6 ways to eliminate tension and improve your playing

The Problem

A tense instrument-hold is causing pain, or intonation, dexterity, and mobility issues.

The Solution

Learn to hold your instrument with ease by addressing both the physical and mental components of tension.

Step 1  Left arm mechanics.Each body is different, but the principles that allow your violin or viola to feel like an extension of your body are universal. Start by familiarizing yourself with the natural mechanics of your left arm. With arms free at your sides, imagine your left shoulder blade becoming heavy and feel it start to glide down your back. In response, feel your left arm becoming lighter. Allow your arm to rise up weightlessly. Finally, with a quick outward twist of your forearm, find playing position. Supporting your arm with balanced see-saw action between arm and rear shoulder muscles, creates stability and stamina. Now, try raising your arm from your left hand. Your left arm will likely feel much heavier. The resulting fatigue may soon become tension in your left hand.

Step 2  Position for success.Repeat the arm/shoulder see-saw exercise from Step 1. In playing position, with the left elbow at roughly 90 degrees, notice the natural positioning of your forearm, hand, and fingers. You should be able to trace a straight line from elbow through the center of the underside of your forearm and on through your middle finger as well as along the edge of your forearm, from the elbow to the pinkie knuckle. Notice the natural curl of your fingers. Finally, see the scooped space between the thumb and the base of the index finger. You’ll be suspending the neck of your instrument in this space. Now try resting the index and middle fingers of your right hand between this gap. Touch them lightly to the line where your index finger meets your palm and the corresponding spot on the thumb right across from it. Once you overcome any automatic tendency to grip, do the same with your instrument.

Step 3  Balancing act.Fear of dropping your violin or viola is a prime cause for left-hand tension and was likely planted the first time you held it. Though you became confident holding it within a few weeks, that initial fear may still be showing up in your playing. To help erase this fear, without your shoulder rest if you use one, hang your instrument by its neck in your left hand and practice lightly “tossing” your instrument up onto your collarbone. The faster you toss the lighter your instrument will feel, and, according to pedagogue Kato Havas, the quicker it will feel as though “the violin is an extension of your [body] and not a cumbersome burden.” Next, balance the instrument between your collarbone and left thumb. Take a walk around the room, talk, turn around, and get used to the idea that your instrument really isn’t going anywhere.

Step 4  Shoulder and chin rests. If you grip your instrument between your thumb and index finger, experience pain in your neck or shoulder, or find that your wrist tends to collapse flat around the neck, you may not have the support you need from your chin and/or shoulder rest. Start with a good-fitting chin rest. This will allow the weight of your head to secure your instrument to your collarbone. Your perfect chin rest should look like a mold of your jawline, rarely like the one that first came with your instrument. Next, if you choose to use a shoulder rest, find one that can conform to your body rather than one that requires you to conform to it. Consider either a soft pad or a bar-type shoulder rest with a metal structure that can be bent to suit your anatomy.

Step 5  Practice mental substitution.If you still find yourself strangling your instrument, try a mental trick. Without your instrument, close your eyes and raise your arm into playing position. Imagine you are holding something fluffy and soft—a bunny, kitten, or ball of feathers. Notice your soft hand, your fingers curling naturally around this imaginary texture. Now, keeping that imagery in mind, substitute your instrument. Our touch often mimics what we’re touching, meaning that the hard, unyielding wood of your instrument’s neck may unconsciously be creating a hard, unyielding grip.

Step 6  Manage the tough spots.Even with a great instrument hold, fear of a tough spot in the music or a challenging technique can cause you to tense up. Identify these problem areas, physically make a note of them in your sheet music, and practice playing them without tension. This may require slowing down, isolating and practicing the precise cause of the issue, like a shift or a tricky fingering, or, simply overcoming the habit of reacting to fear. The fastest way to erase a habit is to never do it again. To do that, you need to learn to be fully aware of what’s happening in your body moment to moment. If you stop breathing, start clenching your teeth, gripping the neck, or tensing your muscles, stop immediately, reflect on the cause, and try again with the sole purpose of remaining relaxed and enjoying yourself.

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