Supporting the Back While Playing
For many violinists, lower back pain is a common issue that can be linked to the narrowing and shortening that occurs when a violinist lifts their arms and proceeds to put the violin on their shoulder. This collapse is either, due to a habitual reaction of the arms while lifting them or a compensatory action from the body in response to the weight of the instrument. Regardless, the solution is the same: increase the length and breadth of the back through awareness, inhibition, and direction. Even though, an individual can learn to lengthen and widen their back at later stages in their musical career, for this blog I will focus on how to teach a student to support their back from the beginning.
At the start, the hollowing of the lower back can be prevented by teaching a student to be aware of their body and then instructing them on how they can effectively change their movements. One way of doing this is by calling attention to body changes when they are initially learning to hold the violin.
Building Awareness while Holding the Violin
For example, when I first start a student I place the violin on their shoulder before I allow them to do it on their own. This allows them to remain at rest and notice the changes that take place in the body (if any) as it learns to hold and compensate for the weight of the instrument. What usually happens, is that the student’s chin will collapse to their chest and their left shoulder will rise, narrow, and tighten (in an attempt to hold the instrument) causing their thoracic and lumber curves to increase. This posture can become problematic because the narrowing and shortening caused by the exaggeration of their normal spinal curves can result in back pain and mal-coordination.
In order to give the student a sufficient amount of observation time I allow the student to stand in this manner for a while. I then ask them to notice how their body has changed from their normal standing position. If the student cannot tell me how their body has changed I ask them to notice how they are in that moment then take the violin down and ask them to notice how they stand without the instrument. What the student usually notices from this activity is the exact narrowing and shortening I discussed earlier. I will do this activity many times throughout a student’s lesson, to help them develop a sense of their physical being.
After building the students awareness in the aforementioned manner I provide them with what I call the door/ wall activity. When I have a student work against a wall or door frame it is because, I want to help them build a sense of independence and provide them with a tool to help develop proper violin posture at home.
At the start of the activity I tell the student to pay close attention to their feet. Making sure that they are slightly apart, about a foot away from the wall or door, that their knees are released and directed over their toes. I then have the student rest their sacrum (butt) and shoulders against the door. It is important to note that because of the curves in the cervical (neck) and lower lumber regions the head and the lower back will not be resting on the door.
After the student takes a moment to notice their back against the wall I have them bring the violin to their shoulder. This activity usually causes the student to feel uncomfortable because they immediately notice any changes of their back, making them apprehensive. I tell them that once they notice any change they should stop and reestablish the idea of their back resting and their knees going over their toes. After they’ve reestablished those directions they can try raising the violin again, hopefully this time with less disruption. I then have them stand with their back supported by the wall while their violin is under their chin.
Through the next several lessons the student and I work toward moving off the wall while still having their back supported. In other words, the back will look lengthened and widened. When a student can do this, I find that they’re arms are freer to move and they seem less uncomfortable overall.