Neck pain when playing; practical help sought in SE England

June 25, 2013 at 05:31 AM · Hi,

I have been playing the violin for about four years now and am struggling with quite severe pain in my upper back and neck when playing (specifically the cervical spine area). I have been experiencing this for a while, but as I am now starting to dedicate a bit more time to practicing it is really starting to bum me out; I can generally play for about 5 minutes before having to put the violin down.

Neither my current nor previous teacher have been able to identify where this is coming from. I started playing as an adult, so it’s been suggested that my body could be overly tense when playing. I’m also quite tall (6”3), so there may be an issue with my shoulder rest, although I currently use a Wolf Forte Primo at its near maximum height.

From scouring the internet this is clearly quite a common issue, but, as none of the posited solutions I found worked for me, I’m looking for someone with more experience than myself to perhaps have a look at the way I play (violin and shoulder rest position, posture, etc), and see if they notice anything that could be improved.

I live in the South-East of England and will happily travel (though not quite as far as the States so apologies to most of you reading this), and am wondering if any of you can recommend a shop, luthier or other type of professional who might be able to help me out.

Thanks a lot for reading.

Replies (24)

June 25, 2013 at 06:57 AM · This does sound like a reason to be bummed out. As a fellow neckie, I feel your pain :(

Is there any ongoing work being done by the team from Utrecht in the Netherlands the 'violinist in balance' project does any one know - from UK it is a day trip. One of the comments I saw on another website indicated that one of the team who had made the custom chinrests and shoulder rests had gone on to produce these, but the linked website which was something like chins.nl went to a generic site.

I have had some relief with a GOOD physiotherapist, who concentrated on pectoralis and trapezius stretching as well as the obvious levator and cervical muscle work, (beware the bad physio, who can cause all sorts of grief - you need referecnes from players) - but it all depends on the source of your pain - is it muscle tension, neurological impingement at the cervical spine / combination of these, osteophytes?

Necks are biomechanically complex, and by adulthood have often incurred damage from a lifetime of other activities, so the violin may be the proverbial straw that .... Sorry that I can't offer more help, I hope that others here can, I'll be looking out for it for myself.

June 25, 2013 at 07:15 AM · Tom, you will get a mass of thoughtful, intricate posts, but also many dogmatic, simplistic ones..

Posture and accessories:

Inadapted posture will lead to a poor choice of accessories. And vice versa! I sse many friends and colleagues with heads jutting forwards or tilted sideways as their jawbones grope round their chinrests. Shouder-rests with the wrong curve will get in the way and cause excessive tension in the shoulder and neck.

Basically, head alignement and shoulder position should be the same with or without the violin. Try removing both chin-rest and shoulder-rest, and spend some time "re-inventing the wheel", playing simply, like many fiddlers or "baroquers", balancing the violin on collar-bone and left hand only. Then watch this in a mirror to see what is missing.

The Forte Primo has the advantage of being twistable and bendable (although it is ugly, and will scratch the violin if it slips).

Personally, I use my shoulder-rest as a pivot: the weight of my head balances that of the fiddle, see-saw fashion: I hardly ever raise my shoulder.

June 25, 2013 at 07:29 AM · I am guessing you have a generic/default chin rest and have to crane your neck?

I am > 6' and had the same issue.

June 25, 2013 at 09:30 AM · Violinist in Balance Netherlands

I would say going to shops and luthiers is a really poor idea, maybe 1 out of a hundred may know how to position a violin. Physiotherapy may help a bit to strengthen the muscles you are damaging. Hopefully someone can give you a good recommendation of someone in your area, or violin in balance seems like a good idea.

Basically we need to follow basic rules of posture. Left ear, shoulder and hips need to be aligned, that's it. Adjust your equipment to achieve this, and use a mirror or video cam.

Basic posture techniques

Poor posture sequence

A lot of the times we tend to play in the "head forward position", and over compensate to the "sway back " position. Proper Chinrest and shoulder rest and video taping yourself playing will fix this. A full length mirror is good to have in the practice room.

One more thing, I often find that the main culprit to neck pain is often linked to the use of a Gaurneri chinrest . I hate to see these on new student violins.

