"imagine the sound coming from your back"

July 8, 2018, 2:36 PM · I had an orchestra teacher who said this a lot and I don't think I fully understand what it means. she said not to overwork your hands and arms when you're playing and to use back muscles instead. because this was addressed to the entire orchestra and not me specifically, I'm not sure if I do play from my back. how can you tell and what are the dangers of not playing from your back?

Replies (20)

Edited: July 8, 2018, 3:56 PM · I think this boils down to good playing posture. If a player is slumped in their seat (bad!) the tone and playing will suffer because the back muscles aren't doing anything. There may also be anatomical and physiological problems (e.g. breathing, for one) in the long term as a result. If you play standing then your tone and playing should be better because the back muscles are being used and you'll breathe better. It's no accident that violin teachers generally teach with the pupil standing. The beneficial results of this should continue if when you play seated you keep your back straight and upright as you do when standing.
July 8, 2018, 3:55 PM · We may tend to concentrate on fingers & wrists, blocking the rest of our body. It is worth spending a few minutes a day seeking the "source" of these motions, somewhere between the shoulder-blades.
July 8, 2018, 4:09 PM · I think I understand what she's trying to say.

Your playing should flow through your back area from arm to arm.

July 8, 2018, 5:38 PM · I think especially with orchestra where the body is confined to a chair it pays to think about whether your bowing mechanics are still free. Maybe this is why teachers often advise sitting on the very edge of your chair in orchestra. (Although, I've watched players who sit all the way back in their chairs, and even one or two who actually looked rather slumped in their seats. And we're talking about famous players.)
July 8, 2018, 10:20 PM · Was your orchestra teacher a cellist????
July 8, 2018, 10:39 PM · my teacher was a cellist, actually
July 9, 2018, 7:12 AM · Kato Havas suggests imaginary weights behind the shoulders to balance the weight of arm and instrument.
Menuhin proposes whole-body swings homing in on the required motions.
Others suggest more weight on the heels than on the toes.

We do so much "up front" we forget to look after ou backbones..

July 9, 2018, 7:32 AM · Unfortunately I don't have to imagine the sound coming from my back - or the smell.
July 9, 2018, 7:37 AM · The reason I asked was because as a cellist I "play with my back." On the cello it is very important to use the largest muscles that can play a part in the use of both hands.

I find this to be true in playing violin and viola as well - but not so much because the position of our arms and all our bent joints reduce the "lines of force" from the back. I think on these instruments it also pays to use the largest muscles that we can direct toward the work of our hands for each "task" - if for nothing else, to reduce fatigue. One might say that using the large muscles can add "weight" to our playing and hence to the power of the sound we can make; it can also ease the work of the smaller muscles.

July 9, 2018, 8:46 AM · The back muscles are also immensely important to the pianist, as are all the muscles of the trunk. See “The Technique of Piano Playing” by József Gát, who discusses posture in great detail not only as regards to technique but for projecting emotional content as well.
July 9, 2018, 9:35 AM · I've often wondered if it is all back to front ...
July 9, 2018, 3:15 PM · Apparently, it is one of the advantages of a lowish right elbow.
A high elbow uses in a sustained way muscles designed for movement; this hardens and stiffens them, actually modifying their cell structure.
I have this from a physiotherapist friend.
July 10, 2018, 1:53 AM · Adrian can you get your friend to cite a source? Normal use shouldn't cause hardening or stiffening of the physical structure of muscle. If your friend is talking about myofascial adhesion, that is theory and not based on any evidence as far as I've read.


Anna, if you have good thoracic (upper back/sternum) extension you're using your back to support your arms. If you have slouchy shoulders and upper back you're likely not using the back muscles which control shoulder and support upper arm movement. A quick way to check: when standing with arms at sides, which way do your palms face? If you engage your back muscles, your palms will face your hips, thumbs pointing forward; if you slouch your palms will face backward and thumbs point at your hips. Whether there are any serious consequences is very individual, but in general I think you can get away with more, the larger you are, or the longer your limbs are relative to the instrument. In any case there is the possibility of shoulder impingement with improper use of the shoulders.

But when teachers talk about bowing from the back I think it has mostly to do with tone production. It's difficult to achieve a big, open tone without learning how to regulate the weight of the arm from the shoulder blades using the lower trapezoids and supporting muscles.

