A Guide to Practising: Part I, Body Awareness
There is a correct way to practise. A way that is not only time- and energy efficient but also produces consistent, positive results. However, we will have to backtrack to a core practical foundation before we get to that.
And that is the single, overarching concept: awareness.
We will cover the basic concept of violin posture/body awareness in this post. This will set students up for future mental and detailed physical awareness, which then paves the way for my initial assertion that there is indeed a correct way to practice.
In a nutshell, you need to be aware of every single part of your body in order to produce music that is consistently beautiful in both technique and musicality, as well as prevent injury. Ok, that sounds scary, what does it mean? Let’s break it down.
We’ll begin with the basic concept of body awareness – we’ll start with a mental awareness exercise. Try doing the following with your eyes closed – I find that this helps concentrate my focus better.
It is not enough to simply “stand straight”. When you tell people to do that, sometimes you get students pushing their chests out or shoulders back too much, which throws the spine out of a natural position. The best way to do this is first of all ensure that your feet are evenly spaced apart, roughly sholder-width (may be more or less depending on what’s more comfortable to you. Ensure feet are pointing slightly outwards, as is the natural ‘default’ position). Pretend that there is a string connected to the top of their heads that is slowly being pulled upwards. The spine should feel fairly straight and natural, and the chin naturally gets gently tucked in (important for getting a good hold on the violin later), and it should almost feel like your abs are tightening inwards. Now you have a well-balanced and compact core. Practise getting into this position until this is the default position you assume automatically upon placing the violin on your shoulders. To practise, first of all slouch into an informal posture as you exhale through your mouth, and then inhale slowly through your nose as you perform the above-mentioned steps.
When you have achieved this position, begin the following exercise which should take a minute. Breathe normally, while being sensitive to how your body feels, moving from your head down to your toes. Always retain awareness of your breathing, ensuring that it is slow, even and “medium” (do not take deep breaths). First, roll your head in a small circle almost imperceptibly to gain a sense of how your neck feels. Could it be more relaxed while maintaining this posture? Next, shift your attention to your shoulders. Third, as you exhale, ensure that any residual tension in your shoulders dissolves and relaxes (important to note, do *not* force your shoulders down!). Fourthly, ensure that your arms are hanging freely and not being ‘held’ up by shoulder muscles. Move your fingers slowly, focusing your attention on all ten of them. Next, concentrate your attention on travelling down your spine, and be aware of your abdominal muscles, which should be slightly tightened. Rotate your body slightly from the hip level while ensuring your feet do not move – ensure that you do not rotate so much that you feel like your spine is twisting forcefully. Finally, let your awareness travel down both legs, and feel how your feet are planted down to the ground. Sway in a gentle circle and notice how your weight shifts. Ensure your knees are not “locked” backwards.
You may find this mentally taxing the first few times you tackle this exercise, however with time and yes, practice, you can speed up the process of being aware of your body. Soon, instead of achieving awareness of one body part at a time, you will be able to achieve and retain awareness of your entire body at once. You will realise that at every part of this exercise I have encouraged gentle, small motions. As you gain proficiency, I would encourage you to move all the body parts mentioned above at the same time. This is extremely important so as not to get ‘stuck’ in a single position for an extended period of time. When you play the violin, your different body parts move in tandem and respond in like to one another, thus it is important to develop a sense of motion even while practising body core awareness.
When you have achieved sufficient proficiency with basic body awareness (ie, able to achieve awareness of all parts within seconds and retain it whilst moving all parts at the same time for up to a minute), we will start to rearrange our limbs into that of holding the violin. To begin with, slowly lift up your left arm to the position in which you would hold a violin (upper and lower arms forming a V shape). Be aware of your shoulder joint as it rotates upwards.Try moving your entire arm to the side and to the front, keeping this V shape the whole time. Ensure that there is no tension. When you bring your left arm into the violin-holding position, notice how your left shoulder is angled slightly more forward than your right at this point, while still being relaxed.
Now it is time to introduce the violin – without the bow.
First of all, pick the violin up by the the base of the its neck (the part near the violin shoulder) in your left hand, retaining awareness of your body as you slowly bring the violin up to your left shoulder. Holding the base is important as we want to lighten the load on the arms as much as possible. The further away you grasp the violin, the heavier. Use your right hand to support the opposite side of the violin as you lift it up, if you find your arm/shoulder unnecessarily straining. As the violin nears your shoulder, lift your head upwards slightly as though you are nodding your head, and be aware of how the weight of your head has shifted upon your neck. Do not nod your head too far upwards such that it goes backwards, or else your neck muscles will inadvertently kick in and tense up to support the off-balance weight. Place the violin on your left shoulder, and finally, nod your head back down. Slide your hand away from the base of the neck to the normal first position. Swing your left elbow slightly in and out to help ensure your shoulder joint is relaxed.
As you’re in this position, run through the body awareness mental awareness exercise, making sure that you retain awareness of all parts of your body. Try wiggling the various parts of your body gently.
When you’re comfortable, let’s now involve the right arm, which up till now should have been relaxed by your side. In a single smooth motion, lift it up as though you are holding an imaginary bow, placing the frog on the strings and then placing it back down by your side in a single arc/loop. As you perform these actions, imagine that you are performing this action in the water – for instance as you bring your arm up, your hand would naturally droop downwards at an angle as your wrist is weaker compared to the elbow and shoulder joint, and your fingers would follow along in the natural shape of your relaxed hand. As you bring your arm back down, your wrist would lean downwards slightly, being pulled along by the same stronger joints. The fingers must remain relaxed at all times, and the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints are in constant motion, reacting in tandem to one another. They should be fluid, and never locked into a single position at any time. Do this a few times, creating and maintaining awareness of all the involved joints.
In summary, here are the main joints that should feel relaxed and be able to move freely:
- Top of the neck, where it connects to the head
- Shoulder joints + elbow and wrist (when holding the violin)
- Elbow, wrist and finger joints
- Base of spine/hip area (rotate)
I hope that this post has helped you in creating and maintaining a healthy violin posture. Remember – this is a crucial bit of foundation that often gets glossed over, as it is undoubtedly a very dry and boring topic. However, if you master it, you will be ahead of a majority of other violin-wielding folks. 😉