Proprioception, from the Latin proprius meaning ‘one’s own’ and the word perception, is the sense of the relative position of the joints, and the strength or effort that is employed in their movement. Violin playing requires a highly trained, very specific level proprioception, and conditions such as Joint Hypermobility Syndrome (JHS) can create challenges in achieving the desired results. These challenges can be overcome with the correct understanding of the relevance and context of proprioception and wellbeing, and with the appropriate training.
Proprioception, or kinaesthesia, is the sense which detects bodily position, weight, or movement of the muscles and tendons. It is provided by proprioceptors in skeletal striated or voluntarily controlled muscles, and in joints. It is distinct from exteroception, which is perception of the outside world and things external to the self, and to interoception, which is the internal perception of sensations including hunger and pain.
The major component of proprioception is a sense of the position of each joint, a sense which is determined by measuring the ability to accurately perceive the position of a joint, and to reposition a joint without the aid of vision. It is a key factor in muscle memory and hand-eye coordination, and it can be improved by training.
The ability to play the violin requires a finely tuned sense of the position of the joints. When this sense is automatic, the violinist is able to focus on other aspects of the performance such as listening and musical intention. Learning a new technique or piece of music on the violin requires familiarisation with the specific proprioceptive tasks relevant to that technique or piece. Without integrating the proprioceptive input, it would not be possible to put the bow onto the string, or the fingers onto the fingerboard, without looking at the hands.
Several studies have shown that this kinaesthetic sense can be improved with Alexander Technique, yoga, Pilates and even juggling, which teaches spatial location, efficient movement and increases reaction time. Practising a skill with the eyes closed can also improve the efficiency of training.
Temporary loss or impairment of proprioception may happen during adolescence, when students experience sudden growth spurts. It may also happen during sudden weight loss or weight gain, as the balance of fat and muscle in the joints fluctuates, and in people who have high levels of flexibility. Experiencing a new range of motion in a limb can disrupt the sense of location of that limb.
Proprioception is permanently impaired in people with hypermobility (JHS). The range of movement of any single joint naturally varies from one person to another. Everybody’s joints are flexible to allow movement, but bone shapes vary, and may give greater or lesser flexibility. A ball and socket shoulder joint with a shallow socket will have a wider range of movement than a joint with a deep socket, for example. This is unlikely to be altered by training.
People with JHS can suffer from chronic pain, degeneration of spinal discs and muscle fatigue in muscles that cannot cope with protecting the abnormal range of movement in the joints. The condition is associated with coordination problems, including Developmental Coordination Disorder, formerly known as Dyspraxia. People with JHS can experience problems memorising physical movements and in learning and coordinating a new movement.
This hypermobility and its effects on proprioception can be managed and improved by training and muscle strengthening. Targeted exercises can train the kinaesthetic sense, and strong muscles help support loose joints. Stability of joints is achieved by the strengthening of collagen and the muscles that act around the joint.
People with JHS can work on strengthening their muscles and developing postural control. This can involve daily strengthening exercises for core stability. Pilates or yoga can help manage spinal mobility and activate deep postural muscles. The symptoms of JHS, which is more predominant in females and people from African and Asian communities, diminish with age. Young violinists with JHS may experience episodic exacerbation of their symptoms through the physical stretching of tendons and ligaments as their bones lengthen during growth spurts.
Proprioception and balance can also be tested using the ‘Stork Test,’ which involves balancing on one leg with the eyes closed. The amount of wobble experienced informs both balance and how good the proprioceptive system is. People with JHS are normally less stable and have a poorer sense of the location of their joints in space.
Violin playing is a matter of delicate physical balances and requires strong body awareness. The ability of the brain to recognise the exact position of the joint at any one time is obviously highly desirable.
The violin also requires quite different functions between the two arms. Players may actually benefit in some laxity or looseness in the right shoulder joint and the left fingers, provided that the joints are supported by strong muscles. Since all violins at any size have the same proportions, each player, no matter what physical build or challenges, has to adapt to the size and shape of the instrument. Manual dexterity and hypermobility of the hands is in some sense advantageous, and many players work on achieving increased finger stretch by working on scales and studies. Hyperlaxity of the shoulders requires strengthening of the muscles and spine, as the shoulder and spine act together when the violinist is playing. If your joints have a larger range of movement, the muscles around them need to be stronger in order to support that range of movement and prevent stiffness and injury.
Alexander Technique, Pilates and yoga are all good ways to address this strengthening. Alexander teachers believe that every person has a built in proprioceptive blind spot. Habits are designed to adapt to repetition. The kinaesthetic sense can become untrustworthy and the body needlessly overcompensates. A student may repeat a physical movement that a teacher knows is unnecessary, but the teacher allows the mistake because the student is trying to learn. A violinist may develop a certain way of moving which is not so efficient or healthy, without recognising that the body is reacting in that way. Alexander Technique improves perception, ease of movement and self-knowledge. Improving kinaesthetic acuity and moving more easily with conscious awareness is a basic skill for life. It also has musical benefits, giving better tone production and ease of technique, which allow interpretive freedom.