This guy has a lot of great videos on the shoulders, but check out this video to start:


Also, Google "glenohumeral rhythm" or "scapulohumeral rhythm," which refers to the proper coordination between shoulder blade and upper arm movement, as you raise your arms.

July 10, 2018, 3:37 AM · Jeewon, I haven't seen him for ages, but he said the muscle fibres themselves change.
But does string playing really count as "normal use"? (!)

With the best will in the world, don't we all hunch our left shoulders and hold our right arms high for long periods once we are into our practice or performance?

Edited: July 10, 2018, 8:07 AM · Hi,

Playing from the back... Nathan Milstein talked about this quite a bit in an interview, but the idea is that the larger muscles lead instead of too much movement from the wrist and fingers.

Adrian, changes to muscle fibres could happen from excessive tension that caused the muscles to remain in a contracted state over a long period of time?...

Hunching of shoulders (usually it is both, not just one) can happen when people don't play with the shoulders sitting and an open chest. The principle cause of this is actually emotional, namely fear and doubt, which instantly causes the shoulders to be raised (there is a study behind this, but I don't have the link). In any event, awareness of this can be monitored in sort of undoing the physical reaction by keeping the shoulders down and chest open which actually reduces the emotions themselves.

As for weight on heels, that leads to poor balance and all kinds of tension and should be avoided. The weight is not on the toes, but should be felt on the ball of the feet, which leads to good balance, and centering or grounding. Dancers and martial artists do and use this all the time.

As for not overworking the hands and fingers, the idea behind larger movements is that the hand and fingers follow rather than lead. A big part of the problem in my experience is the pressing of the thumb into the neck of the violin or into the bow, which is the biggest creator of tension and will cause the most problems with what people often describe as "over-working." Also, imbalances where things aren't vertically balanced, but create imbalances to one side or the other, that are compensated for by tension in the body.


July 10, 2018, 8:22 AM · Yes violin playing is normal use.

Check out https://www.bettermovement.org/blog/2015/why-do-muscles-feel-tight

See paper from Stanton, Moseley, et al. at bottom.

July 10, 2018, 10:38 AM · Hi,

Jeewon: wonderful links! Thanks!


July 11, 2018, 11:04 AM · Glad you like them Christian!


Jeff Cavaliere has great exercises, but lest we get stuck thinking like a "structuralist" as some people call it, here's some other food for thought on just how much "brain activation" can immediately change our movement.


Quinn Henoch also talks about structural change (muscle shortness) vs. a neuromuscular "imbalance" (muscle tightness.) Structural change in the muscles, where the fibers actually shorten due to injury or surgery, or contracture, doesn't happen with normal day to day use of muscles, whether being hunched at an office job or playing violin. I don't think contracture can occur without serious injury or disease (at least I've not seen any convincing literature which suggests otherwise.)

More from Henoch on the shoulder:

July 11, 2018, 11:25 AM · In looking at this from the outside as a learner the idea of efficiency, balance and energy expended comes to mind. Much like cracking a whip, the hand needs to maximize the bow movement so that there is always the right amount at the right time in the right place.

My teacher recently pointed out that I'm too tense across my shoulders and this is affecting my playing. In fact, my whole body moves in small ways when I play. This seems to be my body's way of counter balancing movements.

Since I've been made aware of it I have been attempting to relax across my back and shoulders and refine my movements to make them more efficient so there is no need to find a place for excess energy. If I could use the word "over shoot" it seems to fit what had been happening. Much like coming to a stop sign going too fast I needed to make my movements more dainty, relaxed and focused.Otherwise the extra energy must go somewhere which for me translated to jerky motions and looked almost robotic on video.

I try to use something as a focal point and keep the violin trained on it.This seems to help. The body is attempting to follow what your brain wants it to do, but in most cases it isn't intelligent enough to do that strictly on auto pilot. I'm not there yet but I think I'm on the right track. Fluid movements, cracking the whip gently, using the wrist a lot and trying to remember the violin is a dainty instrument and must be handled that way.

July 12, 2018, 7:28 AM · What I find most difficult about playing violin is the contrast, or range, called for in composed music, especially when it's sudden.

I've found it's easier to play softly with a relaxed, almost 'slouchy' back, and powerfully with an engaged back, which seemed counterintuitive at first. Similarly, it's often easier to play softly with very little motion in the hands, and of course more efficiently with good follow through in the hand and fingers.

But invariably, I've noticed, a rigid shoulder makes for poor (tight) tone production and inefficient playing.

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