Another shoulder pain inquiry

Edited: March 29, 2018, 11:35 PM · I'm a super beginner self-learning the violin right now. I know that's not ideal, but I have a 12 month contract at a remote research station and no access to any violin instructors. For the record, I plan on taking lessons when my contract ends and I return to the states.

Anyway, I'm having some disconcerting left shoulder pain. I took a handful of lessons before I left, and I had the same issue then. I might be remembering this incorrectly, but I believe my instructor encouraged me to sort of rotate/swing my elbow outward (towards the front of my body) slightly in order to keep my wrist straight and keep my hand in the right position, particularly while playing the G and D strings. This is what causes the pain. I pointed the pain out to my instructor but I don't remember us coming up with a good solution. She may have suggested a different chin rest/shoulder rest set up.

I found a past thread describing a similar issue (http://www.violinist.com/discussion/archive/10689/a) and some users suggested keeping the violin more to the left. A youtube video suggested the opposite though (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cafkUEPy6M8)

I do notice that I get tense when I play and I'm doing my best to be conscious of that and repeatedly 'relax'. I'm sure tension is part of the problem. I also tend to slouch and tense my shoulders when not playing violin, so I imagine I do the same while playing. I think if I keep focusing on these things, it will help. But does anybody have any other tips?

I have some other aches and pains from playing, but they seem normal and either a result of weak muscles not accustomed to holding a violin, or slightly from improper posture which I hope to get out of once I get better (and once I can take some lessons). This pain from rotating my elbow however seems more like the type of pain that could lead to an injury if I keep going for too long.

Does anybody have any posture tips or things I should be aware of? Or good stretches to do? I know it's probably basically impossible to guess what is wrong with my playing without watching me, but any general options to explore would be appreciated.

For now I'm going to concentrate on keeping my shoulders back and down as much as possible while I play and see if that helps. It doesn't FEEL like I'm raising my shoulder or cranking my neck and chin downward too much, but I'm sure a trained eye would say that I am.

Replies (20)

March 30, 2018, 3:15 AM · Pain is not so good and naturally shoukd be avoided as you are seeking to do. A few of my ideas for you Kate to help without a teacher are to try spending time practing in front of a mirror to see what you are doing different then your favorite soloist on stage in a YouTube video. Your body should be completely relaxed and this took me at least ten years to learn how to do. I think you might be trying to hold the violin up with tensed left shoulder rather than just let your shoulder hang relaxed with violin on your collarbone.

I would not worry about rotating your elbow or worry too much about hand position other than do what seems natural and possibly you can work through through the awkwardness of learning to hold the instrument in a manner which befits you.

March 30, 2018, 4:30 AM · After many years of on and off pain, it disappeared when I got rid of the shoulder rest and learned to use my own body correctly in relation to violin support. I'd refer you to this violinist who has some informed opinions on the subject

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=og14eA-6FyU

March 30, 2018, 4:31 AM · Another useful route is to look at the Alexander Technique. Perhaps there is someone in your remote location who may know it; or failing that, a good book on the subject.

AT is used by actors, dancers, athletes, and musicians. My violin teacher knew it and used it as the basis of her teaching.

March 30, 2018, 4:51 AM · Trevor is spot on about the Alexander Technique. It comes as a revelation to find that while you are fretting about holding the violin correctly, you may not even be able to stand or walk correctly (with or without a violin!) At 3.58 this lady on TED talk invites you to do just that, simply stand up.

Easy?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=prN9kbDtedc

Edited: March 30, 2018, 5:36 AM · Hi,

I think that you answered your own question when you said "rotate/swing my elbow outward." This is really not necessary in my humble opinion and professional experience. To be completely relaxed and balanced, the elbow should be pointing down, and the upper arm (not forearm) should be perpendicular to the floor (90 degree angle).

Other issues that cause pain are raising of the left shoulder (the shoulder should sit at all times), bringing the shoulder in (it should be open and normal), and a left hand position that is not natural to your hand.

