Things 4 Strings Blog

Better Skills, Greater Joy: Posts from our String Studio

PREVENTING VIOLIN/VIOLA PLAYING INJURIES THROUGH PROPER SET-UP by Claire Stefani

Claire Stefani

Playing any instrument means MOVING … a lot!  A properly fitted set-up does not replace the benefits of a postural correction approach, but will optimize its benefits. 

We all recognize the validity of fitting the right size instrument and bow to a player’s body type.  But, when it comes to chin and shoulder rest set-up, the myriad of possibilities to adapt equipment to body type can be daunting.  So before you buy ANOTHER chinrest or shoulder rest, here are some guidelines on what matters, based on my bottom-up experience of fitting/working with some 400 musicians in the past 4 years.

GUIDELINES

Head balance

The head weighs 12 to 15 pounds.  The axis of its balance is at ear lobe level.  The head should rest on the chinrest at the same level as the end of nodding “yes”.

Arm balance

Arms should be supported by the back muscles in the same way as when hugging someone (but not falling in their arms!).  If not, the arms will pull the instrument down with force that can’t be borne by the head and shoulder nor compensated for by the chinrest/shoulder rest set-up. 

Best tool to train arm support? Apply the motion logic of walking, initiated from the hips, to arms: get the momentum going from the shoulder blades.  For more on this, refer to scapulohumeral rhythm from the body mapping approach. 

Instrument position

Up or down, in or out … it should be the teacher’s and player’s preference, not a chinrest or shoulder rest dictating how the instrument is held! One thing to remember though: by allowing a contact point with the collarbone instead of only on the left shoulder, one will notice:

  • a reduced need to clench
  • more freedom in the left shoulder, less strain on the left arm and hand
  • less heaviness, more freedom in the bow arm

Follow the pain

One player’s comfortable set-up could be torture for another.  It’s the same logic as trying on shoes! Initial pain or fatigue with instrument playing comes from muscle tension.  So as early as possible, identify any skeleton imbalance in playing position (vs. neutral position) leading muscle to sustain a static position instead of contributing to movement.  And say NO to the “no pain no gain” mantra, as it only leads to injury.

Claire Stefani, after 20 years of experience with musical accessory manufacturer/distributors (BAM Cases and then D’Addario), founded Volute Service International to provide an active interface between music instrument/accessory makers and orchestral string players and teachers.  Claire’s interest in violin/viola ergonomic set-up and its impact on movement efficiency stems from her experience as an international field hockey player in her native France.  She is a fitter for the Frisch & Denig chinrest line and has helped more than 400 musicians with their set-up.  She is also an avid amateur chamber music violist and violinist in New York City, an affiliate Andover trainee, and an active member of the Performing Arts Medicine Association (PAMA).  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  1298 Hits
1298 Hits

Fun App for Practicing: Tiny Decisions

Tiny Decisions App Screen Shots

While I am perhaps personally one of the worst cell phone users on the planet (my own phone is rarely charged and I don't use it to receive calls), my students and I have thoroughly been enjoying adopting a wonderful little app called Tiny Decisions into our practice routine. The hardest part of practicing (after actually opening the case) is often just deciding what to practice first! As a Suzuki teacher, for decades I have provided my students with a Review Chart to keep both a record of their progress and help establish a warm up routine. But this (FREE!) app really does the trick in a neat and modern way, and is downloaded and customized for each student within minutes. 

Tiny Decisions is an app to make all decisions fun & easy! Just input your question, add/import options and spin the wheel to get a random answer!

Features:

* Create your own decisions to make
* Built-in decision templates
* Set weight for options
* Select non-repeating options
* Flip a coin
* Share decision with your friends
* Import options from clipboard, one option per line
* Make quick decision

  1615 Hits
1615 Hits

10 Thoughts Regarding Organizing Studio Solo Recitals

Young Boy in Solo Violin Recital

Make recitals happen! If you are a teacher, organizing a recital experience for your students takes time and planning – and often can be really easy just to not bother with. But the benefits of a well-run recital to both the individual students and the studio as a whole are undeniable. If you are a student, or parent of a student, please make these special opportunities for growth a priority in the family calendar. The cornerstones of the music education program you have generously invested in for your child, recitals are not just another “activity” like soccer games and birthday parties vying for time on a busy schedule. They need to be awarded top priority scheduling status.


