PODCAST #1: Preventing Injury for String Players

“No pain no gain” is something people say all the time. What they usually mean is: “you have to work hard to get anywhere”, which is obviously true. But it is, thankfully, not true that you have to experience pain to make progress in music. In fact, this idea is quite dangerous in our context because it gives people the impression that if it hurts, you must be doing something right. In music, this is not the case. We invented musical instruments to fit the body, not the other way around. And in fact, we produce the best music when we unite the body and the mind and the spirit in a state of harmony. This requires relaxation, the elimination of tension. Preventing injuries for string players is something that teachers should pay careful attention to.

To talk about this issue, I invited Liska Thom to help me understand how the skeleton and muscles interact with the violin and the viola. There is a lot of information here and I learned a great deal. Liska is a physiotherapist, a mother and a musician herself, so she is uniquely qualified to guide us through these questions.

Part 1: The Neck

The neutral position for the neck is the position it assumes when the chin is slightly tucked in and the back of the neck is comfortably straight. For the violin, we have to move out of this position. The neck bends to the left and the violin is sandwiched between the jaw and the shoulder. The problem emerges when we move the shoulder up to prevent the instrument from falling and jut the chin out. Chin-poking pressurises the joints at the back of the neck, as Liska demonstrates.

What’s the Fix?

Place a soft item under the violin, to elevate it and minimise the distance. Most importantly, move! Change position, rotate the neck, stretch before, during and after your playing or practice session. I was really glad to hear Liska make this suggestion. “Sit still and listen” is a failing strategy and I think it communicates exactly the wrong idea about music. Music is dynamic, dialogical, interactive. It is not simply a performative spectacle. As teachers and parents it behooves us to integrate music learning into childhood, not to supplant it.

Liska demonstrates a very useful neck strengthening exercise. To do it, lie down and imagine a small balloon under your neck. Roll the imaginary balloon by bring your chin in towards your chest. This helps to make the neck stabilisers stronger. You can also do the well-known neck stretches – side to side – but not by pulling it down with an opposing hand. “Pulsing into it” is how Liska puts it.

Finally, be aware of shoulder blades. We don’t want “chicken wings” because this indicates a closure of the shoulder joint. Neck, shoulder and back have to work in concert. It might be that a child is not able to meet the physical demands just yet. That’s okay – focus on building broader musical competence before adding the instrument. If a child is hyper-mobile, which Liska demonstrates, it might not be the right time to approach the violin and you should allow some time for muscular strength to develop.

Part 2: The Left Hand

To play the violin, your fingers should bend naturally and form three sides of a square. The little finger does not handle this and prefers being straight. Liska points out that extension (bend your wrist backwards) is how we generate strength in our grip. This was very interesting for me, because as many string teachers know, some children struggle to allow the palm of the hand to fall away from the violin neck. More rare is the flexed wrist, bent out the other way. These seem, in light of what Liska tells us, to be compensation strategies. Keeping the wrist neutral is just not an option because the necessary strength is not present in the fingers yet.

Nagging tension in the forearm after a long period of playing can be addressed by massaging and icing. Anything more than that could be tendonitis and needs treatment. Look out for this in your child.

Part 3: The Right Hand

Bow hold is, admittedly, weird. Again, the neutrality of the wrist comes to play here. Children may well struggle to grasp the bow stick with a neutral wrist and will attempt to recruit more strength by extending. The lumbrical grip (imagine making a “crocodile” with your hands or grasping a piece of paper) needs to be developed before we can expect a true bow grip. Liska suggests holding a piece of paper with one hand and cutting with another. According to Liska, consistency is key, and gains can be made over a relatively short period if you are committed.

As with all aspects of a child’s development, the body, the mind and the spirit interconnect. A thriving, active child will be better equipped to deal with the demands of musical training.

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