How to deal with tension problems when playing.

February 28, 2012 at 02:32 AM · I recently have been having jaw problems while playing violin. Specifically, my jaw has been tight after playing. After seeing a few teachers and analyzing my own playing, I realized that the problem is caused by the excessive pressure I put on my violin with my jaw. The reason I have been putting so much pressure on my violin is because my shoulder rest had been way too short. So, I bought a new shoulder rest and chin rest. In addition to the jaw pressure, I also have other tension issues. My bow arm and shoulder are also very tense when I play.

While my chinrest/shoulder rest is now at an appropriate height for me, I still am not used to playing tension-free and I'm worried this will still cause problems. For example, at my last orchestra rehearsal, (I didn't have my new shoulder/chin rest, but I did focus on not pressing down with my chin and having relaxed shoulders), I was still in pain after rehearsal because I guess I couldn't maintain tension-free playing for that long. With that being said, I'm still not sure if I should continue with college orchestra. The pain I experience after rehearsal is really dull and does not go away for a while and also causes headaches! Its really unbearable and I'm afraid to experience it again. I would rather skip a semester now and be able to play without pain next semester. If I skip this semester, I could find a teacher to work with me about this. Any advice?

Thanks so much!

Replies (37)

February 28, 2012 at 07:52 AM · Old habits die hard so I'd advise yes, as you're able to, take a break.

February 28, 2012 at 07:57 AM · I was at a masterclass yesterday given by Maxim Vengerov. He was very good at spotting tension and encouraged two out of the three players to relax, take their heads and chins off the chinrest and generally loosen up. (I missed the afternoon session but I bet there was more said about this problem).

Maxim's playing is very relaxed and he encourages lots of free mocvement. It makes a big difference to the sound, which opens up. I know he plays a Strad but he got the same results when playing on a student's fiddle (while the student held his Strad!)

Remember that any tension in one place will effect other areas - for example, a frozen shoulder will probably result in a tight vibrato.

It is also possible that a tight sound relates to the bow as well. For instance, I find most amateurs and students do not use enough bow and fiddle playing masters like James Ehnes and Maxim Vengerov are often heard making the suggestion that more bow is needed in their masterclasses. Maxim V often mentions the fear of running out of bow as well, and has suggestions about how to remedy the problem. (And not to allow the fear in the first place ...)

February 28, 2012 at 01:05 PM · Check your left hand. How tightly are you gripping the violin? In my very limited experience tension in the shoulder/jaw is sometimes secondary to a too tight left hand - in essence the two are battling against each other for control of the violin.

You might also want to go for general relaxation training such as the famed Alexander technique...

February 28, 2012 at 01:14 PM · Does your school have an on-staff therapist you can connect with right away? Several music programs in my area do. You can also invent a program of gentle stretches before you play, with frequent pauses to do more. T'ai chi and Feldenkrais are two studies you could consider. Certainly do not leave your violin on your shoulder unsupported by your left hand or arm whle you turn pages, talk w/your teacher or stand partner, etc., as you regularly see people doing. Good luck! Sue

February 28, 2012 at 01:19 PM · Wow, your previous teachers haven't really been any help in this area, have they. A teacher's #1 job is to prevent injury, everything else is second. Look in a mirror when adjusting and trying new equipment. You need to adjust equipment for good posture not comfort, comfort comes after you adjusted for posture. When adjusting equipment make sure the left ear, shoulder, hip and ankle are in alignment(side view). Holding the violin a 45* helps the bow arm a lot. Don't force slopping shoulders down, they need to come up a bit, inch or two, for maximum movement. When your equipment is perfect for you, your tension problems can be fix overnight. If you are still having a problem after a weak of playing, then keep looking in the mirror for correct posture, try out different chin rest(burn the Guaneri Chinrest), get more advise until you are tension free.

February 28, 2012 at 02:13 PM · "Don't force slopping shoulders down, they need to come up a bit, inch or two, for maximum movement."

Charles, this flies in the face of all good teaching and the good examples set by Ehnes and Vengerov, to name only two.