While preparing a student for a recital involves a whole set of tasks revolving around teaching the techniques, rhythms, notes and musicality of each piece, I offer below ten thoughts I haven’t seen much written about that relate to recital planning in general:

1. How many recitals per year? Some studio teachers plan one recital per year, while many plan two recitals. Other teachers may also keep an eye out for other student group and solo performance opportunities, such as at community events or senior centers. The exact number is less important than that all performances are properly planned and prepared in advance.


2. Don’t have access to a proper recital hall? Churches are a great option, an often not too expensive to procure. Music store also sometimes have a recital room. Do you or any of your students have a house large enough? Home recitals are lovely!

3. How many students per recital? My favorite number is around 15 students, but the more important factor, to me, is to keep each recital under an hour in length.


4. Accompaniment: While one can present a string studio recital without an accompanist, I feel it is an awesome, high-priority component. If your students are playing pieces beyond your ability to accompany them yourself, consider hiring an accompanist. Some teachers charge a recital fee to cover the expense for the accompanist, and possibly the venue. Another option is to play a duet accompaniment to as many pieces as possible. Martha Yasuda, for example, has published duet accompaniments to the entire Suzuki violin repertoire (http://yasudamusic.com ).

5. Don’t have enough students for a recital? No problem! Invite other local teachers to either bring students or to invite your students onto their recitals. Networking is gold.


6. The After-Party: in my own current teaching situation at a local university, the venue we use for a Suzuki Group Concerts allows for a little reception afterwards. We simply ask parents to bring a few treats to share if they can, and it as great time for parents and students to celebrate and bond with each other. Because our solo recital venue has a strict no-food policy, we celebrate by inviting all the soloists up on the stage at the end of each program for one more round of applause and a group photo op.

7. Seating Advice to First Time Recitalists: sit in or near the front row, for the best view and shortest walk to the stage!


8. Piece Selection: In my studio, students commit to the piece they are preparing for each recital at least six weeks in advance. Advanced students may even choose their pieces six months in advance. Kids lead busy lives and I find we need to plan ahead to get everything thoroughly prepared.

9. Dress Code? I tell my students “Clean & Decent,” but do point out that the outfit needs allow for the comfortable playing of their instrument. So, for violinist, I warn the girls about the challenges some jewelry, neck-lines, buttons, high-heels and hair-styles might present, and I advise the boys to only play in a suit and tie if they have tried it at home first.


10. Stage Presence: The father of one of former students, who is now a music major at Oberlin College, once told me that the thing he appreciated me teaching his son the most was teaching him how to take a bow on stage. To open each of my recitals, I make the same announcement. After the usual welcome and request to silence cell phones, I remind everyone that we are a friendly crowd who loves to clap! I state our rule that not only will everyone clap every performer onto and off the stage, but that we will keep clapping until the performer acknowledges the applause with a proper bow. This little piece of recital etiquette is worth the few minutes it takes in lesson to prepare the student how to walk and bow while carrying a violin, bow and, possibly, sheet music. We also practice how we will re-check their tuning once on stage, how to stand in the correct orientation to the audience, and exactly how they are going to cue or start their piece. All this practice about what happens immediate before a student plays is like taking out a Positive Recital Experience insurance policy.

Students of Ruth Brons Solo Violin Recital Class Photo

  1266 Hits
1266 Hits

Body Mapping for String Players by Jennifer Johnson

Things 4 Strings Healthy Playing - Healthy Studio Booklet

(This article first appeared in our Healthy Playing - Healthy Studio Booklet, now Sold Out.)

String players move to produce sound from their instruments!  The quality of our movement determines the quality of our sound.  And so learning to move according to the true anatomical design of the body serves two important purposes for string players:

  • We produce our most lovely sounds with ease
  • We prevent injury and limitation

What is Body Mapping?

