract muscles in order to use them, we are headed for unnecessary tension, then pain, and then disability.  And sometimes, we must shed the beliefs of beloved teachers in order to survive as players.  (Been there).  But, I am still to find better advice on playing without undue tension than in the teachings of Paul Rolland.  Life-changing ideas and advice.

Regards, Lynne Denig, www.chinrests.com

June 5, 2009 at 08:27 PM ·

If you want to perform at the highest level consistently, you must play with little tension. One of the distinction of those maestro such Milstein, Heifetz, Kogan, Oistrkh from the others was that their  performances were very consistent. Your chance to attend the bad concert of these maesto probably was one or twice every 100 events. Most players have tension to play the violinist due to focusing on so many rules of bowing, so they fail to soley use their own ears to made a judgement to determine what mechansims of bowing realy allow you effortlessly to project the sound you want.

June 6, 2009 at 01:48 AM ·


but even within thta groupo there is degrees. I have just been listenign to some of Kogans last recordings (Dvd) and the tension that was present in his palying from an early stage had caused considerable deterioration in his playing.  Not saying he wan`t a superlative artist but Oistrakh made a far more naturla use of the body and had he not passe don so soon would have carrie dfar longer than Kogan I think.



June 6, 2009 at 03:06 AM ·

I think that this is a very difficult thing to self evaluate and finding someone who can help you find and relieve tension is nearly as difficult. I dropped the shoulder rest and learned to play without lifting my shoulder and I think that it made a lot of difference to my tension but I wouldn't say that the left shoulder is the source of all tension or that solving its problems is the solution to tension problems.

August 25, 2009 at 01:03 AM ·

I am new here but am finding this site a huge help! Thank you all for sharing!

I am a little upset to see that many of you seasoned players have the same problems I do as a newbie. I was hoping my stiffness and sore hands were a result of being nervous and unsure of myself. Well darn :-)

Thanks to everyones input I now have several ideas to try.

August 25, 2009 at 01:52 AM ·

Wow. I always liked to think that for instance Mr. Perlman is not tense while playing. I just wrote in another discussion something about the body naturally taking a comfortable position. If you watch Perlman (or Oistrakh) on videos, you can see, that they are not really holding themselves, but, rather sort of naturally take a muscle tone if collapsed for some time. Something like a low level (brainstem, or the like) command of the nervous system. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this is not only relying on good technique, but a healthy mind too........

August 25, 2009 at 02:54 AM ·

I would say that I play without undo tension most of the time, depending on circumstances, how warmed-up I am and repertoire. Keeping "loose as a goose" throughout say, the entire Bach g minor fugue is an accomplishment indeed!

Joseph Silverstein, a sovereign master who makes everything look ridiculously easy, told me that one of the things he learned from Dounis is that you can't be totally without tension all of the time, in the sense of being flaccid like a wet noodle. It's an interplay of tension and release, tension and release. But there's tension and tension. Undo contraction and stiffness should be avoided like the plague. Pressing too. Auer used to say "as more you press, as less comes out". It's difficult to describe, but I conceive of positive tension as a living feeling similar to adding concentrated air to increase the inflation of a tire, as opposed to an unyielding iron bar.

Also, intense is not the same as tense. It's an approach to digging-in and releasing, among other things. No one was more intense than Heifetz. Yet Erick Friedman said that observing H at close range, he was so relaxed that F felt that he could almost just blow the fiddle and bow right out of his hands! Possibly second in the intensity department was Rosand. It was he who helped lead me to a permanent breakthrough. He insited that one be physically relaxed, no matter how one otherwise felt. One of his favorite expressions was "don't play with the brakes on!"

August 25, 2009 at 06:51 AM ·

Hello Raphael,

Thanks for the post, now this is something to think about (and experiment with). Hope to understand the meaning one day.

