The Three Principles:
Open Form (Alignment and Space)
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.