Jaw Position

Edited: June 6, 2018, 1:43 PM · I have talked to about 20 students and a few teachers in the last few years about a very specific problem, with no luck or useful advice. But I would like to try again to see if anyone on violinist.com has this problem, before I go to a dentist or another physical therapist. Thanks for any thoughts you have!

Because of gravity when resting my jaw on the chinrest or any other surface, the weight of my head pushes my jaws together and therefore my teeth. To prevent this, I push down onto the chinrest with my throat/mouth muscles (flex) and push up with my tongue onto the roof of my mouth to fill the space. All these muscles get strained, and in the last year it turned into TMJ tension. The lasting alignment of my jaws is as if they are compressed by resting on the chinrest: lower jaw pulled to the left overall, plus tilted so that the back left of the lower jaw is elevated and the front left of the lower jaw is down. I'm constantly aware of how much I'm pushing buffer I'm creating with the muscles and whether my lower jaw is getting pushed to the right side (from the tilt of the violin). My question is, are you able to rest your jaw passively while you play without your teeth touching? Or do you observe yourself doing something with your jaw to prevent this?

I have tried all chinrests and shoulder rests (or none) including my own designs. Of course it's worse when I'm playing a section of a piece that is beyond where my hand can quite hold up the violin without considerable head pressure.

Replies (29)

June 4, 2018, 5:23 PM · This sounds to me like squeezing. When you hold a violin, you do put pressure on the chinrest with your chin, but it should come from the natural weight of your head and not chin squeezing or clamping. Avoid chin and neck tension. Make sure the weight of the violin rests on the chest/collarbone region and not the shoulder itself. Avoid placing the whole chin on the chin rest. You only need the left side of your chin (or just the chin bone if yours portrudes) to sit on the chin rest. Don't overturn your head.
June 5, 2018, 9:37 AM · Hi Esther,

With my violin hold the jaw contacts the chinrest and my left hand doesn't hold the violin at all. The weight of my head is sufficient to do this and no extra pressure is applied so in a way I am totally relaxed. It sounds like you might be having chronic problems f4om prolonged tension in your basic hold and you might not be doing it as effortlessly as need be. It is hard for me to correct old habits and perhaps you could try focusing for five minutes at a time playing with less head downward pressure and not worrying so much about bowing and intonation.

June 5, 2018, 9:56 AM · Or if you can't fix it any other way, you could try a style of playing in which you don't (mostly) hold the instrument up with your head at all, but with your left hand (generally used without a shoulder rest).

What you've been doing definitely sounds very hard to do - when I do support the instrument with my head, as Jeff says, the ideal is to use pure gravity, but even when squeezing (a bad habit of mine), I definitely still have my teeth closed, not open. I can't even imagine playing that way.

Another thought - is it possible your instrument is too large, too heavy, or its balance point is too close to the scroll end? If you are small, you might be better off with a smaller-pattern instrument like some Guarneri models. I have a Scott Cao 750 (Chinese workshop instrument, i.e. not expensive) David Guarneri copy that has a lengthwise balance much closer to the chinrest than the scroll than my other instruments, and it made low-pressure holds, especially restless, much easier for me - and I'm an average-height man, so I would expect most women and shorter men might benefit even more from such a balance in their instrument. Playing this instrument caused me to immediately realize a different way to hold the violin (after ~35 years of playing before), that I could then transition back to my other instruments...so possible even borrowing someone else's light, small instrument for a while and experimenting might help, without having to buy a new one.

June 5, 2018, 10:18 AM · Apart from the advice above, what is the problem with the head weight transmitting via the teeth? Are they poorly aligned (very common..)?
June 5, 2018, 11:50 AM · Don't open and close your mouth when playing, unless you have to talk or sing. It causes chin tension. The left upper arm supports the violin slightly, but overall, you must be secure and free.
Edited: June 5, 2018, 3:55 PM · 50 years ago I found the perfect chinrest shape for MY jaw (it is not a popular shape "Original Stuber" (made in Germany - the ones they sell now - made in Asia - do not work at all for me - but custom made in UK does). Ten years after that I started to need something softer on top of the the chinrests - I started with chamois - now I use a thicker pad that protects my jaw on the chinrest and underneath the violin - on my collarbone - they also shield your neck from the chinrest hardware.

This item, sold on Amazon.com for about $10 is what I now use on several chinrests ( https://www.amazon.com/String-Chinrest-Violin-Viola-Preventing-Contact/dp/B01ED3QJZ4 ). A slightly more substantial but nearly identical item sold by SHAR costs about twice as much - I have several of those too. Both types attach quite easily in the same way to various chinrest styles.

I suggest that similar protection might work for Esther, the OP.

