Jascha Heifetz never used a shoulder rest and insisted that his students did not either to help them play more freely.
In my work as an Alexander Technique teacher I often help musicians and sports people maintain healthy poise and avoid unnecessary strain in normal life as well as when they play their instruments or in their sporting activity. The lessons help to revive our natural poise we enjoyed as young children by eliminating harmful postural habits and it’s surprising how quickly we can progress in a course of Alexander lessons.I have been learning to play the violin for the last seven years and I must say it’s not so easy at my time of life compared to young children who can learn so quickly! However I am most interested in my own difficulties at avoiding some of the pitfalls that come up when learning something so challenging. Despite my many years experience with the Alexander Technique, I still find myself ‘trying hard’ to play the right notes etc and I discover to my alarm that I begin to tighten just a bit in the process. I continually have to remind myself to not lean forward towards the music a nd to release my neck and shoulders while I play!As I got rid of the violin shoulder rest that virtually all violinists use, I no longer have the support of the contraption to hold the instrument in place. It must have been introduced initially to ‘make it easy’ but all the oldies frowned on it and Jascha Heifetz told his pupils to not even bother coming to a lesson if they had one in their case. Being somewhat of a traditionalist I followed the example.
Without the aid of the shoulder rest, the violin sits on my collarbone and the chin gently steadies it so it doesn’t slip. But any tendency to shorten in stature by ‘dropping down’ in front by stooping or leaning forward means the violin slips away from me and I lose the support. If the chest collapses a bit, the collarbone which the instrument sits is ‘going downwards and away from the chin. If I press downwards with the chin on the receding collarbone, my whole poise is constantly lowering and lowering. Consequently I ‘need’ to keep ‘coming up’ in front so the collarbone is high (but not held or fixed) and my chest is expanded, then the violin can rest on my collarbone. If there is the tendency to ‘come down’ on the violin or to press with my chin to hold it in place then this a form of shortening and will eventually stiffen my shoulder, arm and prevents free movement of my arm, hand and affect my vibrato. In other words it affects the entire ability to play. So I need to keep ‘going up’. This is contrary to instinct to hold the instrument in place. So I need to remain expansive and free all the time. If you’ve had Alexander Technique experience, then this will mean something to you.
In order to function at our best, we need to be free and supple in all of our joints yet expansive in stature, all at the same time. It is the quality we had as young children and lessons in the Alexander Technique can bring it all back so we function at our best without postural habits interfering and undermining our performance. Long hours of practice or sports training can eventually take their toll on us if we are not functioning in the optimum free and expansive manner. It’s how we’ve evolved as a species just like any other vertebrate mammal so we ignore this important aspect at our peril! We begin to suffer with unnecessary pain and strain which can eventually become debilitating and even cause us to quit. It’s worth while ensuring from the beginning that we are giving ourselves the best opportunity to do well.
If we are a professional musician, sportsperson, actor or singer, then all our previous Alexander Technique lessons will inform our abilities. The retraining of the musculature in all those Alexander lessons will see us through and we need to have trust in this. We don’t have time to consider our poise when actually performing. But during our practice sessions we do have the opportunity and these are the occasions I am referring to, when some thought to our poise can pay huge dividends. Not only can we improve our ‘game’ or play, but we can avoid strain and injury in the future. It’s important to create and maintain within us the free expansive poise so necessary for health as well as performance BEFORE we begin to play. We must start out on the manner we wish to perpetuate. So before beginning, don’t even pick up the instrument but pause a few moments and give your Alexander directions then don’t disturb that when you raise the instrument…..keep it going.
When we try learn a new skill, the temptation is to get it right….to try hard. This inevitably results in some tension and stiffening which can become habitual. See my last post ‘Voyage into the unknown’.
My own attempts at playing the violin are purely non-professional so I am under no pressure. If I was to choose which is most important; getting the notes right or attending to my poise, I have to choose the priority of maintaining poise over the playing. Only that way can I avoid the habits setting in and help myself for the future. If I keep the poise as no.1 priority and don’t worry about the playing, I should develop the good habit of healthy poise while playing the instrument without discomfort so this becomes ingrained. With continued practice and playing of the notes, I know my musical abilities will improve and eventually I shall become a much better musician with greater skills if I address the ‘means whereby’ or ‘manner’ in which I hold and use myself. But if I do not attend to my poise as no.1 priority and hurriedly just try to play the instrument any old how. I may improve my ability to play the notes…..to a degree, but will suffer in health, well-being and I believe limit my later potential to be a good player. It’s just not worth rushing and ignoring fundamentals that affect my entire co-ordination.
Taking one’s time with the basics pays dividends. All the attention we give to our poise goes in somewhere, deep into our subconscious. It also gets into our nervous system and subconscious. Every thought and every experience counts; they all have a bearing on our future performance and health without exception. If we have the chance, it’s helpful to ensure that as many of our experiences as possible, are good ones. That way we are more likely to achieve our full potential.