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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

Pain is Not Gain (Part 2) Tips for Playing Pain Free 1/29/2014

I am finally getting around to keeping my promise about doing the second part of this article. I covered shoulder rests and chin rests in the last part so I will only touch briefly on those here. I’ll add a disclaimer that if you are experiencing significant to profound pain while playing or afterwards you should consult an expert and a doctor who specializes in this type of ailment (sports medicine, physical therapy or specifically for musicians). A very good source for a recommendation for someone trained in this area might be your local symphony, orchestra or string teacher’s chapter. You could do serious damage if you play through profound pain.

Since we are talking about experts I will put a plug in here for one of our local string teachers, Diane Lovejoy, who has extensively studied the mind/body linkage and how to move, stand and exercise to get the most out of playing and performance with a minimum of discomfort. Her contact information is on our teacher resource page.

First off, we are going to be speaking primarily to violinists and violists. Cellists do not have the same issues when it comes to ergonomics and being comfortable while they play. For the typical cellist it is enough to have a good rock stop or strap to secure the southern end of your instrument so it doesn’t slide all over the place, that you watch your posture, that you find a good instrument angle that works for you, that you have a good chair of the proper height and, of course, if you happen to be a child or petite, that you have the right size instrument. For some smaller adult players a 7/8 size can be a revelation for comfort but your shop may have to custom order it.

For the violinist and violist it is a different story. A number of polls of violinists and violists have shown that some pain or discomfort while playing is a fairly common complaint. I am not going to pretend to be an expert on this subject so I will provide a few links at the bottom for your perusal. An important side note is that you can experience pain in areas other than your shoulders, arms, back or wrists and not immediately make the connection with playing. I read the story of one violinist who experienced debilitating headaches that were eventually traced to a new ill fitting shoulder rest.

Relaxation while playing is important. If you are nervous or uptight, especially before a performance, it will affect how you stand and hold the instrument. Your muscles with tense up, your neck will stiffen and your performance and comfort will suffer. If you feel at all tense try doing some deep breathing reps and a few limbering moves with your neck and shoulders. You may find that this helps. New York violinist and teacher Timothy Judd recommends doing a tension inventory of the significant parts of your anatomy devoted to playing and sensing at a given moment how relaxed each component is. Those would be the right shoulder, right elbow, right hand and wrist and the knuckles of the left hand.

Don’t be afraid to move a bit while you play. If you stand like a statue through an entire concert you may be asking for back and neck fatigue. I know that is the way a few of you have been taught but lighten up. To move is cool.

A full length mirror can be your friend when you are looking more for stamina and comfort while playing. View yourself from several angles while standing in the performance position with bow on strings. Do you have a graceful posture or do you look more like a mountain road? Try experimenting with the angle and position of your instrument just slightly and see if you get a better feel and more comfort.

Make sure that the shoulder rest is at the best height (if it is adjustable). Try experimenting. If your neck is craned way up to play you will probably have issues. Ditto if it is too low and you really have to clamp down with your chin to hold the instrument.

Don’t forget your music stand! You may experience neck or back pain and then discover that it has nothing to do with your instrument and everything to do with a too-low music stand that you have to crane down to see.

Once again, if this is an instrument for a child make sure that it is the right size. Don’t go cheap and try to stretch your child up to the next size. That’s a recipe for disaster. Most shops understand the need to address the issue of growing children have trade up policies for moving up. Our shop does it for free during the rental period and charges $35 if you purchased the instrument outright from us. A few shops want to give you 50% of your investment back and then charge you full price for the next instrument. I don’t like that (unless you’ve trashed the instrument – which is a different issue). If you are a violist and are shorter than 5’ 4” or have shorter arms consider a 15 1/2 inch viola rather than the more typical 16 inch. That half inch can make a big difference in comfort. Remember that there is not an ‘official’ standard size for viola as there is for violin.

Watch out for the tendency to play the same passage over and over again to get it right. If you repeat those fast passages too many times you could be inviting some carpal tunnel issues. I understand the need to “nail it” but at least break up your practicing. Speaking of breaks, take a few if you are doing a marathon session. I think that you will find that you will be fresher and more relaxed if you come back to it after a short break.

Keep Practicing,

Craig Birchfield


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