Body Springs

June 14th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 05: Ease - (Comments Off)

The Three Principles:
Open Form (Alignment and Space)
Stabilization (Balance)
Circularity (Fluid Movement, Soft Muscles, Marriage of Line & Circle)

Building Connection from the Ground Up – Legs:
Tension in the legs will be transmitted like a virus into everything above. When you are balanced, the alignment of your spine will hold you up with a minimum of muscle effort.
Stand on your bare feet. Imagine you are a baby again with soft, pliable pads – there are no bones in your feet yet. Feel the pad under the ball of the foot, the pad under the outer toes, and the pad on your heel contacting the ground with gentle springiness. Do all three points feel the same, and can you feel your weight dropping into them equally through both feet? Bounce happily on your feet without picking them up. Walk slowly and softly, pretending they are suction cups as you lift, and placing them on the ground delicately.
Stand easily on your baby feet. Notice the space at the front of your ankles. What happens to that space when you bend your knees? Push with your toes, bend and unbend your knees slightly, and sway lightly back and forth on your feet to find the place where your ankles feel soft and open in front. Notice how when you are out of balance the ankles, feet, and toes will tense. If you have a practice partner, take turns feeling each other’s ankles. Find a way of standing that will allow the least grabbing.
Experiment by straightening your knees and locking them. What happens to your neck and shoulders? Now release the backs of the knees. Notice how your hips and shoulders let go. Jiggle slightly, first with the knees bent and then with the knees locked; notice what changes. Also try this with air violin, holding an imaginary violin and moving your arms.
Stand with your feet soft, your ankles open and your knees slightly bent; your feet should be directly under your shoulders. Feel your weight evenly on both legs. Now shift weight to one leg. Let the other leg remain in contact with the ground and keep your hips level. Shift weight to the other leg. Shift side to side and then circle around forward and back, feeling the inside and outside of your feet; try a circle 8 as well.
Return to the center and allow your weight to drop right through the arches of both feet. Feel the space between your legs; imagine it connecting to the ground as if it were a third leg. Allow your bottom to melt down and forward, releasing the lower back. Relax and settle.

Building Connection from the Ground Up – Torso:
Weakness in the center of the body will cause it to fold in and collapse, diminishing sound, decreasing strength, and setting up the arms for injury. Rigidity in this area will cause thinness and harshness of tone, as it will communicate stiffness to all the joints of the arms and fingers. The ideal is space, balanced support, and freedom of motion in the back. Think of opening the front of the body and stabilizing and strengthening the back.
As your lower back drops, notice how your swayback diminishes and your hips come more directly under your shoulders. Exaggerate the swayback and play air violin; then allow the pelvis to tip forward and notice the difference in how your arms move and how your neck and shoulders feel. This posture is healthy for the arms and will give them the support they need, because the hips and shoulders are closely related. Throughout the day, jiggle occasionally to check the alignment and openness of your legs.
To counteract the weight of the violin pressing down, muscles in the midriff of the body need to engage and lift. Imagine your side ribs as folds of a fan and feel them stretching open and up. Do side bends to release and elongate the spaces between the ribs. Feel your spine, especially the area of the mid-back between your shoulder blades, stretching up toward heaven. Do the same with your occiput. Notice how reaching up from the back helps the fronts of your shoulders and collarbone open and relax.
Your shoulder blades, while located in your back, are actually the beginnings of your arms. Utilizing them properly will enhance your sound, free your bow, and prevent the stooped posture that is common in string players. Let your arms hang loosely at your sides. Imagine a giant puppeteer holding strings attached to the back of your elbows. When the strings are raised, your upper arms will rise, while your forearms and hands dangle. Now flip the left arm over into playing position and play air violin. Notice how weightless your arms feel; this is because they are being held up from the strong deep muscles of the back, the rhomboids, between the shoulder blades. Let your arms hang straight down again and then lift the hands directly up into playing position. Even if you are at the same height as before, your arms will feel much heavier. Notice especially what you sense in the area between your upper arms and the sides of your body. Try the puppeteer version again for contrast.
Your armpits and indeed the whole area under your arms need to stay open, even when your bow arm is carving into the string. Imagine that you have small balloons in your armpits, and larger balloons around your waist and torso. Play air violin, carving down into the balloons with your elbows while simultaneously keeping the spaces of the balloons open. Notice the circularity of your elbow movements as you curve into those soft deep imaginary spaces under your arms.
Find the connection of your elbows all the way back into your shoulder blades. Stand with your hands in loose fists, held at chest height with palms down and knuckles touching; stabilize your legs, torso, and head so that they do not move; and move the triangle of your arms and elbows around the column of your spine, back and forth from left to right. Can you feel the shoulder blades moving in relation to your spine? Now take your arms into playing position, continuing to hold the traction between your elbows and shoulder blades as your stretch your elbows apart in space (I call this the starfish stretch). Let the blades go and feel how your shoulders collapse forward and up. Feel the slackness and emptiness in your elbows. The balloons are gone. Activate the shoulder blades again; squeeze them together and allow the elbows to be drawn away from your body. Notice how wide open your chest and underarms are when your shoulder blades stabilize your arms. Notice how symmetrical the spaces under your arms are, how light they feel, and how calm, alert and energetic you are. Notice how your breathing changes. Everything expands.