Body Mapping is the method founded by William Conable and developed by Barbara Conable to consciously correct a faulty body map in order to rediscover healthy and easeful movement while making music.

Barbara wrote two books on Body Mapping: the first is How to Learn the Alexander Technique and the second is What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body.  She then created a course for musicians by the same name.  Before she retired, she trained many of her musician students to present the course material to other musicians.  Our organization of Body Mapping Instructors is called Andover Educators.

Barbara realized that in order for musicians to recover from and prevent further injury, we would not just have to retrain movement by correcting the body map, but we would also need to retrain and hone the senses, particularly the kinesthetic sense. This sense tells us about our quality of movement, but also retrains a healthier quality of attention.  Musicians who “concentrate” are narrowing their field of awareness and once that narrows, so do the muscles in the body!

What is the Body Map?

The body map is the neuronal self-representation we hold of our body in our brain.  It is literally a picture of our body located in the brain that corresponds to and governs, amongst other functions, our senses.  We have numerous maps which represent our self in all of our various functions and behaviours and these maps interface and communicate with each other in complex ways.

When we are very small, our maps are accurate depictions of the actual anatomical design of the body, so young children move and play the violin, viola and cello with relative ease and comfort.  However these maps, which are changeable, can and frequently do deviate to become inaccurate representations of the body’s design.

Sometimes it happens because the child has modeled an adult in his life who has poor movement patterns.  Sometimes the inaccuracy in the map stems from cultural myths.  For example, if a child is told often enough to “sit up straight” when playing the cello, his neuronal map of his spine will gradually alter to reflect what he imagines is meant by “sitting up straight.”

“Sitting up straight” produces a great deal of unnecessary muscular effort in the back of the torso up and down either side of the spine.  The more the child does it, the more his map tries to match itself with this sensation of effort in the back muscles, and over a few years, the child’s map will have changed.  In other words, the number and location of firing neurons that represent his spine in his brain will actually alter so that the back half of his spine is now represented as being the primary source of support for the torso.  Unfortunately for the boy, the truth is that the front half of the spine, located up the vertical centre of the torso rather than up the back, is actually the half that is designed to bear and deliver the weight of the torso down through the pelvis and into a chair! We know this because there are little pillows called disks that cushion the vertebrae one from the next in the front half, but there is no such cushioning system in the back half of the spine.

So we have a vicious cycle in place because it is that inaccurate map that now dictates his future movement.  The map will cause him to spend more time sitting in this muscularly held-up manner which in turn, reinforces the strength of the inaccurate map.  He will wonder why his lower back hurts so much when he sits to practice, why his arms feel stiff, and why he cannot produce the free and easy bow strokes he sees other cellists using.

Only with conscious remapping will the child return to his birthright:

  • his natural balance around a spine that exists right down his centre rather than just down his back
  • free arms (once the torso muscles stop trying to hold us up and allow the front of the spine to bear our weight, they are free to return to their primary job of easily moving our limbs.)
  • free breathing (once the torso muscles stop trying to hold us up and allow the front of the spine to bear our weight, the ribs are free to have their full excursion to produce easy breath.)

The purpose of Body Mapping is to guide musicians through the process of remapping if they already hold erroneous beliefs about their body in movement and to prevent young musicians from ever losing the accuracy of their maps in the first place.

Accessing and Correcting the Body Map

Before you can correct your body map, it is necessary to discover where your own particular mis-mappings lie.  Ways to do this are: Drawing and self-inquiry about what you think your body is like, observing yourself in a mirror or on video, comparing your observations with medical-grade anatomical images and models (notice what surprises you in the images- if you’re surprised by something, you can be sure you had a different mental conception of it!) palpating your own bones, and observing beautiful movers/performers you admire, either in live performance or on video or YouTube.

Being aware of how language or gestures reflect cultural body map errors like “sitting up straight” or “get your shoulders down” can also bring new insights about your map.  Usually a combination of these methods works best.

