3. Making the change

Adjusting my equipment

Before the research I had never tried to change my equipment because the opportunity to find new equipment in Roumania is minimal. Your only option is to get used to what you have already.   Also, I never thought that changing the equipment would solve the problems I had with my back. At the time I thought that it was enough that my chinrest looked nice, and made a matched set with my tailpiece! My old chin rest was more or less the right height but it had a very weird shape, being lower in the middle and higher on the sides, making me have to grab it with my jaw all the time. It was also too wide for me; my chin touched only a third of it.

As soon as the research started I immediately changed my chin rest. The new chin rest was higher and centered over the middle (tailpiece). The viola came more in front of me so I could bow to the tip of the bow with ease for the first time. We tilted the chin rest to the left using corks so that my viola could be slanted towards the bow. This slant made it easier to finger on the c string; especially for my forth finger.

In the middle of the research, we added a chin rest insert to the testing kit chin rest so that the cup of the chin rest was not so deep, and fit better to the shape of my jaw, giving me less reason to "grab" with my chin. Later, the custom made chin rest was made to fit my jaw.

I also changed my shoulder rest. The cushion part was too large which meant that I was using just a third of it; the rest was sticking out in the air over my shoulder and breastbone. I went through a lot of changes with the shoulder rest, often building new constructions out of the materials that we had gathered: special rubber balls, anti-slip rubber sheets, pieces of sponge and leather.

Because my new chin rest fitted me so much better, I found that I didn't need as much support from the shoulder rest. Finally, I was able to construct a comfortable self-made shoulder rest of rolled-up anti-slip material.

This last year I got a custom made chin rest which really suits me. It combines all the changes that we made using the chin rest equipment from the testing kit. We also added a higher edge that fit better under my jaw to keep the viola more stable. This has helped me to get to the point where all technical things come naturally.



Adjusting my playing

Before, I was holding the viola clamped between my jaw and shoulder. This was a source of tension in my neck, left shoulder and jaw. Now it rests on my collar bone, and I also balance it with my left hand a bit. This meant that I had to relearn how to shift.   This was a matter of time and getting used to it. I used to lean forward when playing because I couldn't easily reach to bow or finger. After changing the equipment, which brought the viola more within reach of my arms and hands, I was able to stand over my feet. With that change my playing changed as well:   I suddenly got a lot of power in my sound, I found a solid, quality sound, and I did not have to hunt for my intonation anymore.

Although the pain went away immediately, the changes in my playing were difficult to get used. The first week I felt crazy, as if I didn't know where my fingers were going. I was lost! In one orchestra rehearsal, while I was playing a Bach movement in which the viola has long interminable notes, I realized that I was making a horrible sound when using the upper part of my bow. I tried it again at home and realized that my bow was no longer parallel to the bridge because the position of the viola had changed but my old habits of bowing were still there. Of course I couldn't have a nice sound right away! All my technique seemed to have disappeared: spiccato, stacatto, etc. When I played vibrato, the viola also vibrated, which had never happened before.


My new sound was completely different and I couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Feeling completely handicapped I stopped for one minute and screamed out loud. Then I decided to take it slow and easy for one week until I found myself again.

I solved the bow problem in front of the mirror, which was my confidant and helper.   Faulty sound projection and intonation I solved with a lot of patience and listening. I also improved my vibrato, and can now easily do many different types of vibrato. In fact, having to make these changes put a lot of order in my mind and I started practicing in a more organized way.

In my Alexander Technique lessons we also discovered that I was biting during fast passages, especially those with a lot of shifting. Another point of tension was the upper part of my left arm when I played forte. This kept me from making a free, larger vibrato. There was no need for this tension after we changed the equipment; it was just a stupid old habit. Initially, I wasn't aware of these tensions; my Alexander Technique lessons helped me to find and eliminate them. I also worked on getting rid of the tension in my left arm by sliding my fingers along the strings glissando along their entire length slowly, which helped me to find the fingerboard and to release my arm joints in every position. The improved intonation was the best technical achievement resulting from all the changes. I don't have to work on that much anymore.  

Eventually, by working alone and with my Alexander Technique teacher, I was also able to get rid of the main background stiffness in my neck, and head. This gave me more security in my playing. My sound got stronger because there was more length in my back and a freer neck.

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