Building Connection from the Ground Up – Arms:
When the arms are unimpeded at the critical joints of the shoulders and elbows, nerve impulses are more efficient and a sense of ease and comfort will result.
Roll your shoulders gently back and around. Now add elbow circles. Do this slowly enough that you can feel your shoulder blades sliding across your back, towards and away from the spine.
With each hand, turn the opposite upper arm away from the body and towards the body. (This is a good exercise to do with a partner too.) Allow the forearms and hands to follow along passively. This gentle twisting motion will soften and open the tissues around the all-important juncture of your arm and body, through which many important blood vessels and nerves pass. Can you do both arms now, initiating the movement from your upper arms?
Play air violin while gently holding the front of your right armpit (the pectoralis) with your left hand. First play legato 16ths in the middle of the bow, leading with the hand, and notice the popping and jumping in the pectoralis; the right shoulder will also begin to rise as the pectoralis tightens. Now do the same but initiate the motion from the elbow (in effect, farther back in the upper arm). The forearm will still execute the motion but the circularity of the movement will prevent tension in the pec, making it much easier to keep the underarm soft and the right shoulder relaxed. Can you feel the circles in your right shoulder blade?
Play a downbow, allowing your arm to simply slide down and away from your body. See if you can find the gentle bounceback that will begin your upbow effortlessly. Now initiate the motion of the downbow from your hand; notice how you will automatically stop at the end of the bow and the upbow will necessitate a separate effort. Perform these two types of downbows again while holding your right bicep. Notice that a more circular motion will give you a fluid continuity from downbow to upbow, while the feeling of “straight across” produced by leading from the hand will immediately engender contractions in the bicep.
Contract your left bicep and execute an air shift. Can you feel the jerkiness and effort as you work against your own tension? Next do the same thing with a relaxed bicep. Finally, do the same thing but initiate the movement from underneath the arm, releasing the shoulder blade to allow the elbow to circle forward as you go into high position. Notice that the forearm and hand have the sensation of being carried.

Building Connection from the Ground Up – Neck and Shoulders:
When holding the violin we often draw our shoulders up and our head down, creating what I call the drawstring effect. This position cuts off circulation to our arms and brain. Your posture when playing the violin should be as near to an ordinary standing posture as is feasible.
Keep your shoulders as relaxed as possible; imagine them falling away from your head and neck. Soften the muscles around your collarbone; visualize your head as a boat rocking gently in the water of the collarbone.
Turn your head to the left, first by leading with your eyes and then by leading from the occiput, with your eyes trailing. Does your neck feel different? Is there a change in the range of motion?
Draw long bows in the air. Does your left side remain stable, or does it come towards the bow during an upbow? If you engage the shoulder blades it is easier to bow without collapsing the front of the armpits. Keep your head as close to vertical as possible; especially when drawing an upbow, avoid the tendency to crunch in and forward. (Is it easier or harder to move the bow in the air if you allow yourself to shift weight slightly, alternating left and right feet?)
Take your left hand and make a fist. Relax the full weight of your head onto your hand, resting on the chin. Talk (if you can). Now move your fist two inches closer towards your left ear, rest your head upon it, and try to talk again; notice how your jaw feels. Once again move your hand closer towards your ear. Once you have passed the hinge of the jaw you will be able to rest the full weight of your head on your hand, talk freely, and relax your jaw. Incorrect head position is responsible for much jaw tension and can eventually lead to temporomandibular joint disorders.
Now let the violin rest upon the left shoulder. Balance your head upon the chinrest gently; find the balance point behind the hinge of the jaw, let the weight of your head relax, and do not add additional gripping. Remember that the left hand plays a key role in supporting the violin too.
A balanced, upright posture, open and flexible joints, and using muscles as naturally as possible will all contribute to joy, effortlessness and ultimate freedom of expression as we play our glorious instrument.

