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Friday, September 30, 2011

Quick Practice Tip: Releasing Tension in the Shoulder

The shoulder is a magnet for tension, especially as the student matures in age. Just about all of my older students or adults exhibit shoulder tension. Shoulder tension must be an adult person's most favorite way to "hold it in." I know that this was the case for me. I still work at it, and I have developed a few tricks to help me set my playing posture in a relaxed way.

Try these three simulations or games away from the violin:
  • When driving your car, rest your hands on the steering wheel at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions (please make sure that you are still paying attention to the road!). While you are driving, notice how light your hands feel on the wheel. Now, let your shoulders relax and your arms hang down. If you do this exercise correctly, you will notice that your hands begin to feel fairly heavy and hang from the steering wheel almost enough to pull the wheel down. Your shoulders are now completely relaxed.
  • When you are standing in church, rest your hands on the pew back in front of you. Or if you grocery shop instead, rest your hands on the handle of the shopping cart. Notice how light your hands feel on the pew back or shopping cart handle. Now let your shoulders relax and your arms rest downward. If you do this exercise correctly, you will notice that your hands begin to feel fairly heavy and hang from the pew or shopping cart handle quite strongly. Your shoulders are now completely relaxed.
  • Spaghetti Arms Game: You will need a partner for this game. Have your partner make fists in both hands and hold up the thumbs like joysticks. You grab onto the "joysticks." Your partner will then swing your arms around wildly, trying to take you for a wild amusement park ride and shake you off. Your goal is to stay connected to the joystick but to allow your partner to flail your arms around wherever your partner wants to go. If you are completely relaxed with "spaghetti arms" and still hanging onto the "joysticks," then your shoulders are completely relaxed. Note that this game is the most similar simulation to that of playing the violin. The joystick is your bow hold, which must be turned on. Your relaxed arms are how your shoulder should be: aware, relaxed, and going wherever it is led.
Try these two simulations with the violin:
  • Submarine Air Lock Game: Pretend you are on a submarine, but you need to explore outside the vessel. Go into the air lock chamber. Turn on the mechanism that lets the air out of the chamber. Now you are ready to go outside the vessel. Relate this to the violin.
    • Set your bow on the string at the frog. Now, release the air from your shoulder.
    • "Set, Sink" are the two commands I use.
  • Flat Tire Game: Set your bow on the string at the frog. Now release the air from your tire (shoulder) so that it goes flat.
      Carry this to the next level in review work or group class activities:
      • Play "Song of the Wind" (violin book 1) and stop after every down bow circle. Recite "Set, Sink" before playing the next note. Make sure your bow hold is impeccable.
      • Play "Allegro" (violin book 1) and add  "Set, Sink" after every down bow circle.
      • Play "Perpetual Motion" (violin book 1) with a down bow circle after every note. "Set, sink."
      • Play "Etude" with a down bow circle after every note. "Set, sink."
      • Play "Chorus" (violin book 2) and add "Set, Sink" after every down bow circle.
      • Play "The Two Grenadiers" (violin book 2) and note the three down bow circle places. Are you setting and sinking at those places?
      • In violin book 4 and the Seitz concertos, there are several opportunities to set and sink the shoulder when placing down bows at the start of new sections. Play these concertos and ask the student to find places where the "set, sink" idea will be effective.
      When I first realized how much tension I had allowed to creep into my shoulder while playing my violin, I also found many opportunities to address the issue. I used my teaching in the studio to allow me to practice the exercises I have outlined above. I also found opportunities in symphony rehearsals and concerts to remind myself to "set, sink" before playing The only adjustment I had to make was to get ready to play in symphony a little earlier than usual to allow myself enough time to actually "set, sink." To this day, I still remind myself to "set, sink" after every down bow circle or after I have set my bow on the string.

      I also practice this exercise while driving, singing hymns in church, or grocery shopping.

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