You can have the best instrument, the best bow, and great technique, but it doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t physically play. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to things like posture, tension, and flexibility—things that might unconsciously change over the course of your playing career. Here are some tips for adult amateurs and professionals alike to keep playing without pain for years to come.
Posture Pointers for String Players
How one looks, feels, and sounds is inextricably linked when it comes to playing stringed instruments. Good posture is often the easy solution to melding these three pieces. When posture is “good,” bones are properly aligned and joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons are strain-free, promoting movement efficiency and stamina.
So, what exactly is good posture and how can players know when they are practicing it?
It is important to keep one’s head erect and neck relaxed. When a musician tilts, rotates, or cocks his or her head forward or down, the body is holding this weight, and that means additional stress on the cervical spine.
It is essential to sit in the position of least strain. If a musician bends, turns, or twists the torso, or leans forward or backward, he is straining all the muscles and tendons in the back and stressing the spine.
Keep the head erect, chin in, and shoulders down. Violinists and violists should refit chin and shoulder rests to reduce “holding” tension. Maintain as neutral a head and neck position as possible: one that minimizes the need to tilt or turn your head.
Cellists should avoid thrusting the head down and forward when getting into the higher positions or when performing a long shift. Instead, the neck of your cello should be above your left shoulder, not on it, and away from your face.
Always warm up to make your neck more limber. To release tension, try nodding, looking side to side, tilting your head (left ear to left shoulder, right ear to right shoulder), shrugging shoulders, and doing shoulder circles frequently.
Be vigilant about your music stand placement. Align it in such a way that the stand allows you to keep your head level and looking directly forward.
Keep your lower back in as natural or neutral a position as possible, that is, maintain the natural curve that is neither exaggerated nor flat.
Keep your shoulders down and level, not pulled upward, backward, or forward. A forward shoulder position, or “hunching,” destabilizes the arm during movement, making its motion more difficult.
Do not play when your legs are crossed at the knee or ankle, or while curling your legs around the chair legs. This throws your back into a “C” curve, preventing you from distributing your weight evenly throughout upper body and pelvis, and it prevents you from keeping your weight on your feet.
Sit in a position where your knees are lower than your hips and your thighs slope downwards. Forward sloping seats are advantageous because one’s center of gravity is placed forward over the sitting bones rather than thrust backward. (Blocks placed underneath the chair’s legs to raise the seat can also work.)
Don’t settle for the dismally hopeless “multi-purpose” chair. Experiment so that you can maintain proper back posture at all times.
For more detail, check out this article by Janet Horvath.
Developing Structure and Flexibility in Your Bow Hold
When it comes to holding the bow, there are two major “truths” that are seemingly at odds: One, you must maintain a consistent structure to your bow hold; and two, it must be flexible. Achieving this balance between structure and flexibility will help you achieve a better sound with a wider variety of bow strokes and greater physical ease.
Be conscious of each of your right-hand fingers while playing throughout the entire length of the bow, through all varieties of bow strokes. Beware of lifting fingers or shifting their position on the bow.
- Try Gingold’s 5-minute bow. Josef Gingold was a master of playing a five-minute-long bow stroke! Bear in mind, this doesn’t sound so great, but it isn’t about tone, it’s about control. Work your way up patiently to five minutes—you may have to start with a bow of much shorter duration. This exercise reinforces a greater sensitivity to the role of each finger.
- Air-bowing. Holding the bow in playing position above the string, but as close to the string as possible, do whole bows down and up, as slowly as you can. Practiced for a few minutes daily, over time you will notice greater strength and control in your bow hold.
Cultivate a feeling of fluidity in your fingers and hand. Observe your right hand in a mirror, making sure it’s flexible and loose.
- Bow push-ups. Hold a pencil with your bow hold and bring the pencil into the palm of your hand by curving your fingers, then release. Repeat, holding the bow.
- Collé. With the bow on the string, move the stick using only your fingers (no arm, no wrist). With practice, your control and range of motion will improve.
For more detail, check out this piece by Scott Flavin.
How to Overcome Bow-Hand and Bow-Arm Tension
Before you can produce the smooth sound that attracted you to strings in the first place, you have to overcome that tension in the bow hand.
Tension sets in when a muscle’s natural motion gets halted in some way. The bow stick works like a long lever arm, and because of the pull of gravity, the longer a lever arm is, the heavier it feels. Your thumb under the frog acts as the lever’s fulcrum, or support; your pinky literally gets the short end of the stick, supporting the actual weight of the bow, as well as the increased weight because of the length of the bow stick. Because of this, the pinky develops tension, which moves through the wrist and into the forearm.
But what happens when you place the bow down on the A string? Now the long bow is supported by the string, not your thumb, and your pinky can relax. You can even lift it up and down. Your whole hand is relaxed now, and you can focus on the front side of the hand, transferring any needed weight into the bow stick to achieve the sound you want.
“When a student doesn’t realize that the feeling in the bow hand on the string is different from the feeling in the bow hand off the string, and thus continues to keep the tension in the hand after the bow is placed on the string,” says Florida freelance violinist and teacher Eden Vaning-Rosen. “This continued tension in the pinky will equalize the weight being transferred into the other side. The bow therefore surfaces over the string, with little or no energy being transferred into the string. With little or no feeling of friction on the string, a strong, rich tone cannot be produced. A student should, therefore, be aware of how he starts each bow stroke, paying careful attention to any pinky tension.”
For more detail, and suggested exercises, check out this article by James Reel.