To make sure that the left hand position is natural for your hand, with the elbow hanging, rest the violin on the base of the first finger and allow the thumb to come up to its natural height. Whatever that height is, is natural for you. It varies from person to person based on hand geometry (i.e. it depends on the length of the thumb itself and the distance between the base of the first finger and root of the thumb).

Hope this helps...

Cheers!

Edited: March 30, 2018, 12:08 PM · "a 12 month contract at a remote research station" sounds like a physiotherapist is also far away....
Stop playing immediately.
Shoulder problems sometimes lead to a "frozen shoulder", which takes way longer to recover from.
What you need now is not accessible online no matter how many well-wishers you will find here. You need a proper assessment of the extent of your injury. Neglecting this can have a long-term consequences. Consider yourself warned.
March 30, 2018, 10:58 AM · I believe the OP is making the best of her situation. Definitely look at yourself in a mirror. The position of the violin depends on your physical build. People with longer arms tend to hold the violin more to the left and vice versa. I'd experiment with the position a bit and see what's most comfortable. Tension is definitely a problem. A picture/video can help us forum members give you more relevant advice.
March 30, 2018, 12:38 PM · Hi Kate, I agree with Rocky that you need proper in-person assessment of your injury. I would suggest that you use this 12 month time to learn violin in a different way:
1. Learn about mental practice
2. Learn the science behind practice (i.e. performance psychology such as Noa Kageyama's blogs https://bulletproofmusician.com/)
3. watching as many great soloists on the YouTube very carefully, again and again, to see how they use their body.

You'll be a much better musician and violinist down the road if you immerse yourself into violin music this way. Yes, practice violin does require a lot of physical playing the instrument, properly. However, without proper instruction on top of physical injury should be taken as a considerable risk that will set you back for a long time.

Let us know how you are doing.

March 30, 2018, 3:03 PM · Thank you all!

Jeff Jetson,
" I think you might be trying to hold the violin up with tensed left shoulder rather than just let your shoulder hang relaxed with violin on your collarbone."
I am trying to be very conscious of not allowing this, but I'm sure this is true. I know that I do this just naturally, not playing violin, just while driving or using the computer, so I bet I do it with the violin.

Janice Branley,
Thank you for the link! I'll check that out. Honestly, when I was still taking lessons, not using the shoulder rest did seem a bit better, but I figured it was just because I started with no shoulder rest. If I recall correctly, my instructor thought my form was slightly better with the rest. I might just keep experimenting with different positions. I don't really want to get locked into a pattern anyway, since I'm sure I'm picking up lots of bad habits and I want to be able to learn my way out of them once I get proper instruction again.

Trevor and Janice,
Thank you! This did come up a few times in my googling/youtubing of tips and I didn't explore it much. I'll look into it more. I KNOW I don't stand/sit/walk properly. I had a hip problems after a short but intense backpacking trip and saw a physical therapist and she was able to identify all sorts of problems with my body mechanics and I'm still working on a lot of them.

Christian,
Thank you for these tips. It may be that I misunderstood or I am remembering my instructor's advice incorrectly. Or maybe she used a different style, but I DON'T seem to get the pain if I'm not concentrating on moving my elbow out, or really when I only play the higher strings. I do see how not moving it out slightly might start making my wrist want to bend or my fingers to collapse a bit, but I guess at this point, above all, I should avoid pain.
And as I stated above, I know in non-violin playing circumstances I know I have a tendency to raise and fold in my shoulders. I'm sure I am subconsciously doing both when I play. I will try to focus more on that.

Rocky,
Thanks for the warning. I'll definitely take it to heart.
I REALLY don't want to quit playing because it's been really fun and rewarding.
As more backstory, I inherited my grandmother's violin when she died and always intended to take lessons and learn to play it. And I did take lessons when I lived in one place, but I graduated from college shortly after I inherited it and started taking seasonal jobs, usually in rural places and in living conditions I wouldn't want to subject a violin to (a tent in rural alaska, a car, and now I'm in literal Antarctica.) Suddenly it had been 4 or 5 years and I hadn't learned to play at all. I finally realized that if I keep waiting until I live somewhere with teachers available, I may never learn to play so, against many people's advice, I decided to just do what I can while I'm here. I'm most interested in traditional/folk styles of music anyway, and it sounds like those styles are a bit more forgiving of "bad habits" than some.
However, I know that I'm already battling solidifying bad habits. I certainly don't want to risk injury as well.
I think I'll partially take your advice - I'll practice less. I've been shooting for 1-2 hours per day. Maybe I'll just try to hit 45 minutes per day - more or less depending on if I feel any pain.

