Posture: The Basis of Good Technique
by Rozanna Weinberger
Dance is often considered an entirely different field from learning a musical instrument. While dancers are always aware of posture and carriage, musicians often get away with carrying their bodies anyway that is habitual and no correlation between playing an instrument is considered. But the reality is that posture is just as important for the modern string player as for a dancer.
Posture and learning to differentiate parts of the body including shoulders, rib cage, sternum and clavicle, are very important. The key question is whether the the rib cage & torso is supported by elevating the shoulders, or by using the abdominal muscles.
What is a fulcrum? Essentially it is a thing that plays a central function in an activity. When string players have poor posture a typical reaction is to support the body and instrument excessively with the shoulders. The shoulder may also become the 'fulcrum' in the bow arm rather than utilizing the back muscles. This can ultimately lead to injuries as well as greater difficulty in performing technical tasks
Slouching isn’t just less appealing, it makes playing with efficient use of back muscles nearly impossible. The angle of the elbow is related to whether shoulders are slouching or not. When the player slouches, the angle of the elbow cannot be parallel to the bow and instrument. Rather it has an over emphasis on the vertical angle, thus causing the sound to be crushed somewhat rather than spun like silk. A. Big open sound produced by the best players can be attributed at least in part to a perfect synthesis of vertical and horizontal relationship to the vibrating string with the bow arm. Does the trajectory have a vertical emphasis or horizontal? Thus slouching is the starting point of a flawed trajectory to the string.
Discovering Torso/Shoulder relationship
Rehabilitation pioneer, Vladimir Janda (1928=2002) recognized a physical pattern comprised of imbalances which he referred to as the 'Upper Crossed Syndrome.'This occurs when the muscles in the neck, shoulders, and chest become deformed, usually as a result of poor posture. ... Then, the muscles in the front of the chest, called the major and minor pectoralis, become tight and shortened.
Visually the clues to recognizing 'upper crossed syndrome' include sloped shoulders and head jutting out from base of neck. In short, this is similar to the posture many string players use as they jut forward the head in an attempt to secure the instrument while sloping the shoulders to grip the violin. In essence certain muscle groups get too tight due to misuse. Some players try to control the bow with the shoulder and can lead to a chain of events creating shoulder instability, dysfunction and eventually pain and injury. The trapezius and levator scapula which raise and lower the shoulder blades, when overused inhibit the muscles at the shoulder blade from doing their job. Gripping the instrument by jutting out the neck while elevating the shoulder can contribute to the problem. As the shoulders protract, the scapular shoulder blade stabilizers become inhibited and weak.
String players often have a misconception of what it means to have ‘good posture’. In addition to raising the shoulders to hold themselves up, sometimes emotional stress can lead to raising the shoulders. Learning a difficult passage or public performance can contribute. But its not the shoulders that enable one to have an upright posture, rather it is the muscles of the chest and even abdominal muscles to contribute. To access these muscles try this simple action.
Function of Abdominal Muscles
Many people go to the gym in hopes of getting in good physical shape. Strengthening abdominals are generally considered an important part of the body but don’t necessarily think about how they function in the overall carriage of the upper body. This is an important consideration and perhaps not discussed enough except when doing Pilates, Gyrotonics, Yoga or other forms of exercise that address lengthen the limbs. For great posture, we don't just need strong abdominals, we need them to lengthen and support our upper bodies effectively. If they don't do this, other problems will occur as a result of compensation, such as raising and tensing the shoulder in the mistaken belief we holdup our upper bodies by elevating our shoulders. Other problems will include slouching.
String players rarely think about how the abdominal muscles can effect their technique. And yet they are crucial in supporting the torso and lengthening the upper body, creating space between the vertebrae. This support is at the heart of being able counter the effects of gravity when balancing the instrument against ones body. Players need to cultivate the ability to access the sensations of our spine and self correct so as to accommodate the changing relationship to the violin. These changes are effected by shifting, weight of bow arm and myriad other factors.
Movement Study: Torso Activation
- Sitting in the chair, press down with the hands on the arms of the chair.
- If chair has arms its fine to press down on the arms of the chair with ones hands.
- Notice the simultaneous response in the torso and upper chest region, in reaction to the pressing downwards of the hands & arms.
- The torso and chest elevate while the arms & shoulders press downward. Notice these sensations because if they feel ‘new’ chances are this is a teachable moment in terms of learning to access the torso to support the instrument.
- While maintaining support in the torso, notice what’s happening in the shoulders.
- Do the shoulders rise or do they following the downward direction of the hands?
- What do the shoulders do in relation to the rib cage? Do they rest atop the torso or are they elevated?
- The next step in this movement study is to press down on the ground with ones feet. The arms may remain relaxed and passive this time. Again make note of the corresponding reaction in the upper body. Does the upper body move counter to the direction of the feet pressing downward? The answer to these questions are clues to understanding how the upper and lower body work in opposition to each other while enabling the body to remain perfectly balanced.