June 25, 2013 at 10:38 AM · Tom, you will get a mass of thoughtful, intricate posts, but also many dogmatic, simplistic ones..

HA..!!

Never the less I shall press on......

I have experienced the neck pain also and deduced it was using the shoulder rest incorrectly...thus pressing down on the chin rest much too firmly with the head...

One day I had to get under the car to do some repairs. This caused me to hold my head up in an unusual manner...and low and behold, the next day my pain had gone..

Counter active movements may cure such pain, but learning how to use the rest correctly will avoid such pains.

How ever I am just 6' 2' and after I learned how to play violin WITHOUT shoulder rest, my playing improved and I never experienced such pains again....oh praise thee....

June 25, 2013 at 11:04 AM · At least my post was neither thoughtful nor intricate.

June 25, 2013 at 12:51 PM · "Tom, you will get a mass of thoughtful, intricate posts, but also many dogmatic, simplistic ones.."

You can say this about 80% of the post on V.com, that's the point.

June 25, 2013 at 01:07 PM · Thank you very much for all the responses, none of which seem at all dogmatic or simplistic. I might look into changing my chin rest; I’ve only changed it once before for one that was slightly higher than what came fitted, and I do tend to spend some time ‘groping’ for the right chin position.

I’ll definitely try and play more in front of a mirror to keep an eye on what’s going on. I find playing without a shoulder rest very challenging, but from various things I’ve read it might be worth persevering with.

I love playing the violin but it definitely often feels unrequited; the only way I managed to make a high enough music stand was to build a Frankenstein esque conglomerate of three others. Guess I could play sitting down, but it’s less fun that way.

Thanks again.

June 25, 2013 at 01:49 PM · I'd suggest you find an Alexander Technique teacher. Over the last 2.5 years I've received relief from all sorts of pain and a much better overall use of my body from studying AT.

In any event, I wish you success. Pain makes practice so discouraging.

June 25, 2013 at 02:09 PM · Alexander Technique IS the way to go.

I can recommend a teacher who works with violinists and string players but she's based in London, how practical is this for you?

she 'saved my life' when I was experiencing 'exactly' the same problems as you, it was not immediate, it took a long time however it was worth it.

you can look in the mirror all you like but if you don't know what to look for it won't do anything, I never knew what to look for before Alexander Technique.

the most common problems are: clenching the violin with your chin, jutting a shoulder (or both) up, your ears not being aligned with your shoulders (if you look at yourself from the side, are you ears aligned on top of your shoulders or are they in a line that is 'in front' of your shoulder?) and 'twisting' your spine.

June 25, 2013 at 02:54 PM · Charles, I have "bookmarked" your valuable links. I think the chinrest is the first consideration.

I find the Guarneri chinrest very uncomfortable (on the side of my jaw) but I see it is very, very common, even among the "greats"! I see many folk don't really use the spoon-shaped bit at all, but hook their chins over the part that bridges the tail-piece. Others must have Guarneri-shaped jowls..

At least it is fairly flat: the danger of a reassuring "lip", (under the chin or jawbone), is a tendency to pull the head backwards, which is just as damaging as craning it forwards.

I use a much-modified Treka: I can move it left or right to compensate for the thickness of a tuxedo ("dinner-jacket" for those who pay in pounds sterling, "smockingue" here in France)

June 26, 2013 at 05:27 AM · This issue has come up several times in previous posts and no doubt will keep coming up. I have yet to find a good permanent solution myself. One thing that helped me most was a "Happynex". Whenever I get significant pain I tie it on for a while and move the neck entirely freely.

One can easily make a home version .

June 26, 2013 at 05:07 PM · It makes no sense does it Adrian. Why have a chinrest at all.

Ray Chin

June 26, 2013 at 05:15 PM · Do you support the violin with your left hand (correct) or do you jam the violin between your neck and shoulder and hold it up using the shoulder rest alone as a prop (incorrect) ?

I was doing it the latter way for years. Eventually pain caused me to make the necessary changes.

June 26, 2013 at 07:52 PM · Given the area of your pain it sounds like it may be a set up issue... perhaps your shoulder rest is actually too high? I'd try experimenting with higher and lower combinations.