August 25, 2009 at 07:05 AM ·

Yep. I think I know what you mean :)


August 25, 2009 at 07:43 AM ·

So.. it's all a question of arm weight anticipating bow changes, feeding the necessary pressure to the strings, to produce sound. Just what everyone's always talking about, but it's not so easy to understand just in theory :)

August 25, 2009 at 12:03 PM ·

Yes, controlled weight, as opposed to undo muscular contraction is so important. Get into the string, then pull the sound out..Think open, free, flowing. Once you get the feel, you'll know it. Then you need to "install" an internal "alarm", that goes off when you tense-up. Then you back away, and get back to that positive focus and flow. Also think of singing. Keep your throat open. You can't sing if you're choking. Sing the violin!

August 25, 2009 at 12:03 PM ·

Ok. I'll try.. thanks!

August 25, 2009 at 12:11 PM ·

Gidon Kremer wrote on his Bach albums leaflet, that with that recording, he tried to show that it is not obligatory to sing with the violin. Or necessary, but I guess at that level you already went through the "singing part" :)

August 25, 2009 at 12:42 PM ·

Getting into the string, and then pulling the sound out with the forearm really works!! It also gives meaning to whole lot of beginning exercises I had years back with the concept of an "elliptical" bowing, and bow changes. Bow direction changes, I mean. Thxxxxx

August 25, 2009 at 12:48 PM ·

Good to have people around here like you and Buri, who really care about others.

August 25, 2009 at 04:31 PM ·

Thank you! Re Kremer and not singing - well yes, sometimes we want talk, enunciate, etc. But all of that is best done w.o. the brakes on!

August 26, 2009 at 11:01 PM ·

Who can play without tension? Henryk Szeryng is the finest example I can think of.

And now, it's time for my extra long, extra boring gratuitous advice. Brace youselves:

Playing without tension... Hmmm...From the start, this formulation is not very fortunate. There is no way you can play the violin without tension. In my humble opinion the idea should revolve around playing the violin with as little effort as possible, and at the same time obtaining as much effect as possible. Another idea would be not to eliminate all the tension, but rather to focus it in the proper areas. There are many factors that contribute to the tension free state, which must flow primarily from the mind, as to allow the body to follow suit.

Here are some factors:

1. Your right hand technique. In the right hand, an incorrect bowhold creates the most tension. Most incorrect bowholds involve fingers that are too far apart and/or stiff like sticks. Some think that this helps control and force. Well, it does, but it is only an illusion, because it strains your arm and you loose all the flexibility needed in spiccato, other off-the-string bow techniques and general finesse in tone. The fingers must be close to eachother, round, and they must contact the bow only with the least or surface. That means you must barely hold it. But it dosen't mean that you may hold it in so relaxed a manner that it can fall from your hand. Secondly, be careful at how the "gears" of the whole arm change position with every inch of bow that you draw.  All the elbow work and wrist rotation serve to keep the bow straight on the strings. Also, the closer you are to the frog, the more you turn the bow on its hairs edge.

2. Your left hand technique. Generaly, the thumb makes you or breakes you. Keeping it on the side of the neck wont help much, as it cannot counterballance the presure of the active fingers. That means you have to make it touch the underside of the violins neck. Look at videos of Perlman, Szeryng and Heifetz for an ilustration. Also, let your thumb circulate. It's position is not fixed; it changes in context with the double stops, extensions, across-the-string finger movement, etc. Look at the utube video of Szeryng playing the G minor fugue. The camera shows his left hand in all its splendor and you can clearly see his thumb working, changing its  position with every new finger configuration.

3. Your violin hold. If you use a shoulder rest, it is a good idea to lower it on the left side (where you grip it) and raise it in the right side. This will make it more horisontal and ease the pain and strain that your neck has to go through clamping down on that high shoulder rest. This will also change the angle of your strings and the approach of your bow arm for the better.

4.You body posture. Keep your body as close to its natural standing position as possible. That includes head up, shoulders straight and standing on two feet. However keep in mind that the right shoulder naturaly rises when you aproach the frog, especialy if you are in the G string. The left shoulder also rises the higher the position of the left hand is. This makes the shoulder rest a problem, because in higher positions, the left shoulder will have a natural tendency to come closer and closer to the body of the violin. The shoulder rest prevents that by forcing the shoulder at a fixed distance from the violins back, causing tension and possible pain in the long run. A solution might be a very low shoulder rest and learning how to balance the violin on your left hand when not doing any shifts, much like playing without a shoulder rest. Or you can dump the shoulder rest entirely. Then you must grip the violin between the collar bone and the chin and bring your shoulder for support only when you shift. As for the standing on two feet, note that the left foot is slightly bent outwards, as to compensate from the added weight of the violin on the left side of the body. But remember that the body is balanced on both feet equaly. Also, when you play sitting on a chair, remember to set your left foot a little forward, from the same reason of the added weight on the left side, from the violin. Google through the boards: alexander technique for violin or something similar. Most problems of tension come from an incorrect or unnatural body posture.