When a student is hypermobile, both teacher and student need to be informed and able to approach each problem as it arrives. Whilst the physical challenges require care and attention, as explained earlier, hypermobility of the hands and fingers can actually be an asset in violin playing.
One aspect of JHS is double-jointeness in the fingers, thumb and even wrists. Hyper-extension in the joints of the hands and arms is never desirable in violin playing as it causes all manner of problems with freedom of movement, intonation and even injury, but beginner violinists with double-jointed fingers tend to find it very hard not to squeeze the neck of the violin to compensate for the weakness that causes the fingers and thumb to collapse.
Violin teachers suggest trying different thumb positions, moving the thumb forward so it is opposite the first and second fingers. Keep the hand soft between the end joint of the thumb and the base of the index finger. Try turning the thumb so that the nail points back towards the scroll a little, and so that the inner edge of the thumb, nearest the index finger, is touching the neck of the violin. This stops the bottom joint of the thumb from rising up and becoming locked.
Once the student has started learning to shift and play with vibrato, problems of double-jointed fingers are normally eradicated. It is the stiffness and tension of weak joints that causes the fingers to double over. A soft bow hand, weighted by the arm, helps in the right hand.
Try this exercise for strengthening double-jointed fingers, using a simple clothes peg.
A fuller description is available here.
Any muscle training, which strengthens joints in order to facilitate violin playing, can only be of long-term benefit to the overall wellbeing of people with JHS, as can the improved awareness built up through the relevant study of Alexander Technique, yoga or other physical training.
Use visualisation techniques to train muscles. Research has shown that the brain does not differentiate between a physical action and the same action vividly imagined. This understanding has been used to successfully rebuild muscular function in stroke victims. Read more about how to use visualisation in violin practice here.
Proprioception is a big part of violin playing. Violinists can use anchor points, octave shapes and muscle memory, which can be developed using scales and pattern building exercises [link to articles Scales and Pattern Building], to find their way around the instrument; however, the kinaesthetic sense is not the only learning guide. A 2008 study of pitch performance in skilled cellists by Chen, Woollacott, Pologe and Moore, found that string players rely as much, if not more, on their auditory senses than on their proprioceptive senses.
In order to play any piece of violin music in tune, the violinist is required to produce a series of notes, with the continuum of note pitches along the length of the strings, with limited visual and kinaesthetic cues. The spatial distances between notes are not equal along the fingerboard. Lower notes away from the bridge are further apart than higher notes near the bridge. The hand is required to move along the fingerboard in shifting, which causes a displacement of the hand, associated movements in the hand and arm and a change in the posture of the hand. Accuracy depends on the precision of the desired pitch and the development of skill that enables the player to move to the required position.
The 2008 study of skilled cellists found that the players were unable to accurately find the desired pitch without hearing the note. Proprioception alone did not enable them to play. The concept of muscle memory expresses the idea that much of highly practiced performance is deeply ingrained and does not require conscious control. The study does not support this. What was found was that each musician had an inner ‘map’ of pitch, which was used in conjunction with a physical ‘map’ of the instrument. Accurate pitch required alignment of the two. Without acoustical feedback the spatial and pitch ‘maps’ became disassociated. Whilst the physical movement from one note to another was highly skilled and the result of years of training, it was not independent of acoustic guidance, and deprived of the ability to listen to the pitch, it became wildly inaccurate.
The pitches played without acoustic guidance were produced with the left hand only, without the bow. The researchers also suggested that the proprioceptive sense in the bowing arm provided important information vital to the musicians’ three-dimensional model of the instrument on which skilled navigation depends. It is unusual for a string player to practice a shift from one note to another without taking into account the timing necessitated by tempo, bow distribution and sound.
In certain situations, it can be difficult for the violinist to hear the instrument in order to benefit from the necessary acoustic guidance. Sometimes in a loud passage of orchestral music or an amplified concert the violin is inaudible under the ear. In this instance the player will achieve accurate intonation by a strong use of the inner pitch map, hearing the note so vividly in the mind that the hand finds the correct position. Again, this skill shows a combination of an inner pitch ‘map’ and a three dimensional spatial ‘map’ of the instrument. Playing like this over a long period of time requires constant reparative practice in an acoustic situation for the intonation to remain constant.
This study seems to conclude that whilst proprioception is important, it is not the only tool which can be used to build sound violin technique. This finding is backed up by violin teachers who suggest that students practice new skills with their eyes closed, immediately marrying the proprioceptive sense with the auditory sense. The acquisition of new technique, whether it is a problem of timing, tuning, sound or movement, is speeded up by practicing with the eyes closed, then with the eyes open before adding the sheet music. This is particularly recommended for students with dyslexia. It makes sense that a student relying on visual cues, looking at the fingers and bow, will struggle when he has to focus the attention on the sheet music.
In the end, playing an instrument is all about the sound. Build strong muscles for general wellbeing, practice to get a physical sense of the instrument, and learn to really listen [link to article Listening]. Listen, visualise, listen and listen more, and your sense of the instrument will improve.