Relaxation - Is it common?

November 12, 2012 at 06:32 AM · Today at my high school we had college students playing for us. I immediately took notice of the first violin sitting in first chair. His bow arm and his left hand seemed to relaxed. He used spiccato and it seemed that his whole wrist would bounce along with the bow. He left hand was so relaxed that vibrato looked so simple and it sounded swell. His bow changes were flawless, barely noticeable. How did he do this? How can you be so relaxed? Compared to him my bow hand/wrist and my left hand both are death chokes.

Replies (28)

November 12, 2012 at 11:57 AM · A hundred years ago, when I was in HS, I was a very tense player. It took a lot of practice to teach myself to play in a relaxed manner. The things that worked for me were to practice my fundamentals/foundation exercises in a relaxed way, being hyper-aware of any tension I might be holding in my body or if my posture was getting in the way of relaxed playing and correcting it; scales, Sevcik, shraedick, kreutzer, etc. all done with that awareness. In solo and ensemble music, I took difficult passages and broke them down to the fundamental shifts/stringcrossings, etc. and practiced them until I felt I had a solid foundation and could play them without tension. One other thing that I often remind my students of; Relaxed does not mean flaccid or lacking in energy, relaxed means using no more energy than is necessary for an action. Sitting up straight is a good example; sitting on the edge of your chair with your spine in a 'straight' column, resting into your pelvis, the abdominal muscles working along with your back to keep you upright=efficient use of energy and relaxed position. Sitting with your back hyperextended into a slight backwards c= poorly balanced and back muscles working too much, improper use of muscles and waste of energy. Sitting 'relaxed' slumped into a slouchy puddle of goo= sloppy, not enough energy.

November 12, 2012 at 12:27 PM · My big trick if I notice that I am tense is to make sure that I am breathing. I took a workshop when I was in university and remember the clinician mentioning that she was the only person in the room who was breathing. Now I try to make sure I take a nice deep breath and breath out while playing, especially harder passages. This removes a lot of tension from my playing!

Also, in high school I had a teacher who challenged me to move my left arm and wrist while practicing scales. His whole point was that even if you were in the "right" position, holding it tightly would create tension and would cause you trouble. I had to swing my elbow from side to side, wiggle my wrist, and tap my thumb on the neck of my violin. Now I make my own students do the same exercise!

November 12, 2012 at 02:09 PM · If the (really good) suggestions you've gotten and will continue to get on this discussion post still don't do it for you, try contacting a local chapter of ASCH (The American Society for Clinical Hypnosis). This is a professional society (no hypnosis for "entertainment" allowed) made up of physicians, psychologists, dentists, and researchers who study and utilize hypnosis as a legitimate clinical modality. The Society can recommend someone who can teach you to relax in a way that can help you achieve your goals.

Hope that helps.



November 12, 2012 at 02:22 PM · One of my college teacher's assistants helped me break tension. Every time she sensed any tension, she took my instrument, had me bend over and shake out the tension. VERY frustrating when I wanted to play something, but after a really short time, I could catch the tension creeping in and correct it without interrupting my playing. Now, as I play, I'm doing little 'tension checks' off and on all the time, releasing whatever needs to relax, and making sure that all the tension is necessary (so I don't drop the bow, for instance--SOME pressure is useful) and anything else is drained out through my feet.

Note: Being relaxed is easiest when I know what I'm doing. When I'm not fully practiced in a rehearsal, for instance, there can be a LOT more potential for physical tension. But if I know my stuff, even in performance I'll be more nervous (duh), but not have to deal with much more actual tension than in any other situation.

November 12, 2012 at 02:50 PM · marjory,

Wow, your comment prompted a trip down memory lane; My undergrad prof spent most of one of my first lessons having my pick up my instrument from the case and get into playing position *without* tension. Super frustrating but was just the wake up call I needed.

November 12, 2012 at 04:17 PM · Another trick I use with my students-sounds silly but give it a try- pretend you are falling asleep. Then slowly pick up the violin into playing position.

November 12, 2012 at 04:19 PM · Q: Relaxation - Is it common?

A: Relaxation - It is vital!

Amber's first post nails it for me. My bad habits of excessive tension/pressure resulted in repetitive strain issues in my bow arm so my practice sessions are all about doing the basics properly and without unnecessary tension- scales arpeggios, etudes.... it goes a long way & you can work an almost unlimited amount of technique work into that.

I took a break from orchestra for a while & when I did go back, I had to get a lot smarter about how I practiced. I isolate the tricky bits, again much as Amber described, and work on them slowly. I can rely on my ear quite a bit and the rest tends to fall into place in rehearsals

November 12, 2012 at 04:57 PM · By the way, I seem to recall a comment (either something I read or an interview) with Erick Friedman, who said something to the effect that Jascha Heifetz was so relaxed when he played that you got the feeling that someone just blowing out a breath could knock the violin out from under his chin.