5.Your mind. A relaxed mind comes from being in touch with your body, knowing at all times what every finger and joint is doing in every technique used on the violin. You have to know precisely all the details. That means you have to be ready at all times to explain to somebody how to do something on the violin. Try this: explain to yourself how to do a spiccato, or how to make a shift with two adjacent fingers. Just like in a violin manual. If you can successfuly explain it to your own self, then you are on your way to knowing you technique. A secure technique will guarantee a tension free execution. The more insecure you are, the more tense you will be. Read the Art of Violin Playing By Carl Flesh. Some minor outdated ideas notwithstanding, it is worth it's weight in gold.

 Hope it helps! Cheers!

August 28, 2009 at 04:49 PM ·

   Many years ago I took an audiition for a professional orchestra and got comments afterwards from the concertmaster. She had very positive comments but suggested that some undo tension could be holding me back. It was suggested that if I eliminate this tension, great things were in store for me.  She then gave me the name of a famous performer who was a specialist in "playing relaxed".

   To my surprise, this artist agreed to give me an evaluation at  $100.00 for one hour. (This was in the early 80's.) The conclusion was that everything looked good except for some tension in my wrist and shoulder and unless resolved, I would have problems later in life. A solution to the problem was not offered and I couldn't afford to go back for more lessons, nor was this person available anyway.

   I began to work myself into a panicked and obsessive state of mind and probably was twice as tense as before.  The summer of that year, I studied with Jasha Brodsky who was on the faculty at Curtis and informed him that I was having serious problems because I wasn't "totally relaxed". He looked at me and in a very irritated tone said, "Young man, you won't be totally relaxed until the day you die!"  At a later point in time, he suggested that I hold my violin more to the left so that it would be easier to hold up, but that was the end of the discussion. I don't think that his response was based on jealousy and this man certainly was a great artist and knew what he was doing.

   Much later in life I took some lessons from an old timer who was a Galamian disciple and addressed the issue again. He had a similar reaction, and suggested that this concern wasn't so much of an issue back in the day.  The attitude was, do what you have to do, but this never used to be such a big concern. Just play the damn thing already.  I mentioned the philosophy of another person who built an empire on "playing relaxed" and he laughed. He said that he heard this person play once; it was terrible playing and perhaps a little tension might have been called for.

   I've held on to this obsession throughout my life even against the best of advice. I've come to the conclusion that it has more to do with which muscles you use when and how much. Then getting the other ones out of the way as much as possible. Even more important in my experience is practicing consistenly to aviod injuries. And as was mentioned earlier, playing professionally can make unwanted tension unaviodable and the psychological strain can also become a contributing factor. Then the body follows the mind. There may not be enough time to fix it with yoga, meditation or whatever, and the only thing left to do is call in sick to work.

   I would challenge the notion that great players didn't play with tension. Didn't Hiefetz have career ending bursitis or some serious shoulder problems? Could that have happened if he were the Perry Como of the violin? Some of those great and classic photos look really tense to me anyway with his neck cocked to the side and the muscles bulging out of his neck. Just some food for thought and fuel for flames.  :)

August 30, 2009 at 02:57 AM ·

Robert - would you mind naming that expert performer that you made reference to in your first two paragraphs? Also, I see that you studied with the noted pedagogue, Raphael Bronstein. Did you or he bring up the tension issue?

