serious neck pain

May 27, 2011 at 05:42 PM ·

I have very serious neck pain that become migraines.

I play viola, a small one, we tried to get rid of the chin rest, but it does not seems to help so much.  Does any one had similar problems? How can I fix them? I already have migraines, I do not want the viola to generate more. The chin rest has been taken off with a Russian teacher, because I said I had no neck and it was making everything very bizard.

Plse realize I am 5feet very small and very short arm, and finger.  Yes I know the viola does not seems normal for a small lady, but well, I know cellist women how are smaller than me, and well cello is so much bigger ;0)

Any advice would be welcome, my teacher is out of town for almost 4 weeks, I would like to practice as much as possible, but the pain is getting worst and generating more migraines.(Serious ones)

Many many thanks it is very much appreciated. I will try a chin rest again, if it can help.


Replies (30)

May 27, 2011 at 06:24 PM ·

 I am sorry but can you clarify is it really the chin rest you took off or did you mean the 'shoulder rest'? or are you already playing with no shoulder rest and you took off ALSO the chin rest and now play with BOTH OFF??

IF you did mean the shoulder rest and it is the shoulder rest you took off and you still have a chin rest on I'd advise to make sure you have the shortest and flattest chin rest on your instrument than you can find if you do happen to have a short distance between your jaw/chin and your collarbone.  In the past when I happened to have a chin rest that was too high for me it did give me headaches as there was too much tension/clamping going on as a result!


May 27, 2011 at 07:31 PM ·

Hi, very sorry to hear this...

I would suggest that you go at a good maker (I can give you adresses...) and try out as many chinrests as possible.

I find it hard to beleive that your neck is too short for a chinrest because so many bulk uo men with about no neck play with chinrests.  And makers can make chinrest thinner by filing them.  Makers have all kind of wonderful tricks!  Of course, your teacher saw you and not us but you can't wait 4 weeks with horrible pain... 

Maybe that teacher didn't look your shoulder rest and that your shoulder rest was too high.  Maybe you can fit a chinrest with a lower shoulder rest or no shoulder rest.

Another thing, can someone look at your back when you play and make sure neither shoulder is lifted?  Also, do you have a straigh head when you play (ideal position) or do you tend to lie your head on the viola?  That posture is popular yet it's not the "classical ergonomic posture" good teachers teach.  Do you bend your neck to read in the stand?  How is positionned your stand? 

Your neck and head should be as straight as if they were hagning by a wire to the ceeling with the straightest spine possible when you play.  You can actually stand against a wall to have that feeling. 

Many play with the neck frontwards which makes a visual bump in the upper beck/lower neck area.  But the head should be over the shoulders not unfront of them.  (An Alexander technique teacher I spoke with actually agreed with that)

Good luck! 

Really hope it gets fix.

I can actually understand you.  I'm 5"9 and am still too small for a 4/4 violin (because I'm very delicate with small hands).  But I'm too stuburn and refuse to take a 3/4 so I guess I'm part of my own problem : )

I can just imagine a...viola!  

Things would be so different if instruments had been invented by women!  Then we would hear tons of men complaining that violin/violas are too small : ) 

May 27, 2011 at 07:36 PM ·

@P. Trouve;

Q : I have very serious neck pain that becomes migraines.

A :  I do not want the viola to generate MORE.

Does that answer your question?

Please go and see a specialist, and switch to the cello in the mean time. 

May 27, 2011 at 09:52 PM ·


I have a shoulder rest but no chin rest.  Only a cloth(thick one).  Many student from this teacher are without a chin rest. 

Thanks Anne-Marie, I will go see for another chin rest, in fact a friend of mine as a very small one, it seems confortable. I thank you for all your valuable comments. I love the viola, and I do not intend to quit.  I think it is mostly an ergonomic problem.

But the problem seems also from clamping the viola (which is heavier than the violin) and the fact that by head is always turned 90 degrees.