From your advice and the advice of other's here, I think I will start focusing less on what *I* think is proper technique/posture. Obviously I am probably way off base anyway and youtube videos really can only go so far. Instead I'm going to focus on making the best sounds I can while completely avoiding any pain. I really don't have the problem unless I am trying to pivot my elbow outwards.
But I promise to stop playing immediately if the pain doesn't stop and/or if I start feeling pain even while focusing on keeping my elbow relaxed and towards the floor. I've had problems in my right shoulder and I know shoulder injuries are not anything to play around with.

Ella,
Yes, making the best of my situation is certainly right. I really wish I could get with an instructor, but I just fear I'll never have the opportunity to learn if I wait for that, and that idea breaks my heart a bit. I am going to do more playing in front of a mirror, keep trying to relax, and I'll try to get a photo or video and maybe seek some more advice. Our internet is not great so not sure I can upload a video...

Yixi Zhang,
This seems like great advice. I don't think I can bring myself to quit playing entirely, but I am going to stop practicing in any way that hurts my shoulder. I am also planning to play less/for shorter durations. I'll fill the extra time with the things you've suggested. I might also see if I can pick up a guitar/more ergonomic instrument to at least help me learn to read music and learn/understand music theory/etc. better. Even if I'm not as interested in really learning another instrument, I'm sure just understanding music more will help me with the violin once I can start taking lessons again.

Thank you all! The tips and warnings are much appreciated. The warnings especially, I think I'm just reaching the age where I need to start realizing that I'm not invincible and bad things I do to my body can and will catch up to me and hurt me in the long run. It's a hard lesson to learn though :/

March 30, 2018, 9:34 PM · Just one more thing to Kate: when your old teacher told you to "sort of rotate/swing my elbow outward (towards the front of my body)" (and I kind of had trouble interpreting this statement at first, but I think I've figured it out now), I think (s)he was telling you to tuck the elbow more underneath the violin (in other words, to the right or towards the front of the body). Tucking the elbow under the violin too much definitely causes shoulder pain and tension. The angle of your elbow needs to change slightly depending on what string you're playing on. On the E and A string, a neutral angle is good (as Christian said above), and on the G string, your elbow will have to move slightly further under the violin for maximum ease playing on that string (don't move it too far underneath, it'll hurt as I said above).
March 31, 2018, 1:16 AM · Take your violin out of its case, see how lovely it is; gently put it on your shoulder and under your chin, ignore all advice on twisting your arm, bending your wrist etc.,just find the place where there is no pain or discomfort, draw your bow over the strings, no pain, just pleasure in the sound. wheen you come home ther are many skilful teachers who understand such problems - till then play your fiddle! and enjoy yourself!
March 31, 2018, 1:29 AM · A few thoughts:

* To expand on what Christian said, raising your left shoulder or moving it too far forward traps some of the tendons that are in play when you rotate your arm to reach the low strings. I recently changed to a lower chin rest on my viola, and because I was so used to having the viola jammed into my shoulder by an excessively tall chin rest, my left shoulder started pushing up until I could retrain it to the new normal sensation. (Sometimes a similar thing happens when people first switch to ergonomic furniture: posture needs to be retrained to it.) When my shoulder was doing that, I also experienced pain when rotating my arm.

* On that note, you should check and see if you need to change or adjust your chin rest and/or shoulder rest. Your overall violin setup should be at the height where your jaw rests lightly against the chin rest if you turn your head horizontally to meet it and nod slightly.

