Chin rest: “To find the violin/ viola with just a turn and a nod of the head…”
Shoulder rest: “The left shoulder free and the instrument stable…”
The chin rest and shoulder rest should properly support the instrument but not hinder mobility. When the equipment does not fulfil these requirements, the musician is forced to develop coping strategies, some of them unhelpful. These can result in muscle contractions, distorted positions of the joints, and disturbance of the postural balance. By using these coping strategies, the musician tries to:
1. keep the instrument stable if the support is not sufficient, and
2. achieve a certain playing technique despite movements constrained by ill-fitting equipment.
As these coping strategies become habit, they are felt by the player to be an integral part of playing his/her instrument. They often cannot imagine playing otherwise, even when persistent muscle tension and pain plagues their comfort and technique.
By re-adjusting the equipment over time, while simultaneously re-training the musician to let go of cramped playing habits, we were able to increase the playing choices of the musicians.
Adjusting the chin rest to respect the balance of the head on the spine, and releasing the left shoulder from the pressure of an ill-placed shoulder rest helped to improve postural balance and mobility of the joints.
With support for the instrument improved and blocks to free movement removed, the musicians could then work effectively towards simplifying their playing technique, leading to improvement in technique and comfort.
With the new Chin Rest Testing Kit designed for this research, we could, for the first time, adjust the chin rest in all directions, which allowed us to clarify the respective roles of the chin rest and shoulder rest in providing support. By identifying their distinct yet complimentary roles we were able to adjust them to work together in harmony.
A flexible system of support could then be used to balance and secure the instrument, with this job divided between collar bone, left hand and shoulder rest under the violin, and the leverage forces provided by the weight of the head on the chin rest from above.
By demonstrating that contracting the neck and shoulder muscles to clamp the instrument in place actually stiffens the hands and arms instead of freeing them for playing, we were able to convince our players to start letting go of their cramped playing habits. (see balancing games and playing technique>>left shoulder)
To fit the equipment, the musician was asked to stand at ease, arms down and head off the chin rest, face forward. The instrument was then placed on the collar bone of the player by the researcher. We could then see where the chin rest or shoulder rest did not fit well. It was at first quite difficult for the musician not to contract the neck or the shoulder in response to the instrument. As they learned to let go of these habits during their weekly lessons in the Alexander Technique they found that they could use their new equipment with ease, and the chin rest and shoulder rest fittings became more accurate.
“I think that in order to make these changes you need a combination of Alexander Technique and changing the equipment. If you are changing the equipment, someone has to help you to find your balance anew. And if you are trying to find your balance but the equipment is not okay, you can’t do this on the Alexander Technique alone. One without the other is zero.” – Iren, June ’04
After adjusting their chin rests, all of the musicians in our research then practiced playing with substitute shoulder rest materials while they got used to their new chin rests. This prevented confusion between the new chin rest and the old shoulder rest, and gave them the chance to experiment and decide what the position, height and shape of their new shoulder rest should be. Based on the final concept, a suitable shoulder rest could then be selected or constructed for subsequent use.
Above all, the success of the adjustments depended upon taking the time to adjust and re-orient over an entire school year. The process could then be seen by the participants as part of conservatory study undertaken by a group of students, and not as a short-term emergency procedure carried out only when the career of a single musician is threatened.