Thanks for your advices. Suggestions to help be become a better violist are welcome. 

May 27, 2011 at 09:58 PM ·

 it makes more sense to me to change or maybe get rid of your shoulder rest.  

do without the shoulder rest and try either some custom made solution ie: sponge or nothing (probably best some type of spongy-rest if you are used to a rest).  Ok this is just a general comment over the net, you will need to find your best 'custom fit', it took me 18 months to find MY solution (which is NOTHING for a rest not even a cloth and a totally different chin rest from what I originally thought I needed).  Ideally if you can have an experienced person like an alexander technique teacher to help you find the best set up that would be great (that's what I did at the end).

but I really really think at the moment you have the solution the WRONG way round with no chin rest and  shoulder rest in place!

OH and your head turned at 90 degrees is 'bad news'!!

go to this site and have a GOOD THOROUGH READ of ALL pages! (ps it applies to viola players too)


May 28, 2011 at 01:16 AM ·

 I agree, 90 degree head angle is not good.  A trick I learned to find the optimum placement of the instrument from a book written by Primrose is to hold the viola just below the C with the scroll pointing to the floor with your right hand (your palm will be on the top surface just above the f-holes with your fingers going over the C-cut section).  Place your left hand on your right shoulder, then take your right hand with the viola and bring it up to position.  Your arms will be crossed at this point.  Drop your Left hand from your right shoulder and hold the viola normally by the neck.  Turn your head very slightly to the left and let it relax but don't  try to clamp the viola in place with your chin. Do all of this without a shoulder rest or chin rest.  This will be your ideal position.  

Your ideal chin rest / shoulder rest(less) combination should fill in those gaps with some wiggle room.  You can experiment with dense foam cut & formed by you to find the ideal shapes & sizes then start researching options for appropriate hardware.  It may be that a chinrest of a different style and your custom foam rest or some other combination will be the right thing for you.  It is important though that you do not lift the viola up higher with a shoulder rest to come in contact with your chin.  This will cause all sorts of stress and strain issues.  

All that being said, I'm still searching for my perfect setup and I too am very short and play a 16" viola...

May 28, 2011 at 05:25 PM ·

This problem is hard to fix without seeing and hearing, but here are my thoughts.  The clue that I saw in your second posting is "clamping the viola ... and the fact that by head is always turned 90 degrees". As I emulate that position, I feel much tension in my shoulder, on both sides of the neck, and up into the base of the skull. I strongly suspect that is the source of your migranes.  The head should be turned only slightly - if straight ahead is 12:00, turn to 11:00, and keep your head upright. It is not necessary to clamp the instrument at all. It will rest on your collar bone - even while shifting.  If you can learn to do that, the tension will disappear.  If that is too extreme, learn to use much much less clamping than you currently do. I would suggest that you find another teacher to help you with this specific issue while your current teacher is away.  If you do not fix this problem, you will not be playing the viola a year from now. The current state of generating migranes is not sustainable.

May 28, 2011 at 07:10 PM ·

Maybe you should post a pic

May 28, 2011 at 07:40 PM ·

Mike, thank you for posting the proper position/angle of the head while playing.  Last December I started suffering from horibble muscle pain in my neck, through my shoulders and chest.  It feels like muscle strain.  I don't think it started from my learning the violin as it started while on Christmas vacation and I wasn't playing much.  I certainly think playing is agrivating the issue though.  After reading some of these posts I have re-positioned my violin a bit and I will continue to work on that.  I just started lessons and so far, he has not mention my positioning but I will make a point to ask him next time we meet.

May 29, 2011 at 08:06 AM ·

 Hi John.

Yes, I 'switched' to no shoulder rest back about 4 months ago.

One month before I switched I met a different Alexander Technique teacher to the one I had been taking lessons from, this one had been helping violinists for many years with finding the right set up and having 'looked at me' recommended I switched to a much lower chin rest and said I didn't need a shoulder rest and suggested I tried a 'small sponge' instead (her words), she suggested maybe a custom made sponge made of memory foam and gave me some suggestions, she also gave some suggestions on chin rests.