February 28, 2012 at 02:32 PM · Try this Peter; Keep your shoulders down and your arms at the side. Bring your arms up, so you are in a Jesus Christ position, If you are keeping your shoulders down , you will notice that you are unable to bring your arms above your head. Try the same movemnet with the shoulders up a bit , and you will be able to bring the arms easily above the head. Keep in mind there is a difference between the shoulders up a bit and the shoulder up a lot.

February 28, 2012 at 02:40 PM · Keeping the shoulders down restricts movement. When I was younger teachers sugested to keep the shoulders down. I am not clear on the reason why. Can you explain why it is best to keep the shoulders down, bcause I have found no benefit.

February 28, 2012 at 02:52 PM · The reason is that as soon as the shoulders are lifted even half an inch you introduce tension as you are holding them up. It may be OK for a few seconds but do it for any length of time and your whole left arm becomes locked, vibrato is tense or even gone, and left hand fingers are paralysed. Then the bow arm has also become tense. It's a doomsday scenario.

Ask Buri about Alexander Technique, its the best thing to hit musicians in the last hundred years.

February 28, 2012 at 03:08 PM · The first thing any Alexander Technique teacher will tell you is that primary control is to keep the head and neck free. The head should be forward (since the head is slightly in front of the spine) and upward.

Do not clench the violin with your head and neck!

I've rebuilt almost my entire violin technique around this one concept and it's served me well.

February 28, 2012 at 03:12 PM · Also don't forget that the fiddle and viola are the most un-natural instruments to play - unlike the piano and the cello/double bass.

From day one - lesson one- the instinct is to hold the fiddle by gripping with the chin and using the whole weight of the head. It would be better if teachers did what Ricci suggests and get kids to play with the fiddle on the chest more - hold it low and with the arm/hand. If necessary rest the elbow on the knee in a sitting position as you see people do in orchestras sometimes. (Especially when they are knackered ...)

This is for the early days when they are just finding out where to put the fingers and how to hear the notes and the pitch. Then with or without suitable pads/shoulder rests they can start holding the fiddle up to the proper height - but still mostly keeping the chin off the rest. They should then grow up not knowing what tension is. At least until they experience a conductor and a Wagner Ring Cycle. (Both should be avoided at all costs ...)

Of course orchestral playing is a curse as you have to keep the instrument up for anything up to one and a half hours with little or no rests, unlike our brass and woodwind friends who get a lot of exposure but lots of rests too.

February 28, 2012 at 03:16 PM · All day yesterday Vengerov was telling players to release the kneck and head, loosen up and let it all hang out, and his playing which he demonstrated was a perfect example of complete freedom. He could dance, run up and down steps backwards and forwards, and still play Ravel's Tzigane perfectly. I reckon he could cook a meal and play a Paganini Caprice at the same time. (Without burning any food or any notes).

February 28, 2012 at 04:39 PM · A lot of good recommendations here; but since none of us can actually see what you're doing -- or not doing -- our input may or may not help you.

Still, in light of Peter's observation --

"... as soon as the shoulders are lifted even half an inch you introduce tension as you are holding them up"

-- one other possibility comes to mind. Whether or not this situation applies to you, it may help some others besides you.

I notice that a lot of people work at computers with the keyboards up on their desks. I've seen laptop users do this, too. I won't use a keyboard at desk height -- it has to be on a pull-out tray so that I can keep the forearms approximately parallel to the floor and leave the shoulders down. I tried a keyboard at desk height as an experiment -- definitely more shoulder fatigue that way.

As I know from experience, shoulder tension can spread downward to the hands and wrists. Re-evaluate your non-violin activities to see if you're incurring any unnecessary shoulder stress from any of them.

February 28, 2012 at 08:31 PM · Well it must be said that not all Violin teachers can 'cure' the tension problems of their student. I guess that's why Alexander teachers are in virtually every conservatoire. Some players (myself included) tend to play musical instruments as though it's war!

I think you need to take a short rest. Perhaps 2 or 3 weeks to give time for the muscles to heal.

