Posture. It might be the single most important aspect of playing a stringed instrument and yet generally no one wants to seem to talk about it. Often, if a lesson is spent primarily in addressing postural issues, I get the feeling from both students and their parents that they feel the lesson was wasted. After all, we didn’t actually play much. Honestly, I get it – posture isn’t the most fun thing to work on. However, posture is the literal, physical foundation to everything that we do as string players. If it’s crumbling, everything that’s built on it will start falling apart too, and how can we build anything more? But if it’s solid, everything built with care atop it will be “straight,” and “square,” and long-lasting. It’s crucially important. So, let’s talk about it.
Good Violin / Viola Posture Starts With Good Everyday Posture
In order for a violin or viola to have the proper “shelf” of collarbone and shoulder to rest on, a student must be in the habit of standing straight, and tall, and “proud” with their sternum raised and their shoulder blades back. This is not to say that posture should be exaggerated, indeed it should be relaxed and tension-free. However, because so much of students’ lives these days involves being hunched over a laptop computer or touch phone screen, it is often necessary to unlearn some bad postural habits and learn some good ones even before their instrument is taken into consideration. If a student maintains poor everyday posture, it will be nearly impossible to play their instrument with the requisite good posture. On the flip side, the more that good posture can be learned and practiced in everyday life, the easier it will be to bring the instrument into the equation.
Good Violin / Viola Posture Requires Experimenting With Different Equipment
As a student, it never crossed my mind that the violinists of the 18th and 19th centuries did not play with the use of a shoulder rest or even a chin rest. In fact, the chin rest wasn’t invented until the early 1800s, and was originally created to protect the tailpiece of the violin or viola, and the “bar” shoulder rest like most of us use today, didn’t come into the picture until the early 1900s. And there are still some of the best violinists and violists in the world today who play without the use of a bar shoulder rest.
However, in general, music has evolved greatly over the years. One has only to look at the difficulty and virtuosity of early Classical-era violin concertos as compared to Romantic or Modern-era to see how a proper “setup” of a combination of chin rest and shoulder rest equipment is necessary to help facilitate comfortable, sustainable playing for the majority of violinists and violists. In the Baroque and early Classical Periods, a violinist or violist could get away without ever leaving 1st-3rd position, did not need the freedom to vibrate notes with varying widths and intensities, and was not required to produce such deep, powerful tones from their instrument. The left hand could get away with helping support the instrument without the aid of a chin rest or shoulder rest. This is much less the case for the majority of players today.
I say “the majority of players” because there will always be those like Itzhak Perlman whose bodily proportions allow them to seemingly wedge their violin right between their shoulder and chin without the use of a shoulder rest. In fact, I have even seen him conducting – waving both arms – with his violin tucked under his chin with no shoulder rest! In a way, I envy him. I can promise you that if I attempted the same thing, my violin would be in pieces on the floor in short order. My shoulders naturally slope, even when I stand with good posture, and my neck is quite long. My anatomy simply does not allow for me to play with the same “setup” that Perlman uses.
And this is why I say that facilitating good posture requires experimenting with different equipment. Every students’ body is unique, and no two students will benefit equally from the exact same chin rest and shoulder rest combination. What works wonderfully for one might produce horrendous results for another. What’s more, each student grows and their body changes, meaning that maintaining a healthy, ergonomic, sustainable posture with their instrument requires frequent attention and adjustment.
Good Violin / Viola Posture Is Based On A Few Key Principles
Even though each and every students’ body is shaped and proportioned uniquely, there are a few principles that govern posture for each and every student:
- While standing with tall, proud, but relaxed posture, the backplate of the violin or viola, near the button, should rest on the student’s collarbone.
- With the instrument being held parallel to the floor, the gap between the underside of the instrument and the student’s shoulder should be observed, and a suitable shoulder rest should be chosen to fill that gap. Thus, the student’s instrument can be held parallel to the floor without the shoulder being raised and subsequently tensed.
- With the backplate of the instrument still resting against the student’s collarbone, and the shoulder rest filling the gap between the underside of the instrument, the student should stand with their head tall and relaxed, resting balanced atop their spine. Then, as they turn their head ever so slightly to look towards the scroll of their instrument, the gap between the top of their instrument and their jaw should be observed, and a suitable chin rest should be selected to fill that gap. Now, the student’s instrument can be supported in an ergonomic position that enables good technique and freedom of movement in both arms and hands.
The goal in all of this is to allow the student’s instrument to be held in a manner that keeps that body as close to its good, natural, everyday posture as possible. All too often, students will assume a contorted posture to support their instrument, which induces muscular tension, inhibits the freedom of movement that allow for good intonation, good shifting, good vibrato, and good tone, and often ultimately leads to pain and injury. However, with proper attention, this can all be avoided or corrected.
Bringing It All Together
Posture might be student’s and parents least favorite aspect of studying a stringed instrument to talk about, but it might also be the most important, particularly when it comes to a student’s health and the longevity of their playing career, but also when it comes to allowing all the other things we talk about, like a good bow hold, a straight violin / viola wrist, a relaxed bow arm, a freely-swinging violin / viola arm, bow strokes that are parallel to the bridge, the ability to shift into high positions, and so, so much more to take place.
Maybe we’re in the process of setting up good posture with your beginning student. Maybe we’re in the process of unlearning some bad postural habits and relearning some better ones with your beginning, intermediate, or advanced student. I hope that this post has helped you understand the importance of that time spent in lessons, and some of the principles that we’re striving to put in place. Whatever the case, make sure that “attending to your posture” is a part of your daily practice every day!