Teaching relaxed playing

November 5, 2011 at 01:46 AM · Hello all,

I've been a follower of violinist.com for many years, and absolutely love it. What a wonderful community. I am a violinist/teacher/student, and I have a studio of about 16 students and have been teaching for quite a few years. Tension, not surprisingly, is a huge issue in my own practice, but especially with my students. However, I have one new beginner, an eight year old boy who I can barely get to move, he is so tightly wound. Every finger and joint in his arms seems to become like concrete as soon as he picks up his violin. Any advice for helping him to loosen up?

Replies (18)

November 5, 2011 at 02:05 AM · Take out everything and put it back together again. Start off with just holding the violin (no bow) and pizz. Add the bow and remove left hand fingering. The tension has to be originating somewhere, it is a matter of chasing it down.

November 5, 2011 at 04:33 AM · That is the thing! We are just barely beginning to hold the violin. We have done nothing with the bow yet. I am simply trying to get him to tap his fingers lightly on the string, and slide his hand up and down on the neck. At this point, even pizzicato is out of reach because of his tension. I am at a loss!

November 5, 2011 at 06:27 AM · I'm wondering if he is relaxed when he is just walking around with music. How about playing air violin (pretending, you know)?

Cheers,

Akiko

November 5, 2011 at 07:01 AM · Is this his first instrument?

I find that teaching children and adults to play scales and pieces with their fingers slightly off (between harmonic and normal pressure) the string really helps a lot with this. A lot of bad habits are learned when they grab the neck too tight, but when they play this way their bad habits and poor technique are gone, at least until they go back to normal play. It may take a while with some students, but this technique really teaches them to place their fingers slower and lighter on the finger board.

November 5, 2011 at 01:08 PM · A famous virtuoso and tecaher who shall remain nameless once screamed at a student: "RELAX, DAMMIT!" Oddly enough, that didn't work too well!

But seriously, tension is probably the #1 problem that impedes fine playing, and many people have it to a certain extent. Your student is an extreme case and it will take a lot of patience on both your parts.

I suspect this student's problems are psychological as well as anything else. Chances are that therapies - plural - of different kinds might be in order including Alexander, Tai Chi etc. But as someone suggested "air violin" is no joke. Try to start somewhere where there is hopefully little tension, then introduce one element at a time. As sooon as he stiffens up, go back to the previous step.

Let us know what happens!

November 5, 2011 at 03:28 PM · Here's my BIG question:

At what point is the teacher NOT responsible? If you are teaching, doing everything you possibly can for a student, and there is no reponse... what is a teacher to do?

Smiles! Diane

November 5, 2011 at 03:36 PM · I'm not a teacher but have you noticed his breathing? Is he breathing shallowly? Quickly? From the upper chest rather than the belly? A couple of my teachers have helped high-strung me relax a bit by reminding me to breathe - and not just breathing in, which tightens everything up, but breathing out. There's always a huge release of tension when I remember to do this. Strangely, breathing is always just one of those things I often forget while playing or even trying new things.

I don't know if you feel comfortable doing this, because I know some people don't like touching their students, but what would happen if he would hold his arm out and you hold it up by the wrist or the elbow and see how much weight he can relax into you? Maybe he doesn't know how heavy his arms can become if he's totally relaxed?

Is he nervous about the lessons, you think, or is he this high-strung all the time? Is he exhibiting signs of perfectionism or anxiety? I know I've been terrified in a few of my lessons, and it showed in the level of tension in my playing.

November 5, 2011 at 04:02 PM · BF: "… he is so tightly wound."

RK: "I suspect this student's problems are psychological as well as anything else."

CC: "Is this his first instrument?"

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

As soon as I started reading the thread, I started wondering similar things.

Before this goes any further: Did the kid himself want to start violin lessons? Was it his own idea or …?

November 5, 2011 at 04:42 PM · Good points, Jim and Emily! Diane - we can only lead the horse to water; we can't make him drink.

November 5, 2011 at 05:14 PM · This may be a bit off the wall, but it's a great, great exercise for locating tension and releasing it. You lay on the floor and take ten deep breaths. Then, beginning with your toes and working your way up, you squeeze a specific body part as tight as you can for ten counts, then release it. Start general, and then get more specific. This does two things. It helps us to locate and control specific muscles in our bodies, and it teaches us to take control of the tension level. Plus, ten deep breaths is a good way to start just about anything.

November 5, 2011 at 06:41 PM · When my son was about that age he studied for a summer with a college student. To try to get the kid to relax his hands more, they went outside one day and played catch with raw eggs. That got the idea of soft hands across!

November 5, 2011 at 06:50 PM · Shoes off. Stand on thick carpet if available. Be aware of your whole body. Move around a bit while playing.

November 5, 2011 at 07:47 PM · Best way - totally proven ...

Give 'im a large glass of gin/whiskey/whatever

If he's not relaxed by then - tell 'im to divorce his girlfriend ...

November 6, 2011 at 02:16 AM · Dude - he's only 8! ;-)

November 6, 2011 at 12:36 PM · I had the same problem ... should I put some foam between the fingers and so to teach him to sing one time ... then remove the sponge and see if he was released and skills if they entered the blood!

November 6, 2011 at 04:01 PM · Love the toss of the raw eggs. However - I could see it going the other way too and make you more tense!

Smiles! diane

November 6, 2011 at 05:40 PM · Do you talk with him about his day? What he did before he came to the lesson? Or what he did last weekend?

Sounds like trust issues to me. Maybe the teacher hasn't established a relationship of trust which is being exhibited in the child's demeanor.

November 12, 2011 at 04:00 PM · Totally relate! I divide beginners into two basic groups - boards and spaghetti. Adult males are the worst with the 'iron grip'.

One thing I constantly tell mine - the VIOLIN holds the bow up, not you! This often helps people relax a tight bow grip.

'Windshield wipers' for tight thumbs often helps, although it won't be too effective unless you have an alert parent involved at practice time.

Mostly, I try to keep in mind that a certain amount of muscular development needs to occur before people can truly 'relax'. That springy, flexible joint is the product of many hours of practice and familiarity usually. Weak joints will stiffen when they try to hold a position they find unnatural or uncomfortable.

Walk around the room with the violin on your shoulder without holding it? Swing your arms? (better on carpet!)

Race me to get it on your shoulder.

Fun 'fire engine' glissandos?

Find the harmonics?

I play 'Simon Says' sometimes with young beginners -that might help get his mind off his fear. Some children are afraid of failure. Some are afraid of anything unfamiliar. Some are totally focused on not being 'wrong'. Some just have naturally stiff joints. Games may get his mind off whatever it is.

Simon says, pizz the G String 3 times! etc. :)

Pizz the e String! oooooops

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