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Neck: the core of coordination

"It gives me a wonderful feeling to notice that, simply by making some changes in my chin and shoulder rest, a lot of different technical abilities are coming within my grasp; especially since I thought before that I would never be able to learn them well at all." - Willemijn, in the second month of the research

"Neck Technique"
In violin technique we often speak about right or left hand technique but never about "neck technique". Yet, our arms and hands rely on free, unencumbered use of the neck muscles and spine in order to function well.

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A free neck is the core of good coordination, which is essential to effective playing technique.
The muscles which move the arms and shoulder blades are attached to the head, neck and trunk.

Anatomy illustration from The Body Moveable, 5th edition, by Gorman (after Richer)

 

A violinist or violist needs to stabilize the instrument in order to shift, vibrate, etc. It is sometimes recommended to clamp the violin forcefully between the chin and shoulder in order to "free up the hands for playing."

Yet if you immobilize the neck and shoulder muscles to achieve stabilization, you disturb the body's balance and motor coordination, equivalent to wearing a neck brace. Diagonal clamping of the instrument between jaw and shoulder occurs when the chin and shoulder rest are badly fitted to the player. This is much more taxing to the body than holding the instrument between jaw and collar bone, with the shoulder rest providing tilt and secondary support underneath the instrument.

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1. Before the research. Huug, Nov. 2003
2. At the end of the research, after re-training and equipment adjustments. Huug, June 2004

The resulting stiffened/shortened neck, instead of "freeing the hands for playing," stiffens all the joints of the body. Test this by clamping the violin forcefully between head and shoulder and asking someone to move your wrist, fingers, elbow joint and upper arms. Your joints will be stiff and hard to move and your arm may also feel heavy. You may not notice this by yourself if you are used to this stiffening, but someone else moving your arms will observe it easily. 

Violin technique requires free movement of the joints. No amount of practice will correct these problems until the basic clamp (cramp) in the neck is removed.

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Ill-fitting chin rest and shoulder rest can cause the neck muscles to contract and the top of the spine to become immobile. When the upper vertebrae of the neck are locked, it affects the basic motor skills of the player, leading to technical problems in both arms and hands.

Violinists develop coping strategies that allow them to play in spite of stiffness, but the toll on the body is high, often leading over time to injury, reduced confidence, and rigidity in the face of new creative demands.

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1. Pulling the head constantly over to one side can lead to imbalance in the neck and head.
2. Sticking chin forward to hook violin also causes neck and shoulder tension.
3. A balanced use of the head and neckmeans that technique is based on good coordination.

If chin and shoulder rest are correctly adjusted, a light intermittent pressure on the chin rest using the weight of the head is enough to stabilize the instrument during down shifting and other manoeuvres. Pressing directly down by nodding the head on the spine puts much less stress on the neck than when the head is tilted to the side.

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1. You canít see how long his neck isÖ
2. ... until he lifts his head. Huug using his old low chin rest

If the chin rest doesnít match the neck, simply turning and nodding the head is not enough to find the instrument. The violinist must contract the neck and pull the head down and out of balance.

When turning and nodding the head to find the chin rest, the neck vertebrae are still properly aligned, and the neck muscles strong. In contrast, clamping with the head tilted to one side (or pulling the head down) weakens the neck and spinal reflexes, disturbing the coordination of the entire body. Also, when the instrument does not have the support of the collar bone, then the player often has to hook the instrument with the jaw to keep the fingerboard from sagging towards the floor, creating excessive tension in the neck.

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1. Pointing to the top of the spine
2. Nodding the head on the top of the spine

If a violinist has been actively clamping his violin or viola in place, the contraction in the neck will still be evident even when he is not playing. Shortened neck muscles and pressure in the upper neck vertebrae, head, shoulders, and back come to feel "normal": a "normal part of violin playing" and a "normal" part of how he is the rest of the time. Yet, like being in a neck brace, immobilizing the neck muscles can cloud basic spatial and motor perception, making it hard to observe what you are doing, or what is happening around you.

“I had so much tension in my head, jaw, neck and shoulder when I played, that after an orchestra rehearsal I saw and felt everything through a foggy haze.”
 -Willemijn

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Turning the head at the top of the spine (see "Rebalancing>>>Balancing games")

 

At the beginning of the research described here, before specific instruction, all 11 participating musicians were unable to nod or turn their head with ease. This was because of the built-up tension in their neck and shoulders caused by years of clamping their instruments in place.

We tackled this problem by adjusting the equipment and teaching the musician how to move and play with a balanced neck and head during weekly lessons in the Alexander Technique.

>>Rebalancing

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