Re Heifetz, I'll trust what Erick Friedman had to say, having observed him countless times at close distance during lessons with him. (v.my earlier post.) As to H's later problems, at least some of that was from an injury he sustained earlier in his career when somebody hit him. (Long story.) Also, I'm not a doctor, but I'm pretty sure that many problems can develop, such as arthritis, irrespective of doing things right or wrong, if we have a propensity for it. Then there's the issue of overuse as opposed to misuse. Sometimes we can do something a million times just right, but with the million and first repitition, that's it. The straw has broken the camel's back. Right now as I'm typing, I'm pretty sure I'm not tensing. Yet I feel some repetitive stress, and will soon need to stop for now.

 As to isolated still photos, sometimes they can be misleading. A momentary twist or turn in passing can look very exaggerated when caught in a still. I saw a similar still of Midori, where she looked so tense that it was disturbing. But I attended a master class of hers about a year ago and she looked OK - and was very nice, btw.

August 30, 2009 at 03:25 AM ·

The problem of tension is much easier to overcome when one thinks about it properly. Many teachers and players think that it's a matter of relaxing a certain body part or the body in general. In fact, tension problems usually arise due to faulty technique - namely incorrect usage of a particular body part. This unnatural motion causes muscle spasm and your body isn't doing what it is meant to be doing.

It is true that violin playing isn't the most "natural" instrument but when one understands the arms' functions and abilities, technique can truly serve music without being hindered by faulty movements.

August 30, 2009 at 04:22 AM ·

One mustn't forget the element of "psychological tension" in public performance in which one could potentially become rattled and a seemingly controllable or tolerable physical tension when not "under  the gun" so to speak results in losing control in the performance when under psychological pressure.

Learning to not let mental tension affect one in an adverse way and learning to make physically relaxed movements that stand the test of pressure on the stage is crucial to diminishing the potential spiralling effect of  physical tension and mental tension feeding on each other.  I commend you to Oliver Steiner's superb article, http://oliversteiner.com/article1.php   It is sage advice and one that every player should take to heart. 


August 30, 2009 at 04:17 PM ·

It is especially important to eliminate the contraction of opposing muscle groups - relaxing every muscle that doesn't contribute to the desired motion/movement or whatever. This is an ongoing struggle that requires constant attention and focus, especially for adult starters who have a lifetime of programmed muscle movements to be unlearned. For me it has become the main focus of every practice session. My teacher tells me I've made great progress in this area, but there is much work to be done. Vibrato anyone?

December 30, 2009 at 11:52 PM ·

Fascinating thread!

I have something to add which I learned from the ideas of Margaret Rowell, a remarkable teacher of the cello. They mostly transfer quite directly to the violin but so far as I can tell her work hasn't been discussed on v.com, and for me it had a transformative impact.

As a cellist in my youth, I recently took up the fiddle but was struggling to get comfortable with the instrument.

I was offered the loan of a cello and decided that returning to my old instrument would be a more practical project. This is when I discovered the work of Margaret Rowell.

You can find an introduction to her work here by her student Nicholas Anderson:


And some more detail here:


Her story is rather extraordinary. Born in 1900, she was a celebrated child prodigy on the cello. But in her 20s she was disabled for 3 years with TB. When she returned to her career, she found she had lost  the sense of natural flow from her artistic conception to its physical expression on her instrument. She was unable to find a teacher who could help her re-discover this sense of ease and flow, and spent the rest of her very long career seeking an answer for herself and her students.

In her search she worked closely with maestri such as Casals, Piatigorsky, Rostropovich, Fournier, Rose and Ma. Rather than look at the varied externals of their techniques (angle of instrument, height of bow-arm etc) she was seeking something deeper: a way to identify and transmit the underlying sensations of natural freedom, power and flow which all great players share.

What she developed is essentially a form of self enquiry, where she introduces you to important sensations using images, analogies and physical exercises, and the student then explores the impact of these sensations on their playing.

I won't go into detail here: I warmly recommend you to the Anderson article - it's the single most exciting source I have found on string pedagogy.

I decided to try her ideas on the fiddle, and for me the effect was dramatic: literally within minutes I had broken through the worst of my tension problems. My bow arm was flowing, my left hand death grip had relaxed, and I could even manage some half-decent vibrato. Suddenly the violin had become a pleasure to play...