Correcting the Map to Overcome Tendonitis

One of the most common injuries that string players suffer is tendonitis in the forearm or wrist, so to illustrate the process of correcting your map, I have chosen brief excerpts on this issue from my books What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body and Teaching Body Mapping to Children.

Structure of the Elbow Joint

There are two movements which happen at the elbow joint- bending/unbending and rotation- and there are two lower arm bones- the ulna and the radius.  The ulna takes full responsibility for the movement of bending and unbending, and the radius bone looks after the movement of rotation. 

The radius is the lower arm bone on the thumb side of the hand.  Unlike the ulna, the radius does not form a deep joint with the humerus.  The end of it is rounded, effectively providing it with a surface for swiveling against the humerus in its function of rotation.  Mis-mappings at the elbow joint in rotation are often responsible for tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome in violinists. 

The Mis-mapping

The most common cause of tendonitis in the elbow and wrist is the mis-mapping of the forearm’s rotation at the elbow joint.  There are two forearm bones- the ulna and the radius.  The ulna is on the pinkie side and the radius is on the thumb side.  These two bones are parallel to one another when the hand is palm-up and when we turn the hand palm-down, it is the job of the radius (also called the “radial bone”) to “radiate” or rotate in order to cross over the stationary ulna.  The radius is beautifully designed with a rounded swivel end where it meets the humerus (upper arm bone) to fulfill this function of rotating itself, carrying the wrist and hand bones along with it.  The ulna is designed to look after bending at the elbow, not rotating.  However, (violinists) frequently try to turn the ulna- the wrong bone- in order to turn the hand in pronation and supination (particularly on the left side to “get the elbow under the violin.”)  But because the hinge-like bending joint where the ulna meets the humerus cannot actually produce a rotation movement, the soft tissues in the forearm, specifically the tendons, attempt to accommodate and the result is they get stretched, strained, and inflamed in the process.  This is called tendonitis.

Movement Activity for Remapping Free Rotation at the Elbow Joint

Place your right forearm palm-up on a piece of paper on top of a table or desk.  Then use a pen to draw a line on the paper along each side of your forearm and then turn your hand palm-down, not allowing your humerus (upper arm) to aid in the movement.  If your forearm stays roughly in between the two lines when the hand is moving to palm-down, or if the ulna slides at all across the paper, then you know you have this mis-mapping.

In order to stay in between the two lines, the ulna would have to move off of its initial line and travel over the radius’ line, even though the ulna is not designed to perform this movement.  The only way this can actually happen is if the tendons and other connective tissues are being strained.  This is what it feels like when the radius is doing fifty percent of the rotation (instead of 100 percent) and the ulna is doing the other fifty percent of the rotation movement against its design.

Next try the rotation exercise again, but this time while keeping the ulna stationary on its first line (see image above) and allowing only the radius to leave its line in order to turn palm-down.  When turning the right hand palm-down like this, the radius will end up several inches to the left of the lines on the papers but the ulna will remain on its original line. 

Practicing New Movement Patterns

Once the new way of moving your hand from palm-down to palm-up can be felt, you will need to do hundreds, perhaps thousands of repetitions of this movement in order for the map to fully and permanently change back to accurately reflect the anatomical design of your elbow joint.  I highly recommend keeping the forearm on a table or another surface in the beginning weeks of remapping this movement.  Doing it in the air is initially much more challenging and will risk the ulna becoming involved in the rotation once again.  Eventually, it becomes very easy however and conscious thought can drop away- the healthy movement will be yours once again and you’ll know that your process of correcting your map is complete.

About the Author

Jennifer Johnson, author of What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body and Teaching Body Mapping to Children, is a professional violinist with the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra and is on the faculty at the Memorial University Music School where she teaches violin and Body Mapping.  Jennifer is also on the faculties of the Suzuki Talent Education Program of St.  John’s and the Tuckamore Chamber Music Festival.  She is a Licensed Andover Educator and presents Body Mapping workshops internationally, teaching musicians to enhance their musical ability and to prevent injury through a clear understanding of how their bodies are designed to move.  She has been keynote speaker at the Australian Strings Association Conference and is a regular presenter for the New York Philharmonic’s Zarin Mehta Program.  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  1561 Hits
1561 Hits

SUCCESS THROUGH GOAL SETTING by Ruth Brons

 Student Consolidated Review & Planning Chart from Ruth Brons' violin studio

(This article appears in our Healthy Playing - Healthy Studio Booklet, which is FREE WITH PURCHASE as resource to string teachers. Limit One Booklet per purchase, while supplies last.)

