The sound of the violin is as close as any instrument to the human voice. The ideal for the violinist is that the instrument is almost an extension of the body; it is the violinist’s voice. In order to create this sense, the violinist must learn to use the body without the interference of mental blocks and physical tensions. Mind and body are engaged in practice, and every practice is an opportunity to learn and relearn and to build a healthy relationship between the body and the violin.
Most focus in practice tends to be on performance. Often the means by which performance is achieved are ignored or taken for granted until injury or pain impedes progress.
Since the sound on the violin is created with the whole body, and the whole body is engaged in the techniques needed to express the music, it is worth spending some time paying attention to the body.
When we practice, all conscious learning takes place within the working memory. This is a limited resource. Nothing can be learned properly if there are too many points of focus at once. Teaching the body to recognise correct postures stretches the working memory and it is not possible to fully focus on the music until the body is comfortable and balanced.
A coordinated body is fundamental for all musical skill and technique to develop.
In his book Life Class, Yehudi Menuhin explains, “My main principle in playing is all-embracing and straightforward: a striving for equilibrium. Perfect equilibrium is, of course, an unattainable ideal, a complex and infinitely multifaceted thing. None the less, one can approach something like right equilibrium when one realises that no part of the body moves without some corresponding reaction or compensation in some other part, in the same sense that not a leaf falls without altering the equilibrium of the earth.”
The engagement with the body therefore becomes an awakening of awareness as to the subtle shifting and balance, the release of tension and the development of mindfulness, which will deepen musicianship, connection and expression in performance.
The subject of how to use the body in violin playing is huge, and different approaches suit different people. Some students find the Alexander Technique helpful, some focus on general wellbeing. There are as many approaches as there are violinists.
Let’s look some of the first points to think about.
- Basic Posture -
Often when playing the violin it’s easy to focus on the upper body but the root of a balanced alignment comes from the feet, legs and pelvis, and from good breathing.
Good posture is about more than standing up straight. Babies instinctively know how to balance as they learn to sit, crawl, stand and walk, but as we get older we often lose this ability and fall into inefficient postures, which we then bring to our violin playing.
The pelvis is integral to correct posture, as it is directly connected to the legs through the hip joints, and connected via muscles to the arms and shoulders. If you think of the pelvis as being the body’s centre of gravity, its positioning becomes vital to good posture whether sitting or standing to play. It should not be either tilted forward or back.
To help achieve balance in the pelvis, the feet should be placed directly under the thigh sockets with toes facing more or less forwards. The knees should be relaxed and in line with the thigh and ankle joints. Then the pelvis rests on the top of the thighs and the trunk is balanced, the chest floats upwards, the rib cage hangs down towards the pelvis and the shoulder girdle rests on top of the rib cage. Think of the head not as a separate entity, as we are encouraged to do with the idea of disparity between mind and body. Instead, include the head as part of the body in your thinking. Your mind is not confined in the space within your skull any more than your body stops at your neck.
To find a good sitting posture, sit balancing upright on your sit bones. You can feel them when you shift your weight from side to side. Think of these sit bones as ‘feet’ that support your torso. Once you have found this solid base, let the spine lengthen up naturally. The knees should be lower than the hips, so if you need to adjust your chair, do so. You can buy blocks to raise the back of chairs which slope backwards, or a wedge cushion to help with posture.
Once you are happy that your posture is comfortable and balanced, bring the instrument to the body, rather than compensating with the body and moving to meet the instrument.
- Positioning the Head -
The head represents about 10% of the body weight. When the neck is not positioned correctly to support the head, the shoulders take the strain. This tension is transferred to the elbows, wrists and hands.
Make sure you have the best shoulder rest and chin rest combination for your body to eliminate unnecessary tension in the neck.
Notice too what is happening with your eyes. Are you under or over focussing, or are you straining your eyes to read the music? Relax the muscles around your eyes and forehead and you will notice a corresponding release of tension in the neck muscles.