Six months on, I'm still spending the majority of my practice time focusing on these simple but profound ideas and am  very happy with my progress. As others have said, "relaxation" is perhaps not quite the right term, implying as it does a sense of "floppiness". For Rowell, it's about finding a free and natural flow of power from its roots in the lower back, through the pivot points of the shoulder, elbow and wrist and into the extremities. When that is working, and the mind is alert to the sound being produced, many issues such as intonation, articulation and tone almost seem to look after themselves.

A work such as Basics is very valuable as a reference and problem solver, but the level of detail does make the whole enterprise seem horribly daunting. It's essentially an analytical or "dis-integrative" approach to learning.

The joy of Rowell's work is that a small number of core integrative sensations provide a secure foundation on which you can build the details of technique.

As far as I'm aware, her closest parallel in the violin world would be Paul Rolland of the University of Illinois, and in fact they did collaborate for many years. Though I personally found Margaret's approach more inspiring than the Rolland materials I have been able to access.

I'm sharing this in the hope that others will find it as useful as I have. I'd very much appreciate hearing about your experiences with these ideas...

December 31, 2009 at 12:37 AM ·

 Remarkable lack of tension here from Anne Sophie



January 3, 2010 at 05:18 AM ·

I took Violin lessons from my father. I do not know how good technique skill I have. At first few years I had a lot of tension playing Violin. Then a long period of time I could not play violin because of war. Now I play violin without tension.

I think tension or not depends on the players. When he does not think how violin should be played, he is free from tension. I do not mean that I am good as Pelman playing violin. I mean that when I play violin I do not care how good I am in playing Violin. My technique skills may be bad, but I enjoy my playing. Please, look at YouTube Video Clips of Fiddlers. They play violin without tension, too.

January 3, 2010 at 06:45 AM ·


Part of the reason fiddlers play without tension is their warm-up; it usually has a pretty good level of alcohol involved. As a fiddler, sometimes I have so little tension I have difficulty standing or walking straight.

More seriously, I am a fiddler, and I play for myself, and sometimes for my 7 year old grandson.
When I play for him, I do not have tension, probably because I am paying more attention to the audience having a good time than I am to technique and sound.
When I play for myself, I generally do so to relax. I get a bit of tension when I don't make time to practice, and I try to grab the fiddle and do a little for a short time. It feels much better when I have nothing else happening, and I just sit or stand, and play as much as I want, until I want to do something else.

I agree the tension is in the violinist, or the fiddler, rather than in the action being performed. As a fiddler, my skills may be far behind others, but when I play something a 7 year old can sing to, while he directs me with an old bow I gave him, there is no room in the universe for tension.

January 3, 2010 at 02:14 PM ·

I believe a great deal of tension problems are caused by vibrato which is not required in fiddle music, certainly not as much anyway.  I have been trying to play without a shoulder rest for about 4-5 months now in an effort to reduce the tension in my left side and I can do everything EXCEPT vibrato.  I do all my scales, etudes, double stop studies without vibrato and without a shoulder rest, but when it comes to classical repertoire which requires vibrato, I still need the shoulder rest.  I am in the process of retraining my vibrato so it works without a shoulder rest, but it has been a slow and painful process.


January 3, 2010 at 03:39 PM ·

Some quick thoughts, not in any particular order:

In the middle of the very first Alexander lesson I ever had as a young adult, I said to the teacher as I lay on my back on the table, ‘I have no idea what I am meant to be doing, so why don’t  I tell you what I think I should be doing and you can tell me if it’s right?’

He said okay, so I said, ‘I’m just lying here trying to relax completely, and let my weight sink into the table, and trying to let you move my arms or legs around without resistance or without getting in the way. Is that right?’

He answered, ‘That is all exactly the opposite of what you are meant to be doing. Relaxing, going floppy, is only good for one thing: going to sleep.’ He went on and explained the difference between muscle-tone as opposed to muscle-tension or muscle-release, and how Alexander technique is all about freedom and ease in activity. It’s all about ‘inhibition’ – saying ‘no’ to a particular action – and ‘direction’ – saying ‘yes’. This is all very different to just ‘relaxing’.

To me, that is already enough information and you don’t really need any more to be able to be able to progress in developing tension-free violin-playing. Actually, your playing needs to be dotted with millions of moments of complete release of an uncountable number of different muscles, but this is just part of the general good working of muscles that are in a basic state of tone as opposed to a basic state of floppiness.