A sure measure of the health of private lesson studio is the rate of attrition. While some factors that may cause a student to leave a studio or program are completely out of the teacher’s control, such as the habit of American families to relocate to other cities, the savvy teacher can employ smart techniques of goal setting to simultaneously decrease student attrition and increase student success.

Goal setting is a two way street: if a goal is set for the student to reach, it is also set for the teacher to get the student there. The pressure goes both ways!

During my first many years of teaching, I systematically approached each lesson with two types of goals in mind:  short-term and medium-term. The short-term goal was to make sure that the student left each lesson excited about having learned or improved at least one thing, and looking forward to coming back next week to learn or refine something else. The medium-term goal was to look ahead a bit further and prepare for the next recital or audition. I used this lesson format quite some time – until I learned the value of adding in, to every lesson, even longer term goals.

About ten years ago I started participating in the American String Teachers Association Certificate Advancement Program (ASTA CAP) program through our New Jersey State ASTA Chapter. The ASTA CAP program is available to any ASTA member’s student, whether from school program or private studio. Participation in this program added, among other things, the very important third type of goal to my lesson planning – the long term goal for a year’s worth of accomplishment, and even the “big picture” long term goals of a ten or eleven year program.

I was, and am, also very careful to explain to the students that the ASTA CAP exam is set up so that if the student is prepared, the student should pass. It is a winnable game. I do caution that I have in fact had a few students fail (usually because of scales!), but that all but one student has gone back for a re-test and ultimately passed. All a student has to do is agree to learn the material that we both agree is reasonable, and that I promise to fully teach months in advance. This is our pact. We go over the sample score sheet together so the rubric is completely understood. I have had a few students who simply object to subjecting themselves to yet another test. My response is that, unless the student is in high school, I really don’t care if they actually take the exam. But it is a requirement in my studio that they prepare for it. Even my adult students, who are too old to qualify to take the exam, prepare for the annual exam. High school students like to take the exam, as they appreciate how the certificate may supplement their college applications.

Setting the Goals

A typical September planning lesson might result in, say, a fourth grade student agreeing that since he was working at level three last year, that we should look at earning his Level 4 Certificate this year. “OK – let’s see what we need to be sure we learn this year. “We then clearly write in his practice book which scales and etudes we need to learn, and select our pieces. Notice the pronoun: we. Suddenly, the teacher becomes the partner in this project; the coach. We are in this together! A lot of times this goal-setting conversation is the first time a child, or parent, even considers violin as being a multi-year activity, or even considers that, given measured work over a long period of time, a rather high level of violin mastery is actually possible. It can really blow an eight year old’s mind to actually talk about setting goals for when they are high school. I want my students to know I do not expect them to be locked into violin as their unwavering primary passion for 10 or eleven years! But that I will help them achieve their long-term target goal to the very best of my ability. I really like this goal setting conversation, and consider it an extremely important part of setting up our year, and years, working together.

In Progress

Each lesson then includes a conversation about our progress.  A scale warm up can include a mention of our goal: “It’s great you’ve learned the fingerings of that first scale on our list, because today we need to add the slurs we need for the exam.” Or, “If we learn these three lines today, we’ll be on track to have the whole piece covered by Winter Break – as I promised you I would!”

I am not going to lie – as the ASTA CAP level number goes up I do have to hustle to get through all the material, on top of all the other things demanding lesson time attention. But as the students see me doing my part of the bargain to prepare them, I think it becomes clearer to them what they need to do to hold up their end of the deal as well. Once we have gone through every note of the material, almost always before Winter Break, then we circle back and refine polish everything in the remaining months before the exam. For example, looking up how many notes in a bow we need, and the required tempo for scales. I love how it’s the rules, rules that we have already agreed were reasonable, that makes these demands.