The Movable Elbow: Left Arm Alignment

June 14th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 02: Intonation | Goal 05: Ease | Left Side - (Comments Off)

Connecting to the Shoulder Blade:

Put your left arm up in playing position. Reach back with your elbow, stretching out from the armpit. Can you feel the connection of your elbow into your shoulder blade? Now scoop around and forward as you shift to a high note. Notice how the space under your arm is maintained. What is the track of your thumb? Can you feel how you are initiating the movement from the back?

Keeping Openness:

As you shift, do not crunch your upper arm into your side and do not squeeze your bicep; instead try to find open spaces. Even as you shift up try to come around an invisible balloon in your elbow, so that it doesn’t squeeze shut. Imagine that your entire arm is making a giant “C” shape.

Finding the Balance in High Positions:

When you are in high positions, try to find the “C” shape; if your fingers are elongated they will be weak and unable to press the string down with its additional tension nearer the bridge, so make sure that your elbow has come around the violin as much as is necessary to allow the hand and fingers to find a good balance. An arch shape will be stronger than a flattened one. Check your base knuckles – they should be relaxed and springy, never hard. (Exercises: Tapping to the Left of the Fingerboard, Pancake Hand)

Moving for Chords:

Keeping your wrist directly above your forearm, place your fourth finger on each string in turn. In order to keep the alignment, the elbow must move as you change strings. Experiment with the best position of the elbow and notice how when you have the proper alignment it is much easier to vibrate and feel the finger relax into the string.
This elbow support has enormous consequences when playing multiple stops. In solo Bach, correct placement of the elbow will give the advantage to the finger (voice) you wish to bring out. Even the pressure of the fingers should not be equal; you should be able to feel to melody finger more deeply.

Calm Shoulders

June 10th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 05: Ease | Left Side | Right Side - (Comments Off)

Avoid the drawstring effect

Many violinists crunch their shoulders up and their heads down into the violin. This shortens the muscles of each arm and greatly affects sound and left hand facility. It also isolates the arm from the shoulderblade, which is the first bone of the arm.

To avoid this, try the following exercises:

Stand and play with your head against a doorframe. You may feel you have to press backwards with your head in order to maintain contact. Now step away and feel the same backwards, upright position.

In a straight chair, sit with your back against the back of the chair as you play. Maintain contact.

With a partner, take turns holding each other’s heads back. (This is really easy if you have a ponytail!)

Draw an upbow, allowing your head to travel in the same direction as the bow. Draw a downbow, and move your head slightly to the back of the chinrest, in the opposite direction from the bow. Can you feel the slight tug of the string?

Loosening the Head on the Violin

Settle your head into the chinrest gently, balancing the violin with the relaxed weight of your head.

Incorporate Karen Tuttle’s breathing exercises into your bowing: each time you breathe out, allow the head to settle towards the back of the chinrest gently.

As an exercise, play downbows holding the violin with your left hand as you move your head around; play upbows with your head gently relaxing into the chinrest as you take your left thumb off the neck of the violin. Are there moments in your music where you could do one or the other, to release muscles?

Interesting Dilemma

Holding still helps your nervous system sort out the fine movements of your hands and arms, because the variables are fewer; but moving releases muscles and combats rigidity. Moving also is often more exciting for the audience. Think of a modern day performer such as Joshua Bell and compare him to videos of Heifetz and Oistrach.  My own experience is that it is generally best to move lyrically during singing lines and slower music, with swaying being preferable to the crunch, to keep the shoulderblades as stable as possible; but it is almost always best to have calm shoulders, a stable violin, and a centered balance which allows your weight to drop through both your feet during fast passages and string crossings. It is also usually true that a stable violin produces a stronger tone.