Apart from the previous suggestions, I have heard of teachers getting their students to hum or sing whilst playing to prevent tension in the jaw.

February 28, 2012 at 11:13 PM · Sorry but I've just re read your original posting. I too have experienced similar pain to the type that you describe - including the headaches! Not just on Violin either. I had similar (not quite the same) problems with the Guitar too.

I think you are on the right tracks with your comments at the end of your post. Take time out. Tension problems can become fixed in muscle memory. They don't go away of their own accord. You have to actively aim for a solution. Find a teacher to work with you on this. If possible try and find one who is VERY experienced at dealing with Violinists who have tension problems. Having said that your 'faults' may be very obvious to the observer and perhaps quickly solved.

February 29, 2012 at 02:18 AM · The headaches could be related to poor breathing. The poor breathing could be related to poor posture. The poor posture could be related to the wrong equipment and its adjustment. The improper equipment will cause more tension. It's the domino effect. In a lot of causes if you fix one problem you fix many.

February 29, 2012 at 05:03 AM · Terry,

you are absdolutely right of course, but this instruction is pretty much useless without feeling and understanding it. I have tried it with quite a few people and it simply causes the head to drop back more.An AT teacher will probably teach it weithout words, but a technical description would be quite complex and ionvolve talkng about the rocker point and so on. Anyway, glad you mentioned it.

Cheers,

Buri

February 29, 2012 at 05:59 AM · Buri,

Interesting that you say that. Despite the fact that I've taken a bunch of AT lessons to such good effect, the whole concept of AT still seems like black magic.

If you've tried it, and found that the only way to make it work is through an AT instructor, I have to believe of all people that you're right.

Terry

February 29, 2012 at 06:32 AM · I too find words uttered by AT teachers often threw me off but it's their touch is something I get most clear feedback from which I find to be most helpful. I find the principle of AT is extremely simple. Buri can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me fundamentally is about undo what one has done to oneself in a habitual sort of way that is harmful. And the best way to undo it is to direct your mind to the areas needs the work, and that's it. Thinking does make it so.

February 29, 2012 at 06:36 AM · Greetings,

Yixi, that`s right. That@s why Alexander called it `the cognitive control of our natural heritage,@- as adults we have to think it with the help of an AT instuctors hands. In traditional AT speaking is avoided because, as Alexander always insisted, words scvrew everything up.

The problem with telling people that `its forward and up,` is thta they associate up with a raising of the forehead in a backward arc which compomoises the spine even more. In the end, It`s all in thge magic hands of the instructer.

Cheers,

Buri

February 29, 2012 at 10:28 AM · The truth is that a lot of different techniques can or rather may work. Already mentioned: change in 'hardware'. Alexander. A different Violin teacher. Body mapping. Visualisation techniques. No doubt there are many others. All of these can be effective but there are no guarantees that any one of them is going to be effective for a particular player. I know someone who thinks that Alexander saved his Violin playing, yet I also met a player who told me it did absolutely nothing for him.

February 29, 2012 at 05:25 PM · After a little thought, I'm going to try and combine my previous posts into one.

To me, AT is the preferred way of addressing misuse of the body. But it still seems worth emphasizing that one should not clench with the head, and should at most rest one's head on the chinrest. It does seem to be the main issue of the OP's issues with excess tension.

A deeper understanding of tension would only be achieved through AT. But not clenching could possibly solve the immediate problem. It may require a significant revamping of one's technique however.

February 29, 2012 at 06:44 PM · One of my AT teachers told me early on during our sessions that I’ve got a free neck. But I noticed I clenched a lot when playing the violin as a matter of old habit. I knew rationally that clenching contributes nothing to violin playing but only adds tension and whole lot of other problems to one’s health. To undo this, I’d make sure to pay special attention to the chin when I practice the tricky bits and lift slightly off the chinrest whenever I can. This simple procedure worked well for me.

February 29, 2012 at 07:28 PM · Greetings,

the basic position that AT would take on this kind of issue is that giving the instruction `not clenching/don`t clench` is not useful. One is simply trying to set up a new habit in oppotion to the old which results in more antagnism until one wins but the other remains lurking in the darkness to come back on bad hair days.