* Violin playing requires muscles that are used for very few other things (besides playing viola!) so beginners are rarely able to practice for long periods of time without getting overuse injuries. An hour a day is a lot to start with. It's best to gradually ramp it up.

* Finally, have you considered Skype lessons? Depending on how good a connection you have, that might be an option, and you might get better advice from someone who can see what you're doing.

April 3, 2018, 1:01 AM · Yes, Ella, I think you understand what my teacher was trying to say. Unfortunately, that's the movement that causes the pain. When my elbow is straight down/under the violin, (for E and A) there's no pain, but if I move it more towards the right side of the violin (to play D and G), I start feeling pain. However, maybe I don't need to move it as far as I think.

Daniel, thank you for the encouragement! I'm not quite at a place where there's much pleasure in the sound, but hopefully I'll get there soon! However, I've been following the rest of your advice and it's been going well.

Andrew, thank you for your thoughts. I have considered skype lessons. It seems better than nothing. Unfortunately, I don't think it'll work. We rely on satellite internet and we're technically not supposed to use skype unless we sign up for sessions and do it on a certain skype designated computer, and I couldn't play a violin there.

As a quick update:
I've been experimenting with my shoulder rest and without it and adjusting it to varying heights. I've also started to play for shorter durations and not focusing so much on my wrist and elbow placement other than trying to keep my fingers from collapsing and making sure I avoid pain. I've practiced 3 times since reading all the advice here. One day it started to hurt a bit and I quit immediately. The other two days I felt no pain but quit after about 30-40 minutes of playing (with some breaks between,) just to be safe. The day that it hurt was a day that I used my shoulder rest, but I'm not sure that that's what caused it. It was also a day that I'd been on the computer a lot for work and I know that brings out the worst of my posture so my shoulders were probably already a bit upset. The other two days I had done more varied tasks and more physical labor at work so my shoulders were probably in a better place to start with.

I think not focusing so much on my (probably incorrect) idea of 'proper' form has helped me to relax a bit which has helped immensely. I still catch myself getting a little tense, especially when working on new things, but I'm teaching myself to catch it at least. When I catch it, I stop, set the violin down and kind of try to stretch/loosen up for a moment, then start again.

Again, thanks to everybody! Your responses have given me more to explore and the warnings have me being ultra-cautious which is probably very good.

April 3, 2018, 5:54 AM · Years ago, when I had something similar going on, I discovered that I'd developed a habit of leaning forward on my elbows, which was putting strain on my shoulders. When I stopped doing this, most of the pain I'd had was resolved. Do take a careful look at how you carry yourself in daily life. If you're using the "standard" Guarneri chinrest, swapping out to a different (higher) chinrest might also be helpful. I use a Gordon style these days, and I'd never go back.
April 3, 2018, 9:17 AM · Rocky and Yixi, above, are correct. I'll add my advice that if you are a beginner and feeling pain, you should stop playing until you can get in-person qualified coaching. If you continue, you are likely to cause continued or even further injury. You will also cement in place dozens of other bad habits that you will have to unlearn to get anywhere near good performance in the future.

Use your time at the research station to improve your ear for intonation. That is very valuable. On a piano, play all the intervals and then sing them. Reverse - sing the intervals and play them to see if you are correct. Do intervals going up, and coming down. You will develop a valuable skill for intonation on the violin by working hard on in tune intervals

Edited: April 3, 2018, 1:29 PM · I strongly believe Kate has it under control. In her shoes, I would not advise her to quit playing completely due to the difficulty of her situation. It sounds like she truly values the importance of a teacher and has waited a long time to learn. Plus, who knows what will happen to her in the future. I'm guessing that although she states that she could try to find a teacher after returning home from the research station, it sounds like it might not work 100%. If I am misinterpeting, please correct me. Ear training is a great use of time at the research station, though. However, I don't know if a piano is something she can access.
April 8, 2018, 11:13 PM · Jennifer, I TOTALLY have a bad habit of doing this. I've tried to stop since I saw your response. We'll see if it helps in the long term. I know it's not good for my posture anyway.