I  saw her a few more times after that and she helped me on other things about good healthy posture whilst playing and how to keep my head balanced and my neck in the right position.

My previous set up looking back now was HORRENDOUS and I can't now think how I ever played with it!  I had a Kun Bravo shoulder rest with high feet yanked up at the highest and a Teka chin rest custom made by Gary Frisch heightened by 2 cms, so a total height of 4cm!  If I put all that scaffolding on these days I break my neck and give myself the migraine of my lifetime! LOL


Back then after seeing the 'AT' person I made myself a sponge with memory foam, about 2cms in thickness and I had it covered with some purple velvet, it looked like those sponges you buy to clean the car windscreen, but a 'posh' version as it was in 'purple velvet'.  I used to place it under my top on my shoulder, like Pinchas Zukerman does ;) 

The first day of using the sponge I was almost crying, I wanted my shoulder rest back :(  it was SO SO difficult :( the violin kept slipping down to the right, I  had to use my left hand to hold it and this showed I never used my left hand AT ALL before in my four years of learning violin to hold it, EVER.

There was a slight tendency to want to 'pinch/grap' with my chin in order to stop it from going to the right, but I knew this was wrong, wrong because the AT teacher told me this, and wrong also because clamping would still not stop the violin from going RIGHT, it would stop it from FALLING but not from swinging!  I still had to use my left hand to stop it from swinging!

I trusted the AT  teacher that for my health I had to change my set up (I had a very bad back and also continued to have neck problems for 18 to 24 months, the back was 6 to 8 months I had the problem), so I  knew I had to persevere with this!

I persevered, I could play things from day one but I  was not totally confident. After about a couple of weeks I was getting a little better with my left hand and more confident.

At this stage for some reason (back then unknown to me, but now I know why) the sponge started 'getting on my nerves'!  so I decided not to use it anymore.

In the first week or two I had a 'sore bicep' it felt like when you go to the gym to do weights and the day after you know you've done weights.  That disappeared after a week or two.  You kindly told me of stretching exercises to do, I am ashamed to say I have never done them (blush).

Initially I changed my chin rest to a centre mounted modern Flesch, and I was using a very thin non slipping piece of material under the chin rest clamp to stabilise the violin on my collarbone or a piece of chamoise leather.  I used this for about 6 to 8 weeks maximum.

I didn't do any stretches/exercises to adapt to play without a rest/sponge, I just played daily.  I did get a lot help and tips from a couple of very experienced/professional players via emails and the AT teacher initially on posture.

Then 2 months after I switched I started using absolutely nothing, not even a chamois leather and I changed my chin rest to a left mounted one about 2.5cm in height with a hump, it's called a 'high John Dunn' made by Alexander Accessories this is the web site:

I then came across an experienced person in London who plays professionally and does not use a shoulder rest recently and she kindly offered to take a look at me playing to tell me how I am doing with my 'rest-less' playing and she said my posture and technique playing with no rest is very good and I look like a natural.

I have to say I have felt now extremely and totally comfortable without a rest and sponge for at least a good month and looking back  I can say it has taken me at least a good 3 months to become comfortable with the transition, but then again, I might look back in another 3 months and say it took me 6 months to be REALLY confident? ;)

Sorry about the long post....all of this to tell you that at the end the only adjustment I FELT which was going on was my sore bicep.

BUT I am sure there IS muscles that are not used when one plays with a rest which then are 'woken' up and needed when you start playing with no rest, only we don't 'feel' it as such.

I mean, there must be as if not why is it that so many people always talk about it? is it just one of those 'fairy tales'? LOL

Oh and by the way, I tried to put 4 different shoulder rests back on a few days ago and I TOTALLY dislike each one of them now, I just simply cannot play with them on!  I gave it a good go as well!