November 12, 2012 at 06:26 PM · Marjorie's and Amber's comments are on target. The overall message is that tension has to be treated as a bad habit. The way one breaks a bad habit is recognize situations that lead to the habit and stop immediately when the bad habit creeps in. Then restart with learned relaxation.

A more physical view of violin tension is that it starts in large muscles and works its way into small muscles. The physical fix has to reverse this. Relaxation has to start with the large muscles of the neck, shoulders and upper back. As they relax, the wrist and finger muscles (which are in the lower arm) can relax. So, to get a fluid bow wrist and really rapid left fingers, it starts with exercises, daily, on relaxing the neck, shoulders and upper back.

November 12, 2012 at 07:02 PM · Thank you very much. All these responses have helped me so much.

My school orchestra director put me in 2nd violin because of tension issues. I played the audition nearly perfect but said my right shoulder had way too much tension.

Amber's quote "Relaxed does not mean flaccid or lacking in energy, relaxed means using no more energy than is necessary for an action" really gives me a new feel.

Same with Sander's on how Heifetz held it so loosely yet securely. It really helps because he's my inspiration haha.

Thanks for all the great responses.

November 13, 2012 at 11:32 PM · What is relaxation for me? It's weight instead of force...

The violin is just like any fighting/self defense sport.

These people use their weight to produce a force.

The bow arm is the same...

Some players force very much with the bow arm (these players usually have very high elbows and look as if they were trying to fight a bear when they play... It's not very elegant and sounds like a scratching power trip with very narrow sound quality.)

Others look so relaxed that they almost seem to sleep or meditate. Yet, they produce a more powerful sound than the very muscular forceful players. I think that is the way to go...

November 14, 2012 at 12:21 AM · Anne-Marie Proulx brings up a valid point about the bow arm. As soon as I noticed tension there, thanks to you guys :) I dropped my shoulder and produces a bigger and more focused sounds. And only recently did I figure out, that you don't need to press so hardly down on the string. Now it's time to work on my thumb, anyone have tips for that?

John Cadd. I workout so It's not really tense but I think its due to lack of proper posture.

November 14, 2012 at 02:51 PM · Anne-Marie, imo, is dead on with the weight versus force in the bow arm.

I also think John's comments about strength are very insightful. The trapezius, supra/infraspinalis, rhomboid maj/min, deltoid, tricepts, etc, etc. all really take a beating when we play, just by keeping us upright and in the proper position/posture. Specifically I think that light strength training of the opposing (mostly anterior) muscles is a great plan. Being strong is good, be a 'balanced' sort of strong is better.

November 14, 2012 at 03:02 PM · Nimesh--you say you work is your tension level during your strength exercises? My bet is you have unnecessary tension there, too. It's generally a life pattern, not just a violin one.

Lifting is MUCH easier (not to mention more effective) when you are relaxed. Your body works then, rather than struggling.

You might also check tension in your cardio--we've all seen those runners who look like up-tight stick figures in motion.

November 14, 2012 at 03:17 PM · Thumbs- if you're grabbing with one you're grabbing with the other, it's the law of the universe. The culprit, in my experience, is usually the left. One of my favorite stories came from a rather well respected bassist who was having issues with grabbing with his left thumb. His solution was to place a strip of carpet tacks along the neck of his bass. At any rate, while I'd never do that to a student, what I would do is make certain that you're in a position where you don't need to grab. In you left hand the things I'd look at are; is your thumb far enough up/across from your fingers to enable you to easily reach both 1 and 4? I've found that with small folks and violists the thumb usually needs to be a bit further forward (closer to you) than is generally taught. It changes the balance of the hand slightly, to be more towards the center rather than 'down' by first finger. I'd also check to make sure that your wrist position made sense, and that your elbow was rotating where it needed to depending on where you are in the instrument. Make certain your fingers are 'over' the string, not reaching across the fingerboard to get where they need to go. For right arm; make sure the bow hold is correct and that the thumb isn't grabbing. If you've ever seen the hands of a sleeping infant you'll notice their little thumbs point slightly in towards the palm. Take a cue, it isn't all that different. Then practice portato on open strings or scales in 2,3,4,6,8,etc etc making certain you are using the weight of your arm rather than your index finger and your hold remains firm but relaxed.

November 15, 2012 at 12:36 AM · Amber, yes that's true about the muscles!

When I play with a correct posture, I am tired in my belly and tighs after because these muscles work very hard for us to stay straight... but the result is so much bettter than when I let myself slouch down with flexed legs while playing.

It is also quite something to stay straight and read in a music stand. Leaning slightly "in" the music stand when playing also causes a lot of tension and is a bad habbit...