June 5, 2018, 4:20 PM · Like other suggested, it sounds like an improper SR/CR setup. You shouldn't have to use downward pressure to hold your instrument. Holding your head straight is all that should be needed. How far back do you have your SR set?
June 5, 2018, 4:22 PM · Whaat Francis said, but also, chiro/alexander/alignment work could help a lot! I can relate to what you're saying and those things have helped me rethink and relax my jaw position a lot. It takes time and relearning though.
June 5, 2018, 4:42 PM · You're squeezing too much all the time.

Remember many 18th and 19th century sources still said to only put your head on the violin temporary in moments of shifting, and which means by default play chin off.

I'm not saying you should play chin off, but you really don't need much force on the chin rest most of the time because you're not constantly shifting every moment. And even in moments of downward shift, It's more like having the minimum friction of your jaw to chin rest to keep the instrument from slipping off.

June 5, 2018, 4:44 PM · I suggest removing the chinrest and playing without it as an exercise of learning to play with little or no pressure from the head. It's doable, as seen for example in the following video:

Amandine Beyer Ciaccona live. (Her studio recording is a better performance.)

Always playing that way might not be a viable option for you, but the exercise of playing without is helpful for reducing the dependence on the chinrest / jaw.

Edited: June 5, 2018, 11:44 PM · Thanks for all of your replies. So it sounds like your teeth are touching when you play. If they are touching, what prevents them from getting pushed together too much or being ground together? This would be helpful to know. As I said, the weight of my head pushes my jaws and teeth together (from gravity alone, even when I hold the violin entirely with my hand or when I rest my head on another surface like a table).
June 6, 2018, 12:21 AM · Your teeth are pretty durable. Having them touch shouldn't be an issue. It certainly hasn't been an issue for me or anyone else that I know.
June 6, 2018, 12:26 AM · Esther:
The biting process is made with the jaw and its muscles. You can use as much gravity of your head as you want, and you will not even pierce a soft apple.
If you are not a bruxist (a person who symptomatically clenches the jaw and grind the teeth), you have nothing to worry about the effect of gravity to your teeth. Unless you have an unusual jaw shape or teeth misalignment, you are looking for solutions to a non-existing problem and those solutions are what's really damaging you. Play normally without trying any of those techniques to sepparate the teeth. Only if you feel pain in the teeth or soreness in the jaw muscles, look for solutions. If you can't get that out of your head, you may use a mouthguard for bruxism but I think it would only be a placebo...
June 6, 2018, 4:44 AM · Violin's weight is about 400 grams.
June 6, 2018, 8:52 AM · Part of the problem could be the choice of chinrest. I ask new students, "Is that the original chinrest that came with your violin?". Almost always they answer "Yes". I say "then it is probably not the best one for you". The makers prefer the Guarnari model because it puts the clamps on a safer spot, the end-block. But when given a comparison choice, only a minority will choose that chinrest. Even with 1st tier soloists I see some of them not using the Guarneri chin-rest as designed, they have their chin partly over the tailpiece and half of the cup sticking out in the air. Some Violists and early music specialists use the Flesch model, centered over the tailpiece. The majority use some version of the in-between design, partly over the tailpiece, like the Teka. Those have a ridge that catches the inside edge of the jaw-bone, and the violin just hangs there, without any extra force from the neck muscles. The Ohrenform model is gaining in popularity. My personal favorite is the Hollywood, which might be the same as what I got from the Hans Weisshaar shop in LA. One of Paul Roland's books has a valuable discussion on this topic. The horizontal angle of the violin is also part of the decision.
June 6, 2018, 9:02 AM · Hi Joel, I have tried many shapes of chinrests and shoulder rests and am making my own chinrest.
June 6, 2018, 7:43 PM · It could also be just tension when you are playing. If so, focus on relaxing. This would also greatly improve your playing if that's the case. Teeth grinding is often linked to tension; I greatly doubt it's the weight of your head, unless you are so relaxed that it's a total dead weight, which would be really exceptional.
June 28, 2018, 8:11 PM · Thanks, everyone. Maybe someone reading this thread will find it useful. While it's hard to imagine that the violin should not cause a problem, I think that the cause must have been something else.
June 29, 2018, 6:17 AM · If you can try a Bon Musica SR, that might help. It really helped me. I don't recall doing it when I was a kid, but when I returned to playing, I found myself clamping down too much to hold the violin in place. A standard SR helped a bit, but the Bon Musica really did it for me, because it is infinitely adjustable. Some people hate them, but for those for whom they work, they can make all the difference.
June 29, 2018, 7:34 AM · I too use a Teka-style chinrest.
I find the ridge (lip?..) essential, but I file down its left half to allow my so-sensitive jaw-corner to escape.
Perhaps I should patent my version, but then the market would collapse as folks would stop trying any others!
June 29, 2018, 7:54 AM · What part of your jaw is resting in the chin rest? The closer to your chin the point of contact is, the bigger stress it puts on the TMJ joint. You can demonstrate this by pushing up under your chin and then try pushing up directly under the hinge of your jaw. You should notice a big difference in the stress you feel on your jaw and TMJ joint.
June 30, 2018, 1:18 AM · The only way to prevent TMJ is to ditch the shoulder rest, in my opinion. You can relax all you want and try many shoulder rests, but in the end you will squeeze your jaw when doing difficult passages (reaction of stress). Many great violinists play without one. Your left hand will be able to adjust the violin on the fly, putting less stress to the jaw.
Edited: June 30, 2018, 6:17 AM · To take up Christopher's point, with my adapted Teka, the point of my chin is over the tailpiece, and the left side of my jaw hooks gently over the lip of the CR. No crunching or squeezing.
As the lip follows round the edge of the lower bout, the "corner" of my jawbone escape the CR via the dip I have filed in the lip.