I also tried a few sponges, same result!  I just cannot bring myself to like them.

And back at the early stages I didnt' like the sponge either (read back on my post when I got 'rid of it' but I didn't know why!) the reason why I didn't like it it's because it 'interferes' with the movements of the violin!  ok, the violin does not move a huge amount BUT IT MOVES! while you play the violin moves! maybe just a few millimetres but it does.  So whilst I was playing my violin was moving up and down and as it was moving down it would press against the sponge and the sponge would press against my shoulder and I didn't like the feel of it! it was in the way!  Ok, call me fussy, crazy or stupid, but I didn't like it LOL  same with the magipad or anything else LOL

So....interestingly enough I think it was 'in my genes' to end up this way LOL


May 29, 2011 at 10:22 AM ·

 "Ok, call me fussy, crazy or stupid, but I didn't like it LOL  same with the magipad or anything else LOL"

The word 'hypochondria' also comes to mind.


May 29, 2011 at 11:16 AM ·

 Ok, maybe I am also an hypochondriac as well as 'fussy/stupid and crazy' LOL ;)

the definition about hypochondriac by the way is:

a person who worries or talks excessively about his or her health.

so am not sure how not liking a sponge or a shoulder rest 'in the way' between me and the violin makes me an hypochondriac but it's ok, you can call me that if you like, I've been called 'all sorts' in my life HAHAHA

though I admit I did talk in extent about my transition to playing with no shoulder rest, but that was not about my health ;)


ps Andre, I think I 'I might' know where you are trying 'to get', it's about me saying 'I can't play' with a sponge or shoulder rest these days and being 'obsessed' with anything in between me and the violin, of course I can and if I HAD TO and I could go back to it, but I 'don't want to' that is the difference.  I feel much much better now the way I am, and I play better the way I do these days and I much prefer it.  Sorry if I was stating my personal preference in a way a bit 'too passionate' :) and came across maybe not 'hypochondriac' but 'short of a brain cell' or 'obsessive' LOL

May 29, 2011 at 12:17 PM ·

concur with others that if op feels something is serious, then a visit with a health care pro is warranted.  cost is an issue with many people but there is a point beyond which diy does not make sense.  most pain and discomfort go away on their own but some persist without better diagnosis and intervention by pros.  in general, the earlier one realizes what one truly have, or have not,  the better the outcome and the less the suffering.   we often don't mind dealing with the pain and suffering as long as we don't have to go through the hassle of see a doc. :)

having said all that, here is my take on this.  

"I already have migraines, I do not want the viola to generate more."   

it sounds like some preexisting condition.  first of all, the word migraine is often used loosely describing headaches.  it means something specific, which is different from tension headache which is another different entity.  it is not certain if op's migraine is a colloquial term or a medical diagnosis; in general, those 2 diagnoses are managed differently.  they have different presentation patterns and triggers.

someone with small statue playing a viola: until proven otherwise, the simple act of holding the viola may cause tension in the back of the neck, especially during left shoulder rotation, ie, string crossing. (try to play a virtual viola and experience it for yourself)  short of consulting with a medical pro, at least learn some basics from AT people.  i think op is a prime student for that discipline.  get a better idea what parts of the body are doing what and how they are doing,,,

i think this chin rest or not biz comes way after.  there are some fundamental issues to look into first.  

just as a comparison, i wonder how the op feels like with playing a 3/4 violin,,,


May 29, 2011 at 02:20 PM ·

 and coffee John (for migraines) ;) that also is one of the 'no nos' sometimes LOL

May 29, 2011 at 05:17 PM ·

 "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." from Hamlet.

May 29, 2011 at 05:44 PM ·

 Andre, I am allowed to protest too much, I am single so I only have my house walls to annoy and you people on ;) LOL

ps I am single out of choice by the way before any nice jokes come along (I can feel some of them bubbling up already hehehehehe) ;) or was your 'Hamlet quote' aimed at John Cadd? ;)

May 30, 2011 at 03:48 PM ·


First I do have severe migraines, which means a lot of nausea, vomiting, DHE injection and hospitalisation once a while.  So I do not have headaches, but MIGRAINES. , Believe me I which I had headaches not migraines. Sorry, to be so straight.

