Upper String Playing Injuries and Ergonomic Breakthroughs
by Claire Stefani. January 2017
Playing any instrument means MOVING … a lot! Like any athlete, violinists and violists need overall physical tone to support the specific muscles they use to play. Given the odd asymmetric aspect of playing an upper string instrument, properly fitted ergonomic solutions are critical to maintaining a healthy body and greatly contribute to optimize postural correction work and somatic approaches.
But when it comes to violin/viola chin and shoulder rest set-up, the myriad possibilities to adapt equipment to body type can be daunting. Before reviewing some breakthroughs on ergonomic solutions, before you buy ANOTHER chinrest or shoulder rest, here are some guidelines on what matters, based on my “bottom-up” experience of fitting and working with 400+ musicians.
The head weighs 12 to 15 pounds. Keeping it balanced and free to move is critical. Based on my experience, it is best to secure a chinrest height where the head is allowed to rest neutrally at the low point of nodding a “yes”, while staying free in the neck muscles to allow for lateral movements (shaking the head “no”.)
Arms, if not supported by the deep torso muscles while playing, will inevitably “hang” and pull the instrument downwards. Attempts to adjust the chin/shoulder rest set-up to counterbalance this downward weight will only put more stress on the head and left shoulder unless an awareness of back and shoulder muscles, and their critical importance when it comes to arm support is developed.
Work at allowing the shoulder blade to immediately follow the humerus while shifting and bowing. We have a parallel with walking: no matter if we take small or large steps, our feet move as a result of a momentum generated by the femur swinging freely from the hip joint.
Up or down, in or out … it should be the individual teacher’s and player’s preference, not the chinrest or shoulder rest dictating instrument position. You may be surprised to find that, by allowing the instrument to lean on the collarbone instead of only on the left shoulder, you will notice
a reduced need to clench
more freedom in the left shoulder, less strain on the left arm and hand
Follow the pain
Pain or fatigue often comes from muscle tension. So as early as possible, identify any postural imbalance in playing position (vs. neutral position) leading muscles to sustain a static position instead of contributing to movement. And say NO to the “no pain no gain” mantra as it only leads to injury.
The chinrest first
Until a few years ago, set-up solutions came from shoulder-rest manufacturers. We now have access to chinrest brands offering additional height, left/right tilt (Wittner, SAS, Kreddle) or entirely customized options (Chinrests.com), allowing violinists/violists to lower their instrument and rest it partly on the collarbone, while keeping a neutral balanced head position.
And for under the instrument?
Once the head is balanced, muscular work is redistributed throughout the torso to better support arm weight, and the left shoulder is relieved from its static support role, one is free to decide what to use for under the instrument, if anything.
If playing with a shoulder rest can often result in a “dictatorial” stiffening of the entire left shoulder, playing without one may result in total anarchy from the fear of the instrument falling. Changes may need to be progressive, and allow some participation of the left hand as a guide. A few things to keep in mind when looking for the right support under the instrument:
If too squishy, it may not only encourage clenching but also dampen the instrument’s sound
Models like Kun Solo or Wolf Secondo are designed to lean just below the contour of the collar bone, which avoids downward pressure over the left shoulder
Magic Pad or red make-up sponges are great anti-slip surfaces adding to comfort especially when shifting to or from high positions.
Standing … and also sitting
Upper string player often practice standing … fine! But most of their playing will happen sitting. So solutions adopted by cellists should similarly improve the comfort of violinists/violists while allowing them to reach the same sound intensity as when standing.
Devices such as a wedge or Gelco pads, as well as Leitner stools mounted on a convex base, allow a slight pelvic tilt resulting in psoas muscle release. This pelvic tilt will help players improve their awareness of balance around their lumbar core and address lower back pain linked to postural issues and ill-fitted chinrest/shoulder rest set- up.
My recommendation: if you experience pain while playing and have started some postural correction work or are ready to do so (you should!), do make sure you have the proper chinrest/shoulder rest set-up. Ergonomics matter and your body deserves it.
Claire Stefani’s approach to violin/viola chin and shoulder rest set-up is primarily fed by her work in the past 20 years with musical instrument accessory manufacturer/distributors and her experience in movement efficiency as an international field hockey player in her native France. In 2012 she became a fitter for Frisch&Denig chinrest line and has helped more than 400 musicians with their set-up. Claire is the founder of Volute Service International. She is also an avid amateur chamber music violist and violinist in New York City, an affiliate Andover trainee and an active member of the Performing Arts Medicine Association.