People have mentioned Oistrach. As far as I know we are all in the same boat whatever our level. During the 1980’s I happened across a great osteopath in London called Mr Pell, and over the years recommended him a few times to players who had particularly got themselves into trouble. The interesting thing about him was that he had been David Oistrach’s osteopath whenever Oistrach was in London. He told me how every time Oistrach came to London, he would be called to the Soviet hotel – Oistrach was not allowed to stay anywhere else – and, closely escorted and supervised by KGB agents, would be taken to Oistrach to give him a massage and work-out.

I would guess - but it's only a guess - that Oistrach would not have needed this in the sense that without it he could not have played. But did he have a massage each time ‘just because he could’, or was it part of his keeping himself in good shape? I would imagine the latter.

Another aspect to the whole subject of tension, or aches-and-pains, is the question of muscle-type, i.e. whether you have ‘fast-twitch’ or ‘slow-twitch’ muscles. I always remember someone during my student-days remarking to me that the typical Asian violinist can play fast, whole-bow sixteenth-notes without having to practice them, but the typical Westerner has to work at it to get there.

This is interesting, quoted from here:

Our muscle fiber type may influence what sports we are naturally good at or whether we are fast or strong. Olympic athletes tend to fall into sports that match their genetic makeup. Olympic sprinters have been shown to possess about 80 percent fast twitch fibers, while those who excel in marathons tend to have 80 percent slow twitch fibers.

There are those who can play the violin full-blast for six hours each day for many days on end, who feel no physical discomfort at all; and others who after 30 minutes, or even just 5 minutes, ache uncomfortably. Is this purely a matter of 'good' or 'bad' technique? How you do something must affect whether you ache, or how soon you ache after beginning to do it, but clearly there is more to it than that.

It would seem that two players who are at exactly the same high level of professionally-trained violin-technique, but one with a higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle-fibers than the other, will have different experiences of comfort or discomfort, all other things being equal.


January 3, 2010 at 05:23 PM ·

the focus of my lessons has been on reducing excess tension and while I still have a long way to go, I've definitely been seeing improvement in my playing.

January 4, 2010 at 12:36 AM ·

What Simon wrote is so interesting!  I am astonished to have  seen a strong link today, thanks to an accompagnist (well it should be me the accompagnist : ) between talking, tension and breaking the music flow... when I talked to correct something, I broke the music flow and became tense. When I waited at the end to tell my mistakes, I would relax much more during the piece and it sounded nicer.  

So I'll have to learn to just let the music talk sometimes (and correct the mistakes after!)


January 17, 2010 at 01:49 PM ·

I have been struggling with tension for about 15 yrs and finally i am stamping it out. I agree that you shouldn't be going floppy all over, it's about going floppy in the right places. For instance, I kept raising my right shoulder. When I worked at getting rid of this i realised that even though i had gotten rid of it in a visible sense, there was still tension in my shoulder. I now try to trust that I can play the violin without any tension in my shoulder whatsoever and imagining that the inside of my shoulder is all floppy (not the arm! that still needs the muscles going). It is taking a great leap of faith! but thankfully it has improved my coordination, tone and bow control.

Most of my tension stems from a fear, before i even touch my violin, that i can't do it and it will all go wrong. Now i'm attempting to be laid back about playing. Now that i know that my tension comes from my strength of mind I'm doing my practise in a more relaxed and laid back way and enjoying the sound i'm creating a lot more. (my intonation got much better as a result too) All this concentration on my 'mental tension' has meant that my stamina has jumped up from struggling to do 2 hours without pain to comfortably managing 6hrs or more.

January 17, 2010 at 02:42 PM ·


I wasn't going to repsond to this, but here are a few more observations that I have made as a teacher and performer to add to a lot of the many excellent responses already posted.  One thing to know about tension is that it indicates a lack of balance somewhere in the body - it is a way for the body to compensate for this imbalance (usually exactly opposite the problems, so everything affects everything as Drew Lecher says so well!).