Second Thank you very much Mendy I love the way you explained the way to hold the viola, yes there is so less tension in the neck like that.  I will have to change my shoulder rest and find a chin rest to be totally confortable, but this seems so much better.  Really thank you that what a real help.

Thanks everyone, and sorry for beeing staright about migraines, but I get a bit discourage when people mix headeaches and migraines, two different world, believe me.

Thanks again.

May 30, 2011 at 04:14 PM ·

P Trouve - something that may be very relevant as well is which body part/s you use to support the weight of the viola.  Do you support it entirely or almost entirely with your head, or do you use your left hand?  I used to use my head to support the instrument, and it did indeed cause great tension in my neck.  When I learned to use my left hand instead, the tension largely went away. 

May 30, 2011 at 05:18 PM ·

 "Thanks everyone, and sorry for being straight about migraines, but I get a bit discouraged when people mix head aches and migraines, two different worlds, believe me."

How do you bring this message home to people who think that shifting a violin up, down or side ways can cure a migraine?.

May 30, 2011 at 07:32 PM ·

P. Trouvé

You might try removing the purple satin from your foam shoulder rest. Direct contact with the foam has more friction and may help with your slipping problem.  Or try foam that is 'grainier' to get a bit more friction.

Alexander Technique, massage, etc. help some people, but if your posture and technique are correct, you don't even need them. Work on the source of the problem, which is muscle tension and incorrect angles while you are playing.

You really need help from someone who can see and hear you play.  If your current teacher cannot help you with this problem, change teachers.  As I said before, your current situation is not sustainable.

May 30, 2011 at 07:36 PM ·

Andre, sorry but I am also a 'migraine sufferer' so I know a thing or two about them.  I am on regular medication for them daily, I take topamax 200mg daily.

Anyway, changing the way you hold your viola or violin will not cure your migraines of course not!

BUT it will relieve the 'extra' ones you could be giving yourself unintentionally.....

once I did experience 'extra' migraines or sometimes headaches in the past as a result of the incorrect way I was holding my violin and the extremely horrendous set up I had at the time!  I had such a high shoulder rest/chin rest combination plus I was 'clamping down' with my head onto it, I never used my left hand to help hold the violin you see, I didn't know back then but I was causing SO MUCH tension and within 5 minutes of playing I gave myself a migraine!!

 I then later put two and two together and BINGO! I realised what I was doing to myself, got myself a lower chin rest and whilst I have not cured my 'main' migraines I have had for years I solved the problem and CURED the 'extra' migraines I was giving myself whilst playing violin!  I then had other 'issues' with neck and back problems and the journey of 'self discovery continued' and today thankfully I am much better after having had help from alexander technique teachers and an osteopath and violin teachers and professional players.


May 30, 2011 at 09:38 PM ·

JO i am glad you found a solution to some of your problems and that the Alex technique played a role, but I am not convinced that you reached the end of the road, or found the final solution. You are taking double the normal recommend dose of Topamax for migraines, so you can only tell if the Alexander technique is working when your medication is reduced.

I am not in the medical field like you, so do not take my words seriously I am just giving an uneducated opinion.

May 30, 2011 at 10:12 PM ·

 Andre, my migraines have been there since I was 15 years old, I am 42 this year and I started playing violin when I was 37.  I don't think the violin is giving me my migraines so I am not sure how the Alexander Technique will rid me of my migraines (though I know people say it can help with 'headaches')  I started on topamax after my AT lessons by the way and the maximum daily licensed dose for migraines is 200 daily by the way not 100.

