Practicing Comfort

If you should decide to give the POLY-PAD a chance to help you improve your playing, congratulations! Whatever you decide, the following thoughts are offered to help you get the most benefit from using either your present setup or the “shoulder pad you almost don’t feel.”

Of the many goals we hope to achieve through practicing, perhaps the most fundamental goal should be to practice being comfortable. It is very difficult to play well when having to deal with discomfort, and we will never learn to perform with ease by straining as we practice. Making music should be a pleasure; if it involves pain or struggle, something is wrong. We should be practicing relaxation and cultivating comfort at every step.

Essential to comfort is a suitable set-up — a chin rest of appropriate height and shape and a shoulder rest (such as the POLY-PAD!) which follows both the slope and the curve of the shoulder without restricting upper body movement. Players with long necks who search for a high shoulder rest may actually need a higher chin rest. A shoulder rest should merely fill space between shoulder and instrument, not lift the instrument off the collarbone.

Relying totally on leverage between chin rest and shoulder rest to hold the instrument and supporting none of the instrument’s weight with the left hand may not be advisable for all players. A violin held this way exerts 2-3 lbs. (about 1 kg.) pressure on the jaw and shoulder; a viola may exert 5-6 lbs. (more than 2 kg.) pressure! Such pressure can cause tension in the neck and shoulder and can actually result in injury over a period of time. By supporting a mere 5-10 ounces (200 grams or so) of the instrument’s weight in the cradle formed by a relaxed thumb and the base of the index finger, then resting the instrument only lightly on the collarbone and relaxed shoulder, with the jaw only lightly on the chin rest, we can reduce the risk of injury, suffer far less skin irritation from abrasion against the chin rest, and enjoy considerably more freedom of the head, neck, and shoulders.

Pointing the instrument too far forward can make both bowing and left-hand technique awkward. Angle the instrument far enough to the left that it is above the shoulder, not the chest. However, keeping the head turned far to the left while playing may be neither necessary nor healthy. Many fine players turn the head only somewhat toward the instrument; some even face away from the instrument at times. Freedom to move the head allows the neck to be relaxed and permits easy balancing movements of the body in response to, and sometimes in anticipation of, actions such as bow changes, string changes, shifts, and vibrato.

How we stand or sit when playing is important. If the head is turned toward the instrument, the feet — and chair, if sitting — should be pointed correspondingly toward the right so that we can see the music without twisting the upper body or thrusting the left shoulder forward, causing neck, shoulder, and back tensions.

Trying to play too fast too soon results in anxiety, tension, and inaccuracy. Practicing slowly — really slowly — gives us a chance to learn to play not only accurately and beautifully, but also with comfort and security.

No matter how relaxed we know how to be, tensions will arise at times, and we need to know how to release these before they interfere. Breathing is a vital key to relaxing tensions; so are subtle “releasing” movements of the head and neck. If the source of tension is mental, we need to discover how to relax and refocus our mind. Learning to play well really is a fascinating mind/body experience!

As we practice, we should continually be alert to any discomfort — mental or physical — in our playing, then discover and eliminate its cause. Since we will tend to play in the manner we have practiced, it only makes good sense to cultivate comfort and relaxation as fundamental, integral elements of our technical and musical development.

Michael Kimber