Try fast passages with your violin scroll on a stand, on a ledge, or against a towel on the wall. You will find that shifts and string crossings are much easier when you do not have a moving target!

Injury Treatment

June 10th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 05: Ease - (Comments Off)

As violinists and musicians, it is easy to get so caught up in our intense love for music and our need to practice endless hours that we forget that we are physical creatures with wonderful bodies which do so much for us. We are athletes, and just like athletes, we must get to know our own bodies with all their strengths and limitations. Unlike athletes, however, we will want to practice our art for decades, and in caring for our physical self we must develop both incredible sensitivity and power.

 

When you are injured, whether due to an accident, sudden overuse, poor playing habits, long hours at the computer, or some combination exacerbated by worry and stress, it is easy to panic. This will not particularly help! Remember that nearly all musicians, particularly string players, will deal with injuries at some point in their careers. There are many ways of treating injuries and getting the help you need. In the process, you will become a better player AND you will live more happily in your body.  I love the Chinese character for crisis; it is actually a combination of two characters – one for danger and the other for opportunity.

 

Here are some possible ways for you to get help:

1. Medical doctor – Dr. Michael Charness at Mass General specializes in musician’s hand injuries. He may splint the hand for a period of a few weeks and send you to a physical therapist who gives you exercises.  I am not usually in favor of splinting, mainly because when you immobilize an area it gets weaker, therefore the risk of injury remains when you return. I am also very wary of operations, because of scar tissue, and cortisone shots, which are temporary but do not help your body learn to heal itself.

2. Chiropractor – Dr. Stuart Grey (617-738-7428) has an office near BU and has helped musicians. Often hand and arm problems in violinists originate in the neck.

3. Feldenkrais – Olivia Cheever, at oliviacheever.com. Feldenkrais is a system of retraining your nervous system so that you perform actions without strain.  I see Olivia once a month and my work with her has been invaluable in my teaching. She works at Longy. Google Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the method.

4. Stretching and related activities – yoga, tai chi, qi gong – anything that teaches you more body awareness. I attend Brookline Tai Chi Academy. I love tai chi because it is a form of moving meditation; it centers me, teaches me to feel inside my body with ever more awareness, opens my joints, stretches my muscles, and is great for balance (both mental and physical).

5.  Alexander Technique classes are a well-established body awareness path. Betsy Pollatin at Boston University is an excellent teacher.

6. Personal trainers can give you carefully calibrated exercises and stretches to balance your muscles, strengthening arms, shoulders and back. Find someone with experience of injuries, if possible someone who has worked with violinists and musicians, not just a local sports jock. Kelly Bellinsky at Performing Arts Occupational Therapy, 1330 Beacon, is great. (617-277-1550)

7. Deep tissue massage therapy such as Reiki. For pain relief, massage is often the first and best line of defense. My violist friend in the National Symphony gets a weekly massage – it’s tax deductible!

8. Tui Na is Chinese acupressure, and is fabulous: Carolanne Oller at Ancient River Healing Arts, 1141 Beacon Street in Brookline, 617-566-3603

9. Some people find acupuncture to be life-saving.

10. If you have tendonitis, icing and aspirin or Ibuprofen (not acetaminophen) are great.

11. Find a violin teacher who can help you identify areas of tension when you play, particular in your hands, arms, shoulders, neck, hips, legs, and feet.

 

 

 

 

 

Injuries are likely to occur because we are out of balance, weak in some area, working muscles without releasing them, or not able to listen to the signals our bodies give us when we use them. Most often healing will mean a combination of:

  • retraining muscles to work more easily and efficiently, with every action followed by a  release
  • learning how to listen to early signs of distress from all related body areas
  • feeling ourselves in our bodies as much of the time as possible, so that we don’t strain or pull ourselves in daily living
  • getting massage, stretching, or other exercises to help us loosen up and learn what a relaxed muscle feels like
  • getting strengthening exercises for imbalanced and weak muscles– violin is extremely asymmetric
  • getting our spine and neck into alignment so that nerves can give proper signals to muscles
  • calming inflammation with icing and anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or Ibuprofen

 

 

Except for certain cases of prolonged or chronic injury, I always recommend the slower route of healing, stretching, strengthening, and reconnecting to your own awareness of your body—intense people are often so focused on thoughts and musical expression that they miss their own kinesthetic sensations.