I'd like to experiment more with chinrests, I just have the standard one that came on my super-cheap Amazon violin. Unfortunately, I can't go out and buy anything and we don't really get any package mail over the winter.

Mike, I've still been playing but cut down on the duraction. The pain has essentially stopped since I stopped focusing as much on wrist/elbow placement. I'm still sort of trying to keep my wrist straight, but I stopped doing any movements that cause pain.
Unfortunately, I have no piano available here. But if anybody has any other tips/ideas for training my ear for intonation, I would definitely take them. Having little musical experience aside from drumming, this is definitely a skill I lack.

Ella, thanks for the support. You may be right. I definitely plan on finding a teacher when I leave here in October, but I'm already considering a second contract. In that case I may only have about 4 months to take lessons, and that's assuming I can find an instructor that wants to take on an adult on a temporary basis (and one who likely has a ton of bad habits to boot!)

If anyone has other specific tips on things I can do to set myself up for (at least some amount of) success (other than physically practicing,) I'd love to hear them and put them to use!

Edited: April 13, 2018, 1:30 PM · I can't give specific tips right now, but there are plenty of threads on this site and resources elsewhere on the internet on how to train your ear for violin and how to improve intonation. When you do get home from the station, it might be worth trying some of the more adjustable chin rest models like Wittner Augsberg and Kreddle (quite expensive).
One more posture thing to watch out for: When tucking the elbow under the violin, you might be tempted to tilt the whole upper body to the left. This strains shoulder, arm, and back muscles. If you feel any tension in these regions, make sure that your body is straight and not tilted to the left.
April 13, 2018, 3:07 PM · Thanks again, Ella. You've been so helpful. I plan on trying some different chin rests or a more adjustable one when I get back. That was something my teacher suggested when I still had lessons, but I moved shortly after that so I never ended up getting a new one.

Also, I think you're right on with this last tip. I paid attention and also watched myself in the mirror and it did seem like I was tilting my entire upper body. I've been working to stop.

Other than that, I'm very happy to report that things are going well on the pain front! I haven't felt that pain at all since I last posted. I've also started playing 45 minutes at a time again.

If others ever reference this thread, here's what I've been doing:

-Focusing more on staying relaxed and 'loose' while playing
-Playing for shorter durations
-Light shoulder stretches daily
-Better posture at work/not playing violin as much after computer-heavy work-days
-Never playing through the pain, even if it's mild
-More playing in front of a mirror
-Correcting problems more subtly. I may have been over-correcting problems that I noticed with my form. I think it also goes along with staying relaxed.
-No more leaning on my elbows at work or during meals or whenever I'm feeling lazy.

I do feel like I'm making no progress with intonation though. I know it's only been a few months since I've started playing, but I see progress in other areas - reading music, bowing (only hitting one string at a time, less scratchy and more even, etc)

Most tips online haven't been very helpful - Play with a piano (don't have one), play duets (nobody to duet with), play with a drone (I can hardly tell when what I play matches the drone, let alone if the rest of a scale is correct in relation to the drone,) sing everything before you play it (my singing is probably even more off than my violin-ing, how would that help?) Another tip is to play more slowly, which I've been trying to do and it does seem helpful.
Over all, it seems like suggestions are mostly "Just listen to see if it sounds right and then fix it from there." But I can hardly even hear if it sounds right or not yet, that's the whole problem. Maybe I'm just half-tone deaf.

But I can't practice tonight because the building I usually practice in is going to be busy so I think I'll spend that time doing some more research. I feel like obtaining and repeatedly listening to recordings of scales or the simple tunes I've been learning might help train my ear?

I'm also thinking about reaching out to my old teacher or another online instructor and seeing if I could get a semi-lesson over the phone or something - mostly just to get some tips/suggestions and a lesson plan since I obviously can't get any conventional instruction that way.

But anyway, I'm way off topic now. Thanks again to everybody, this forum has been such a great resource when I have limited access to more conventional resources.

April 13, 2018, 3:48 PM · Yes, I think lots of listening to the materials you're learning can help with your ear-training.

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