I have had extremely severe back pain since september, which has caused me to miss out on quite a few weeks of playing over the course of the year! No teacher, doctor, chiropractor, alexander technique teacher, etc. were able to spot any reason why I'd have back pain - until my teacher felt the weight of my case... :D I also carry a backpack full of my books daily. I've bought a light violin case and carry as little as possible and so far this week, no pain! So don't rule out the chance it may not actually be from violin playing - i was entirely positive mine was!

June 26, 2013 at 10:22 PM · Brian, with the words "correct" and "incorrect" you just might inadvertedly remind me of the "other" sort of post......

All the same, may I humbly insist that my "see-saw" approach uses balance, not gripping, and I have no pain, no cramps, and no festering red mark, after a half-century of playing viola!

I only start to grip and twist when I am in the left chair of a desk, and my partner hogs the stand..

June 26, 2013 at 10:45 PM · I'll second the Alexander Technique suggestion too.

The pain sounds like what I used to have. If the cause is the same, you might benefit by finding out how you are "nodding" on the violin. Try:

Stand nice and straight with no tilt anywhere. Put your index fingers straight into your ears, then nod.

If your fingers were pulled forward or backward, practice nodding without moving your index fingers. (I know it looks silly to do this, but it might work - it did for me)

Good luck!

June 27, 2013 at 03:16 AM · Tom, severe pain after 5 minutes is not something to be taken lightly. You might have an injury that needs to be cared for, given time to heal, and not be triggered further. Go see a doctor to find out what harm's been done, and what you can do about it. A scan, diagnosis, and physiotherapy might be the solution. Even if they don't find anything specific, give the pain signal the attention it demands. You might be able to use the pain as a learning tool -- change your equipment, positioning and technique so that the pain is avoided.

There are several books on these topics. Here's one for example:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Athletic-Musician-Playing-Without/dp/0810833565.

June 27, 2013 at 04:14 AM · Go see your doctor to make sure there isn't something else underlying the pain. Bring your violin with you. It could be as simple as tension. If you think it is tension or set-up related, strip off all the "gear" and add it back bit by bit (or not), starting with the chin-rest until you find what works. Give a week or so between every change. Changing setup to frequently will only cause more problems.

June 27, 2013 at 04:50 AM · Greetings,

you are well situated for getting an Alexander Teacher which I am absolutely certain will provide the answers you need. AT is offered at almost all major music institutes because it works.

You probably need to take about ten lessons which is a bit expensive but will affect your whole life. It is not about violin playing perse. It is about how you use your body and is thus relevant to everything.

As far as nodding on the violin it is quite possible you are making one of the most common and least discussed errors in putting up the violin that ther eis. I learnt from AT that the vertebrae at the top of the spine have different function s of mrotation in one case and nodding in the otherwise. When we conflate the two we get a corkscrew effect which puts your whole body out of whack. Many violinists do this. What you must do is put your violin in place Wilbur moving your head.

Then turn you head to the left and then drop or nod to the required degree. Once you can isolate these things your understanding and relief may leap. From this understanding one is then free to mess about with set up.

Changing the set up when the body is wrong is simply doing things backwards.

Best wishes,

Buri

June 27, 2013 at 06:14 AM · Hi Buri,

Who is Wilbur and how does he move my head :)

June 27, 2013 at 10:30 AM · You haven`t met your inner child yet???????

June 27, 2013 at 06:02 PM · For food intolerance we eat only one thing, like brown rice, for 10 days and then add foods one at a time and monitor the result. It's called an exclusion diet. Can you stand for 5 minutes without pain? If so, ditch the chinrest and shoulder rest and place the violin under the collar bone (where your chin can't get at it), same happy standing posture, - see if you get pain after 5 minutes.

July 1, 2013 at 11:24 AM · I have neck trouble, do long gigs and have found the solution. I have adapted a Bon Musica shoulder rest so that the curvy bit is extended and goes right over my shoulder and the other end is more padded. I then use a Happynex violin sling (happynex.com) hooked around the chinrest. I can play completely free without my head on the violin - total support.

I'm planning to make a Youtube video soon.

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