 

You may have to try several things before you find just the right combination.  For me it was retraining on the violin, seeing a chiropractor, getting some exercises, finding a great Feldenkrais teacher, and then doing Tai Chi.  I still do many of these things and am stronger and more flexible than I ever was as a youngster. Be patient, this is important work and it will affect your whole life, not just your violin, and you will be better off for having undertaken it!

 

 

Left Hand Relaxation: Why Footies Matter

June 10th, 2013 | Posted by BaylaK in Body | Goal 01: Sounds | Goal 05: Ease | Left Side - (Comments Off)

Moving from the Shoulderblade:

The left arm works more easily when movement initiates from the back and shoulderblade, rather than from the small muscles between the shoulder and hand.

EXERCISE: Take the left elbow back behind and away from the body; scoop under the violin and forward.     Keep the inside of the arm soft.  Initiate the motion from the back and shoulderblade.

EXERCISE: Swing up and tap the body of the violin to the left of the G string with all four fingers.

EXERCISE: Remember to stabilize the shoulderblade, keeping it near the spine, so that the left arm does not collapse into the side of the body, but instead maintains a lovely relaxed open space. Notice how the inside of the armpit feels soft.

EXERCISE: Hug a tree while keeping the shoulderblades back. Notice how maintaining your shoulderblades’ positions in relation to the spine helps the arms feel lighter and more relaxed.

 

Alignment:

At all times we should strive for the easiest, most natural positions when playing the violin. When muscles stream into each other, the electric nerve signals can pass through unimpeded. Avoid breaking the lines of the wrist and arm; keep roundness, curvature, and openness wherever possible.

EXERCISE: Compare playing with the wrist forward and collapsed, backwards, or neutral and straight.

EXERCISE: Pair up and hang each other’s arms, first in the air and then on the violin. Really relax and let  your arm become dead weight. Does it matter if your finger is arched or flat?

Relaxing the hand to get into position:

We need to be able to get the heel of the hand close to the neck of the violin, so that our 3rd and 4th fingers do not overreach, flatten, or strain. In order to hold the all-important octave frame in comfort, our hand must soften and relax.

EXERCISE: Using the right hand to hold the violin perpendicular to the floor, bring it around into position under your chin, allowing the left hand to follow passively. Do the same thing with a pencil, curving your     left fingers and pushing down while your right hand  turns the pencil into violin position.

EXERCISE: Massage the webbing between the fingers. Visualize the tissues opening and melting.

EXERCISE: Start with the hand perpendicular to fingerboard and the palm facing you. Use your right hand to melt the left knuckles in, ironing them gently into the neck of the violin.  Hold the position and notice how relaxed your arm feels. Repeat several times. Now get into that same position only by turning the     arm. Notice the tension in the forearm. Do the fingers move as freely?

With all stretching exercises, your goal is to allow the hand to open – never force, and never overpress. Think of your hand as relaxing apart, with the 1st and 2nd fingers melting back towards the pegs and the 3rd and 4th energetically reaching forward.  I call this “split hand.”

EXERCISE: Dounis Stretchback from 4th Position – place 3 fingers on the E string; gently slide the 1st finger    as far back as is comfortable on the A string. Repeat, leave in place, and then place 2nd finger on A string. Continue with all fingers. Do NOT allow other fingers to move. Do NOT overpress

EXERCISE: Simon Fischer contrary motion; also slide up and down a half step with each finger. Keep your fingernails facing you.

Keeping the fingernails facing you (this is called pronation) will result in easier manipulation of the spaces between your fingers, improving your intonation and solidifying your finger patterns.

EXERCISE: Simon Fischer Fingertip Placement

EXERCISE: Simon Fischer Thumb Spa – relaxing the thumb. Also try resting scroll gently on a stand.

 

The Footie:

Loosen the 1st joint to broaden the point of contact to aid in the transfer of the weight from the arm.  Do NOT flatten the finger; the 2nd joint should remain higher than the 1st. This is especially important in high positions and while shifting!