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Unmasking tension

In playing the violin or viola various kinds of tension can build up over time, tensions of which the player may not be aware. Having someone else move the player's arm or fingers and report what they observe can unmask unconscious habits of tension, and demonstrate that tension in hands and arms can originate elsewhere in the body.

We found it helpful in our group classes to observe what effect the tensing of different parts of the body had on the arms and hands. We took turns first being the “tester” who moved the arm of the “player” to imitate bowing and fingering movements, and second being the “player” who tensed and released in different ways. The tester then observed what effect the tensing and releasing had on the arm and hand of the “player”. *


Test “bowing”: The “tester” raises the arm of the player above the shoulder and back down (holding onto the arm by the fingers) while the “player” tenses and then releases jaw, tongue, face, neck and feet (see below).

Test “fingering”: The “tester” holds the wrist of the “player” in his hand and wiggles the fingers of the player while the “player” tenses and releases again in the following ways:

Alternately tense and release while tester “bows” or “fingers” for you:

Jaw: Bite, pressing lower teeth against upper teeth and holding
Tongue: Press tongue against top of mouth
Face: Push brow down into a frown as if “angry” or over-concentrating
Neck: Tilt head to the left, or stick chin out to grab “violin” (Putting head in different playing positions)Feet/Legs: Curling toes as if gripping the floor

The musicians found that tension in any of these parts of the body affected performance in the arms and hands. For example, curling the toes resulted in stiffening of the bow hand.

*We used a similar procedure to show that the pressure of the shoulder rest on the top of the shoulder joint can also interfere with movement in both arms and hands, see playing technique >>left shoulder.

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