Violinists and Shoulders


I have a had various clients in the last few years who have been professional violinists. Some come hours before a concert, wanting me to fix them so they can play the concert without excruciating pain. Others come because they have had an issue for a while that they haven’t managed to deal with on their own, and want to improve.

One of last violinists came to see me because she had pain across her back whilst playing. I like to start with a musician playing their instrument, but at some point its important to realise the habits that cause a problem whilst playing are probably showing up whilst not playing too.

Another analogy – I have an uncle who used to always sit on his armed chair, leaning one way. One of the arms was squished beyond help, and the other was fine. Which doesn’t matter in itself if one leans one way some of the time, but when its day in, day out for many years – well, let’s just say it was absolutely no surprise to me that he suffered back pain. He was shortening himself on one side so often and so regularly that his brain stopped noticing.

This idea of noticing is paramount. Its when we are aware of something, or become aware of it that we can change it. Awareness is a tool in our “Improve It toolbox,” if you like. Perhaps when I sit to play I have more weight on one buttock than the other. Over time, those small compromises the rest of the body has to make to make that work on a daily basis may well be a compromise too far, and manifest as discomfort.

When we have weight evenly distributed it can support both sides of the body. Try it! An easy way to feel this is to stand up, and stretch both arms at shoulder’s height straight out to the sides. Then stand on one leg. Notice if one arm feels lighter/heavier or more/less supported than the other. (Clue: it will!) When we do this in playing it affects how the arms can function, and in string playing, the quality of sound or ease of left hand dexterity.

I like upper string players. I am one, so am uniquely positioned to understand and get where they’re coming from. We need our shoulders to work, and often they don’t. Over-use in cold, damp conditions when we’re tired and/or hungry does little to help our physical conditions- We’re athletes of the Tiny Muscles, but rarely do we give ourselves the treatment and attention that world class athletes demand.

I did one concert in a church whose affectionate nickname was “the Fridge”. But no-one thought to tell us. It was so cold the rosin wouldn’t melt with the friction of the bow, and we were reduced to 1/2 volume. I had to buy an extra layer in my break so I could still perform. I say this, not to complain (well, maybe a little), but to explain how as a musician the focus is on the end result, and often not the cause. And the effect can often be pain and stiffness after one of these kind of gigs.

Baby upright.

So how can Feldenkrais help? By heightening our awareness of what we are doing, we can improve both the quality and range of motion of our movements. We all have this innate ability to learn movement, and we learn best when this is not goal oriented- think of a baby learning to roll over- its a stream of moving explorations that move the child to a different position- in the beginning the rolling is almost an accident. Its only later when the movement pattern has become clearer that it becomes a planned action. In the same way we can take complex movements apart again, and try new things out.

Here’s a short 20 minute lesson for you to try out for yourself. Find a chair with a hard-ish surface. Put both feet on the floor. Keep the movements within your comfortable range, don’t strain. Move slowly, and if its uncomfortable, do less: move smaller and slower. If its still uncomfortable, imagine the movements, it will still have a positive effect.

Freeing Shoulders in Sitting

And, if you’re London based, and would like to come to a class, I am starting a new class “Feldenkrais Happy Hour!” on Saturdays, 6-7pm, at St Pancras Church House, Lancing St, NW1 1NA (opposite Euston Station. Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

Pictures: Thomas Farnetti ; Jonathan Borba Unsplash

One thought on “Violinists and Shoulders

  1. Love to see the “Happy Hour” concept! This past summer, I hosted a happy hour before my evening class at the Jung Center in Houston, Texas, USA. Great way to build a community of “movers and shakers” in a casual, friendly environment.
    Any plans for Pub Feldenkrais? You’ve inspired me to re-boot “Awareness Through Margaritas!”
    All best — MaryBeth Smith, Brain Body Learning, The Feldenkrais Center of Houston

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