When a musician uses a chin rest and shoulder rest for many years, the equipment seems to become an integral part of the instrument and how it feels to play. Refitting the equipment to suit the build of the musician’s body changes the “feel” of the instrument. Shifting its position alters the spatial relationship of the instrument to the eyes, ears, hands and arms of the player. Because the violin and viola are held under the chin, close to the balance mechanisms in the neck and head, even a slight shift in position feels large. As the violin position changes the playing environment changes, and balance mechanisms need time to re-orient.
“Immediately I felt comfortable with my new equipment. On the other hand, everything started to feel more complicated. After playing more than ten years in the same old position, it was difficult to change everything in a moment. The first days I felt completely lost, as if the violin was something completely new for me! It felt like starting to learn to play all over again.” - research student
Students required time to re-discover the new position of the instrument and to try out new ways of moving and supporting the instrument. This period of feeling disoriented usually lasted no more than two weeks if the musician was given the time and support to carry out changes without the pressure to learn difficult new repertoire. Listening to where the sound was coming from seemed to help them re-orient.
“Looking for solutions, I found that turning off the lights in the practice room allowed me to use my hearing instead of my sight to orient me to the violin in its new position. Finding out where the sound came from helped me to find my balance again and I stopped being confused.” – research student
Alexander Technique lessons given in the eight weeks prior to the first equipment changes, and continued throughout the project, helped students to remain calm and balanced and to increase the range and repertoire of movements. Emphasis of the Alexander Technique on orientation of the head on top of the spine helped the musician to keep their balance in reaction to spatial changes in the playing technique.
Examples from the research
Grounding the instrument:
The distance between instrument and head changes
Players with long necks are often used to raising their shoulder rest to fill the space, bringing the instrument itself up off of the support of the collar bone. Shoulders come up and head goes down to clamp the instrument in place. When the equipment is adjusted to allow the instrument to rest on the collar bone, the head then comes up and the violin goes down, increasing distance between face and strings. For the taller players, the actual distance between the face and the top of the instrument increased the most. This meant that the instrument was lower in relation to their eyes and ears as well as to their inner ear. This gave a temporary feeling of the violin being “far away.” The strings were also lower in relation to the accustomed position of the arms and hands, making bowing and fingering feel “lower” temporarily. Being able to bow without lifting up the shoulders unnecessarily helped the bowing to improve.
If the player was also used to tilt the head to find the instrument, repositioning his head on top of the spine could feel quite surprising. Some temporary dizziness was reported, especially because the altered position of the inner ear went from tilted to parallel to the floor. The change in the distance of the instrument from the ears of the player affected where the sound was experienced as coming from. Sound also changed when the instrument came to rest on the collar bone because of the addition of the skeletal resonance to the sound of the instrument.
All of these factors affected how the instrument felt and sounded to the musician. It took some time for musicians to accustom themselves to the new playing environment. Having more room to move and bow, and the resulting technical improvements, motivated them to continue the work of re-orientation.
Bringing the instrument around:
The angle in relation to the head changes as well as bowing and fingering movement patterns
Some musicians had been playing with chin and shoulder rests that put their instrument too far to the side. When we adjusted the equipment to position the violin more in line with the natural movement of the joints in arms and hands, this brought the violin into a different spatial relationship to the eyes and ears of the player. The musician now heard the sound coming from the front instead of the side. The fingerboard and strings of the instrument also came into a different relation to arms and hands, making old bowing and fingering movement patterns obsolete. The framework in which the movements occurs (the violin position) had changed, where the angle, nature and intensity of the playing movements had not. Movements that the player was used to making to bow and finger no longer had the same effect, leading to a temporary feeling that “things didn’t make sense,” of “not being able to find the instrument.” Musicians quickly learned to orient themselves to these changes. Technical improvements brought about by the healthier use of the arms and back motivated these players to continue the search.