All this works because my shoulder pad or rest raises the left side of the instrument, for easy flexible access to those lovely low strings with my stubby fingers.

Altogether, no cramps, no tension, no hickey (at 69 yo..)

June 30, 2018, 11:39 AM · I second Kathryn's suggestion to find an Alexander technique teacher or someone trained in a similar way such as body mapping. It's very possible to play quite well without teeth clenching (or even touching) including when using a shoulder rest. The muscles that close your jaw are not the same ones that should be helping your head in proper place on the violin. However from personal experience it takes time and probably good coaching to unlearn habits that cause extra tension even if your chin/shoulder rest setup is just fine. In my experience most physical therapists are great at improving muscle strength/conditioning, improving mobility and function but don't deal much with the issues that it sounds like you are facing.

Since this has been going on a few years it may be worth a trip to a good dentist or physician to make sure there isn't some other cause even though it sounds like jaw clenching is probably the culprit.

July 1, 2018, 5:07 PM · I don't know if any of us are seeing the replies on this thread, because I don't think there is a way to be notified.

Christopher, my chinrest has a dip/cup to fit the shape of my jaw and hook under against my neck.

N S: When I play without a shoulder rest, both types of vibrato wobble the violin forward and backward and necessitate some resting of the head (I might not be experienced enough without shoulder rest but did have my teacher show me for a few weeks).

I will find an Alexander Technique practitioner who is a violinist. The question is whether they would be able to address this when basic resting of my head is in itself a problem. I just went to a dentist and a chiropractor, but I don't know if they are able to tell what most contributed to the problem, and I revert back after a day or so when I play the violin.

July 1, 2018, 5:52 PM · I'm not quite sure whether this is a violin problem or whether you have some kind of physical abnormality in your jaw that is making things worse.

Out of interest what advice did you get from the people youv'e already spoken to about this?

But so far as I can, I echo the advice to learn to play the violin without your chin touching the violin at all. While you do, focus on your jaw and tongue and try to relax them if they are still in their old habits.

Playing with no chin contact is 100% possible in first position and minimal chin contact is needed up to 5th position - don't forget all Baroque music was written this way. It may be frustrating to step down a level or two technically for the time being, but a couple of months spent solving this problem will pay off well in the long run!

July 2, 2018, 2:52 AM · Come to think of it, I see many folks moving their jaws to one side to grab their CR, probably without realising. This must affect teeth alignment.

Regarding vibrato: thumb and fingertip contact should be only just enough to avoid slipping, and any contact with the base of the index should be almost non-existent.

Edited: July 2, 2018, 5:33 AM · Many have pointed out that with chinrests like the guarneri, eventually the chin is put on top of the tailpiece, and with central ones is difficult to place the jaw.
I have tried almost every chinrest model and I was Ok with most, until recently I bought a "weird" chinrest from indian makers in ebay. The "Shark". It is a narrower Guarnery with space for the chin on the tailpiece. This one is 100% perfect for me. No "better so far". It fits all positions I adopt while playing.
I recommend it if you like Guarneri but also put the chin in the middle.
July 2, 2018, 9:28 AM · Hi Esther,
I hope school is going well for you.
At a certain point in my career, I had a terrible case of TMJ. I was told I needed "bite-plane therapy," for which they file down your teeth or something. It was the dentist's theory that alignment in the jaw was poor due to alignment of the tooth surfaces.

I never had it done and over the years the TMJ (like most of our complaints) went away on its own. It was likely cause by simple tension. I don't know if a change in chinrest will help, because I've always used the same side-mounted style. I find it unlikely that taking away a shoulder rest will help--more likely to increase tension.

"Don't open and close your mouth when playing, unless you have to talk or sing. It causes chin tension"

On the contrary, I think that if you can comfortably open and close your mouth then 1. you are now more aware of what's happening in your jaw and 2. you are more relaxed.

Many of us suffer from tension. Few students, for example, realize that they are squeezing the neck until I point out that their thumb is turning red and white.

I think these require practiced awareness and practiced relaxation. You may have to take a month or two of only practice scales or while focusing on jaw relaxation. And when you go back to your repertoire, you will have to stop every phrase and assess your tension level, until you have changed the habit. Just like learning a new bow grip.


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