I took AT lessons to help me with my neck/back pain and violin set up not to help me with my migraines, AT lessons helped me learn/understand about my body posture and I now play the violin in a much more 'healthy way', yes I probably still have a lot more to learn but I have improved a hundred-fold since a year and 2 months ago, and the change in me is absolutely unbelievable! you wouldn't recognise me, plus of course I have rid myself of my neck/back problems. My teacher also has been totally astonished by the sudden improvement in my vibrato and intonation in particular.

I think we are getting a little 'muddled up' here between migraines and healthy playing/posture/set up, why all of a sudden are you so preoccupied by migraines? they are a total separate issue, like I said yes a bad set up can give 'extra' headaches/migraines but correcting the set up will NOT cure a long standing medical problem with migraines.  oh dear this is getting all mixed up I think!

anyone else is confused?

May 30, 2011 at 10:54 PM ·


"First I do have severe migraines, which means a lot of nausea, vomiting, DHE injection and hospitalisation once a while.  So I do not have headaches, but MIGRAINES. , Believe me I which I had headaches not migraines. Sorry, to be so straight."

I thought that migraines was the most important topic to be discussed, but I now find that your history of back and neck problems to be uppermost in your mind and you wonder why migraines are discussed. Sorry I confused your issue, and withdraw. 


May 31, 2011 at 05:36 AM ·

 Andre you said  'How do you bring this message home to people who think that shifting a violin up, down or side ways can cure a migraine?."

it was you saying the above, not me.  We were not saying that changing the set up or moving the viola (in this case the op plays a viola though we talk about violins too) would cure the long standing migraines that have been there for life!

Look carefully in your phrase you talk about 'curing'.  

WE were talking about 'preventing' the 'extra' ones from occurring.  

That's what I was talking about, I picked on your phrase that's all.  

So then when I tried to point this out to you (that we were trying to help with advice on how to PREVENT the extra migraines and NOT CURE the existing ones) you went on about MY current medication and alexander technique lessons, so I felt compelled to explain 'my situation' to you.

AT this point now you reverse the situation by saying I switched the tables round by talking about my back and neck pain and pick a phrase from the original poster 'at random' and a phrase from my post 'at random' to say I diverted from the thread to put the focus wrongly on my neck and back problems.

I think you are just behaving like a manipulator and if you retire from the thread it will be better as by now the others must be getting tired of this as I surely am by now.

June 1, 2011 at 01:53 PM ·

You could consider playing the vertical alto violin on an endpin. You are on to something when you notice that cellists have some advantages in playing a larger instrument. Even though the alto has a body length of 19.5 inches (45.9 cm), the smaller player actually has an advantage. And no neck problems! Look here:

June 1, 2011 at 06:09 PM ·

Robert nice idea but Jacqueline du Pre had the same idea before you. Here is a video of Itzhak Perlman playing the cello and Jacqueline the violin or is it piccolo cello, in a 'duet'.

Guarenteed pain reliever.

June 2, 2011 at 12:06 PM ·

Andre-- A very enjoyable video, but the idea of playing smaller instruments vertically is not original with me or with du Pre. Gambas are all played vertically, even the smallest ones. As for altos in the size I mentioned, they spring from the old "tenor violas" made by such makers as Amati and Stradivari. Those were not played on a pin, but from a strap around the neck and shoulders with the lower bout of the instrument on the right side of the chest. I've played this way using a bow with an overhand grip, and it was surprisingly comfortable and allowed playing all the way to the end of the fingerboard. It really seems true that there's nothing new under the sun.

June 2, 2011 at 01:14 PM ·

 I suffer from neck and back problems and use a Happynex -

I don't use it like the video on their site but hook in around the chinrest in conjunction with a modified Bon-Musica shoulder rest that has had the over the shoulder bit extended.

It's a little unconventional but it works and allows you to stand with a fully straight spine.

June 4, 2011 at 05:18 AM ·

Is it not possible to 'clamp' the instrument solely with the weight of the head if you don't turn the head just simply allow it to drop sideways?

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