Blemish seen as a mark of valor by some string players, but it can be the result of health problems

by Christopher Roberts

It begins as an itch or a chafe. Friends giggle, families gape, and perfect strangers won’t stop staring at it—that red spot on the left-hand side of your neck. It has many names in many countries—fiddler’s neck, violin hickey, or mark of greatness. Dermatologists call this spot—where a violin or viola contacts with the player’s neck—“acne mechanica” and proceed further with such technical terms as “lichenification,” “erythema,” “scaling,” and good-old “scarring.” No matter the label, the result is the same: a glaring and sometimes painful splotch on a violinist or violist’s neck.

The theories of why the hickey occurs vary just as much as suggested remedies.

For most, the violin hickey is a mark of pride, a battle scar, a badge of honor won only through hours of practice and performance—a telltale mark that the bearer is a true string player. For example, Benjamin Hebbert, a consultant for Christie’s auction house in London, looked for violin hickeys before allowing members of the public to try out a Stradivari violin before it sold at a New York auction for $3.5 million.

Indeed, there are those who play for decades and never develop a hickey. The easy—yet inevitably inconclusive—answer is that different players have different skin sensitivities. “I don’t think anyone really understands why some people get them and others don’t, although clearly the more you play the more at risk you are of getting one,” says dermatologist Janet Maldonado, of Peninsula Dermatology in Burlingame, California.

Maldonado is an accomplished violinist who juggled practicing while studying medicine at Stanford University—she never developed a hickey, though her childhood teacher had a huge one. “I know I always wanted one,” she says.

Allergic to Practice
Some experienced violinists and dealers think the cause can be found in the materials used in your instrument. Some skin types react negatively to the nickel or unique metals found in the screws used on some chin rests, which exacerbates any adverse reaction caused by the chin rest rubbing and chafing on the skin during practice or performing. Other players are allergic to rosewood or ebony, according to San Francisco–based luthier Roland Feller. If that’s the case, a solution can be simple. “I usually tell them to cover their chin rest with a cloth,” Feller says.

However, if allergies are particularly bad, a player can develop pustules, redness, and itching at the site, Maldonado says. “Certain people, who are particularly susceptible, may also develop hypertrophic scars or keloids at the site of friction, which are very big, red raised scars,” she says.

These conditions often require steroid injections or laser treatments to heal. For lesser irritations, Maldonado recommends washing the red spot with a gentle cleanser and then moisturizing with a good barrier cream, like Aquaphor Healing Ointment or Vaseline. A mild cortisone cream may also help with any itching or discomfort. Stronger cortisones should be avoided, she says, since they can actually cause stretch marks over time.

If the chin-rest screws are the source of the allergy, try replacing them with hypoallergenic titanium screws—both Wittner and Götz offer titanium models.

Bacterial Invaders & the Proper Fit

For Lynne Denig, the Washington, DC-area proprietor of Frisch and Denig’s custom-fitted chin rests for violin and viola, it’s all about form and equipment. “The hickey comes from crushing layers of skin at one point along the jaw,” she says. “Bacteria enter the wound, and a hickey is born. It’s like buying an ill-fitting pair of shoes—where the shoes don’t fit properly, they’ll rub your skin, and you’ll get skin irritation.”

If players have an ill-fitting chin rest, she adds, bad form follows.

“In order to hang on to the instrument, the player will grab onto it with the corner of his jaw by turning or thrusting the head forward or by raising the shoulder. I’ve seen this all the time,” she says. “Just like a shoe should fit the contours of your foot—all of the contours—a chin rest should fit the contour of your jaw. That’s how you avoid the violin hickey.”
That, and by keeping the chin rest clean, she adds. Alcohol swabs are a widely accepted practice. Denig uses a mild solution of water and Murphy Oil Soap on her chin rests.

Violist Monica Wentz, the artistic administrator of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado, has had the hickey in varying shapes or forms since she was 14 years old. Exposure to salt water has made it the least noticeable, but it’s never vanished completely. “I’ve tried hypoallergenic chin rests, hankies covering my chin rest, moleskin, and various skin cleaners and even scar ointments,” she says.

Finally, she tried a silicon gel sheet, called Cica-Care, intended for scar treatment. She cut out a portion of the silicon, attached it to her chin rest, and “it has helped immensely,” she says. “It’s kept my neck un-infected and even reduced the size of the mark, in addition to the benefit of extra traction, as I no longer have to use a shoulder rest.”

Ultimately, how a player deals with his or her mark will be personal. But again, special attention should be paid to skin condition, susceptibility to irritation, practice habits, hold, and the materials used in the chin rest.


 

This article was originally published in Strings’ February 2011 issue. Products mentioned in this article may no longer be available and/or new products may have since come on to the market. Please help keep this article relevant by commenting below or by contacting us directly.

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