There is a tendency to talk a lot about violin methods and this and that, but the truth is that you have to follow certain laws of nature and principles and adapt them so that you can have as natural a technique as you can.  Then you can achieve a good setup, good mechanics and good movements that work with you, not against you.  A quick example, finger spread on the bow is defined by the distance between your fingers in the base knuckles and is therefore different with each person.  However if you spread more, or less than the naturalness of your hand, you will most likely be tense. There are many more examples, but if you do anything that is unnatural to your body, of course you will be tense.  So, one has to be careful between principles adapted to each individual and rigid ideas about technique.

The next thing, is that one has to work in cooperation with the violin, the laws of physics and his body not against it. Part of this means letting go of the idea of control and rather work with the principle of understanding.  Know how things work and work in cooperation with them not against them.  By the same token, know that tension anywhere can affect anything, so understand the source, don't just observe the end-result.

Another thing, is the attitude towards mistakes.  We live in a world of exaggerated perfectionism. The result is that people misunderstand what mistakes mean which causes mental tension which translates into physical tension.  Tension in the physical is often the result of tension in the mind.  Right or wrong is not really the issue.  Mistakes are simply a sign that things are not working and that something needs to be changed in order to make it better or get it right.  So instead of berating oneself about mistakes, one needs a different attitude.  If something is not working (on the tiniest or largest scale), then look for what needs to be changed, change it and usually it will work.  Remember the answer and apply it if the problem, or a similar problem comes again.  Now this can be done in practice and in performance.  Just looking for things in this way will provide many answers, for you find what you seek.  A mistake isn't the end of the world, but can create a snowball effect if you don't keep calm and just change something quickly.

Lastly, and the post about the life-long search for the problem of tension creates a good entry for the last one - work for what you want, not what you don't.  A lot of the mental to physical tension comes from this - negative (and often passive) work commands.  You need to focus on what you want to do and accomplish, not what you don't.  Quick examples directly related to tension would be "I have to make sure that I don't tense up my bow hand here" rather then "release the right hand thumb here," since when your thumbs are relaxed and released you can never tighten your hands.  So positive, active commands will translate into a greater sense of relaxation than negative ones.


January 18, 2010 at 07:09 PM ·

Thank you! You hit the nail right on the head!

January 18, 2010 at 08:08 PM ·

Very true!  I like the words "free" and "balanced."

January 19, 2010 at 02:20 AM ·

Christian how true! I invented a saying a few years ago that matches what you say perfectly. If you box with your violin (even the strongest human beeing on earth), it will always win...

and one will sound narrow and tense. So many people (from what I see I'm in no way an expert) don't understand this and force against their violin in a terrible way thinking they'll get more out of it.  I think this is what also leads to funny dancing and odd facial expressions from some violinists nowadays. Sometimes look as if they were fighting a lion...  

If even pros struggle with this... it means that it is quite of an issue for violinists of all levels thus deserves our attention!


January 19, 2010 at 03:36 AM ·


>Quick examples directly related to tension would be "I have to make sure that I don't tense up my bow hand here" rather then "release the right hand thumb here,"

Christian,  I think you wrote this in reverse by mistake;)



January 19, 2010 at 10:36 AM ·

I am a rather tense person in general, so I probably play with a lot more tension than I should. However, as an amateur that plays an hour a day or so, I find that playing relaxes me and relieves the tension of my normal activities. The different tension of the violin somehow counteracts other tensions? Or maybe it is just the wonders of music relaxing mind and therefore muscle? Whatever it is, I certainly am much more pain-free in my body when I can get some practice time in my day.

January 19, 2010 at 12:48 PM ·


You are absolutely right!  Thanks for pointing that out!  Hope that the point that the positive command (i.e. "release the right thumb here") still came across as the desired one...

Best and Cheers!


January 19, 2010 at 05:23 PM ·

Oui ça va! Funny because John and I have invented ourselves quite similar device with not even knowing it lol.   Mine is not patented however! But I do agree that one size fits all can cause a lot of problems to people located in the "physical" extremes...  I'm just an advocate of "if you don't find anything on the market that fits you, build something with sponge or whatever (as they often did in the past) and make it approve by your teacher who will see if it helps your posture and technique"


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