Hunching the neck and shoulders is a common habit, and it’s easy to press too hard with the head on the chinrest. Experiment with gripping the violin between the shoulder and chin and notice how the less freedom you have in your head and neck, the more negative emotions may surface. Stiffening the neck stiffens all of the joints of the body.
Hunching the shoulders also limits the movement in the collarbones and shoulder blades, which should float freely from the shoulder girdle. It results in the ribs lifting which gives the heart and lungs less space to work.
See here how the shoulder muscles are attached to the ribs, the collarbone and the arms, and travel right down the body to the pelvis.
Each part of the body moves best when it moves in harmony with the other bones, muscles and limbs. Menuhin describes the process of learning to play the violin as one whereby, “the body of the player becomes aware of itself.” He says, “The principle is grasped not intellectually, but through sensations, through becoming aware of the subtle checks and balances which, when properly understood, permit ease of technique.”
- The Arms -
In playing the violin, the arms function both as a system of levers and as a channel for visceral energy. They carry a charge of energy and emotions from the player to the instrument. For musical expression to be free this route from the torso to the fingers must be without unnecessary tension and the posture must allow energy to flow.
Tension in the neck and shoulders can put pressure on the nerves that lead into the hand, creating pain, pins and needles, numbness and even loss of facility in the fingers.
See from this picture of the human skeleton how the arms and shoulders balance on the body in a free, open way. Try to imagine this space in your own shoulder girdle and feel your spine lengthening as your head floats upwards from your pelvis.
It is also worth observing the range of movement in your wrists. The body works best in the middle of its range of movement. When your wrist is bent forward or backward it is extended beyond this optimal point and this causes tension. This is why a flat left wrist, which leans against the neck of the violin, is not good technique. The hand and wrist are locked in an extended part of the wrist’s range of movement, and this impedes intonation, shifting and vibrato.
- Exercise -
Physical exercise is an important tool in maintaining and developing a healthy body, which in turn has a positive impact on violin practice.
A practice such as yoga is helpful in diminishing anxiety and improving strength and flexibility, and will also teach awareness and knowledge of the muscles.
Yoga based exercises must be approached gently and by no means forced. Find a good teacher. There are a lot of classes run by inexperienced teachers and musicians report suffering two months of tennis elbow, pulled muscles and other disasters after attending classes where the teacher pushes them too fast.
Exercising the body in the right way keeps it supple and adaptable, just as exercising the mind strengthens character and musicianship.
Warm up the body before you practice. A useful selection of stretches is available from the British Performing Arts Medicine Trust. Integrate them to your daily routine.
- Breathing -
Posture is dynamic, not static. Subtle movements such as breathing constantly occur, even when we are still.
- Lie on the floor, keeping the small of the back firmly but gently pressed against the floor
- Breathe in deeply and slowly against the resistance of the floor, noticing your ribs, belly and lungs without strain
- Breathe out against the same resistance, breathing into the spine
- Try again, this time only breathing into the chest
- Alternate chest and ‘belly’ breathing, noticing how the body feels
- Now stand up and try both breathing styles again. See if you can feel the same sensations
- Now notice when you play. Is your breath constrained to your chest, or do you allow it to fill your lungs and belly? Chest breathing may indicate some tension in your shouldesr. Notice how the two correspond. Drop your shoulders and allow your breath to expand into your ribs.
Noticing your breathing is also the first practice of mindfulness meditation, which begins to incorporate mind and body in a holistic way. It is not possible to practice the violin without working on the body, and it is not possible to engage the body without using the mind. The violin practice in itself then becomes a holistic and far reaching experience.
Begin where you are today, and begin noticing how you use your body to create your sound on the violin.
Watch other violinists to see how they use the whole body to play and express the music. Here is Joshua Bell playing from his feet:
Make time in your practice to develop this physical learning with a sense of childlike exploration.