Rather one cuts a competely new groove in the mind with a different instruction that achieves the effect.

The difference is subtle but crucial.

NLP also has been pointing out for years that the instruction `don`t x` requires first ordering your body to perform that action since the mind can only cancel out what already exists.

Cheers,

buri

March 1, 2012 at 01:12 PM · Couldn't one simply replace one's violin hold with a different construct such as "hold the violin as if it were an egg" or "hold the violin as if it were a simply supported bridge with one abutment at the left hand and one abutment at the shoulder blade shelf."

That keeps everything in the positive and would avoid any dangerous NLP loops, right? But then I don't know all that much about NLP.

March 1, 2012 at 02:46 PM · A few of my usual notions:

Don't "keep" yor shoulders down; just "leave" them down!

Don't "hold" yor violin or viola, "just hold it up"!

The violin can either rest on the collar-bone and the thumb, or the shoulder-rest and the thumb.

In the latter case, the weight of the head is quite sufficient to balance the weight of the violin, with the shoulder-rest as fulcrum.

Which part of the thumb? This is an entirely individual matter..

Bowing? Here again, don't "hold" the bow, just "hold it up", with the thumb tip.

The source of motion in both arms should be felt in the shoulder-blade region.

March 1, 2012 at 03:00 PM · I've just ordered 'Playing less Hurt' by Hovarth. Comes with good reviews, although I don't think it is Violin specific.

Havas seems to use some visualization techniques, such as the Puppet and the canti levered arm. I think it's all aimed at inducing a feeling of lightness. I'm sure she has her detractors though.

March 1, 2012 at 06:17 PM · A very simple thought but do you take every chance you get to move? i.e whenever there is a break in the playing, even of a bar or two, hold your violin with your hand, lift your head up off, wriggle your shoulders, look around etc? The more I concentrate (at work mainly not while playing) the stiller and stiffer I sit. Forcing yourself to wriggle whenever you can may help more than you expect.

March 1, 2012 at 09:05 PM · What's NLP? Is it a real science or do I have to believe in the "moon landing was fake" idea for it to work.

March 1, 2012 at 10:56 PM ·

March 2, 2012 at 05:44 AM · Shelby,

Taking time off to focus on tension issues is a very good thing to do, exp. since you are already experiencing pain. Adjusting posture, 'hardware', technique, etc... can be a radical change that needs focus, patience and practice.

I'm taking a year off from orchestra (maybe more) to do the same. For me, it was a tingling sensation going down to my fingertips everytime I did any fast bowing. After a year off focusing on tension issues, I can get through Paganini's Moto Perpetuo (sp)without pain, and am learning an arm vibrato to boot.

March 4, 2012 at 04:56 AM · Hello Shelby,

I would be happy to talk to you. Most of my students over the years have come to me specifically to help with pain, tension or tendonitis problems. I am very confident in my ability to help, and have never had a student in pain.

All the best...good luck,

Dylana

March 4, 2012 at 01:38 PM · A good initial test, in my view, to see if you're getting it right is to be able to easily turn your head and look around at other people in the ensemble – while you're playing. If you can do that then it is salutary to see how many of those you are looking at are evidently not able to do what you're doing. This, I think, would apply mainly to amateur players, but are professional orchestral violinists necessarily exempt?

March 5, 2012 at 02:52 AM · Good point, Trevor.

It is useful to be able to take one's head off the fiddle/viola and look around as you say. It gives you more opportunities to wink at the young ladies too, and one never knows where that might lead ...

March 5, 2012 at 05:05 AM · sort of like the exorcist.....

March 5, 2012 at 05:58 AM · Wouldn't you need three hands to lift your head off the fiddle, hold the instrument with one hand and bow with another?

BTW Shelby, if you haven't done so already, I would highly recommend contacting Dylana Jensen instead of reading any more comments here.

March 15, 2012 at 03:04 AM · Thank you for all of the wonderful advice!! I really hope this will get better soon!

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