Also, for that bow arm weight thing, I found a little trick. I have feather weight arms (I'm in shape but slender build and a long time complainer about how it affects my violin :) I had to work so hard just to produce a nice sound/tone. I am the type of person who could force the hell out of a violin since I have 0 natural strengh in my arms. (We are like dogs, those who have it all don't need to be agressive but those who lack something can easilly become the barking Chiwawa!) Well, I bought myself a bow on the heavy side and it has perform marvels... It really does the heavy job for me and if I force, it's too much and the sound is crushed (buzz). So it teaches me to be lazy... and relaxed. My teacher saw the effect immidiately. But I have to say that it was a challenge to find a heavy bow that can also play Mozart"ish" things. Finally, after many trials, I did find a heavy bow that can play delicate things as well.

My maker says it could be the heaviness but most above all, it is the balance point in th bow that works for my needs. This bow is only 1 to 2 grams heavier than my previous one that was too light...

So I suggest working on the person...and on the playing equipment in the relaxation quest!

November 15, 2012 at 10:40 PM · Let's not get on the topic of shoulder rests now. Personally I practice without a shoulder rest but perform with one, because I don't want to mess up a recital because my back isn't straight and my violin drops down my shoulder or some reason like that.

November 16, 2012 at 01:03 AM · Playing violin has to include ALL aspects of the process--tension isn't isolated just because it manifests in one place; it's a macro issue, not a micro one. Although the sr issue has been beaten to death on V-come, that doesn't mean it's not relevant here, dealing with your body, your tension. Making a huge change like adding equipment for performance by itself could create extra tension....

By the way, what does your teacher have to say about helping you relieve tension? I've not seen anything about his/her input.

November 16, 2012 at 01:32 AM · My private teacher hasn't said much, since I don't really display tension, also I haven't seen her in a month to discuss it. I agree that making a change increases tension but I feel more secure. When I play without a shoulder rest I feel a sense of freedom it's so easy to move around the fingerboard. Yet it doesn't feel secure, sometimes I feel as though my violin is going to drop even though its not.

John. I think its because I tend to slouch when I play, but I've been working and I've improved tremendously on this. Before my back would hurt after an hour of practicing, now there's no pain at all. It's almost gone. And playing without a shoulder rest ensures that I have a straight back, since you can't really play without having a straight back without a shoulder rest. You can still address tension there. But I've learned to relax my jaw and neck, Instead of putting my chin under my violin. I put my violin under my chin. If that makes any sense.

November 16, 2012 at 02:29 AM · Of course having your violin properly set up for YOU can help mitigate much of the tension. Every teacher has a different idea about posture, but you should listen to your teacher and follow his/her advice.

Some tension is mental, stress induced. Performing under pressure causes tension in the studio and on the stage that you don't feel at home. I have known musicians who are prescribed Valium for performances. This probably isn't the case for you.

Two other things that have helped me:

1) Smile. An old teacher swore that smiling forces you to relax, and while I didn't believe her I tried her advice at auditions and found that it really helped. Be careful about randomly smiling in rehearsal, however, as you may find yourself being accused of horsing around when in fact you are not.

2) Walk around while you practice. There's something about moving that helps your arms and fingers relax and do their thing.

Some of us are just more uptight than others. I'm always a little stiff, and playing my violin is one way I loosen up. I am envious of folks who always seem to be so relaxed, and I wish I knew their secret.

November 16, 2012 at 03:15 AM · Funny thing. I always walk around while practicing and it helps me a lot. For tension due to recitals and stuff like that. I usually practice breathing. I noticed that I choke up when playing a lot.

November 16, 2012 at 06:35 AM · Here's some little somethings I prepared earlier:

Bosom up!

Standing up is hard to do

Pigs fly?

Comments welcome.

November 16, 2012 at 11:05 AM · How did he manage to straighten himself out?

Maybe he started winning!

November 16, 2012 at 05:36 PM · The nice thing about relaxing is that you can practice it any time, anywhere, during any activity. When I am taking notes in class and I remember to relax my shoulder + elbow + forearm + wrist, I have an easier time keeping up with the professor, and my handwriting improves.

November 16, 2012 at 06:24 PM · Make sure you are holding your pen with a terminal rather than subterminal pinch. The latter is a major case of tension on the index finger's nail joint.

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November 16, 2012 at 09:10 PM · Now on to left side tension problems (forearms, wrist, fingers). Any tips there? And yes everything's bigger in Texas, including tension.

November 18, 2012 at 11:14 PM · Easy......'balance'

Your body balances on your feet, your torso balances on the pelvis, your head balances on the atlas bone. And your arms balance in the shoulder sockets with a counter weight in the trapezius muscles.

Continue to seek out tensions and then consciously release them. This self assessment of the state of your muscle conditions will flow over to your playing sessions. Practise relaxation technique.....

November 19, 2012 at 08:06 AM · Your body balances on your feet, your torso balances on the pelvis, your head balances on the atlas bone. And your arms balance in the shoulder sockets with a counter weight in the trapezius muscles.

Except they don't! The pelvis hangs from the femoral heads, the shoulders hang down the back and the head hangs off the nuchal ligament. Not sure about ankles - haven't done them yet.

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