Success!

Overall, my ASTA CAP story is one of many successes. The program is now integral to my studio, and even gets mentioned on my studio website for all potential new students to consider. The students now have their short term goals of what to learn for the next lesson and recital. They have their annual ASTA CAP level goal. And they have their long term goal of the “Black Belt” ASTA CAP Level 10.  And they have bought into the program. The students really have, and so have their parents. They have seen the high-schoolers in my program reach that goal, and they know it is an attainable goal if they just achieve their yearly goals along the way. I am in awe of the work these kids have done, which all starts out with them just committing to doing an “average” amount of work per year. Several have gone on to major in music in college.  Others are convinced their ASTA CAP credential indeed helped them get into competitive colleges – and some are enjoying playing for fun in college. Did you know Harvard has a Mariachi Club? Just one quick story from my studio: My student Benjy earned his Level One Certificate in 2008. Six years later, when we were planning out his Level 7 year, I said, “Gosh, I can’t believe it, Level 7 this year already!”  Benjy replied that no one was more surprised than he. He said that every September he and his parents would sit down and review his slate of extra-curricular activities, such as soccer, karate, violin, etc. to decide which activities to add, keep or drop. And violin somehow always made the cut. Last year he finally earned his Level 10 Certificate – which was quite the accomplishment for him. He had to put some extra months of practice and re-test his Mozart Concerto and his scales, but he was very proud that he finally accomplished his long-term goal that he had set for himself nine years earlier.

Looking Back

When I first adopted ASTA CAP into my studio, I had no idea how big an impact it would have. I had simply been looking for a nice way of recognizing student achievement, and thought I had hit the jackpot when I found a system already in place by an esteemed national organization. But there have been long-term effects in both my studio and my teaching.  I predicted that the top students in my students would like the program – and they did! They ate it up, and were eager to learn both the required materials and what they would need to do to earn an “Honors” designation. But I found I didn’t really need ASTA CAP for my top students, even though they were glad to do it. The top students are already self-motivated and are dictated repertoire and scales through the competitive youth orchestra systems, such as Region and All-State competitions. The biggest impact ASTA CAP has had in my studio has definitely been with the “average” and “challenging” students. First of all, I have not had one conversation with a parent worried about whether or not their child is progressing well enough. Not one conversation like that in the last ten years. Not. One. Because the goals are clear and reasonable, the preparation is offered, and the third party exam feedback in black and white. Students who barely pass the exam one year learn that perhaps they had better prepare a little harder and a little sooner the next year. And as the years go by the students get further and further invested in succeeding the following year. The students that struggle to earn their certificates are the proudest of their success. I have to admit I have a few students in my studio that I thought that while violin lessons are probably really good for them, that they would never amount to much of anything. But they have plugged along level by level and are now playing at a higher level than I ever would have dreamed for them. Goal setting/goal achieving has kept them in the game, and studio attrition rates are near zero. When I first adopted ASTA CAP into my studio, I was uncomfortable with the feeling of “teaching to the test.” I had already been teaching for over a quarter of a century and had it kind of down to a system and what I expected from each piece in the repertoire I taught. I had each student move on the next piece once the skills required by the previous piece had been mastered. After all, isn’t a private lesson setting all about the student learning at their own pace? And, especially with the lower end of my studio, I was finding I might have to hop and skip through the repertoire sequence I had been teaching in order to prepare the kids for their next ASTA CAP levels. Oh, the guilt! But now, ten years later, I see how the program has improved my teaching, my students and my studio. I feel more directed and supported in my teaching, my students are all steadily progressing through the sequence, and my studio parents are all clear and on board with our shared goals. I am very glad I elected to participate in ASTA CAP when I first learned about it ten years ago. 

 

Ruth Brons, president of Things 4 Strings, LLC, was honored for her work in music education by the American String Teachers Association (ASTA) in 2014 with the prestigious Kudos Award. Ruth also maintains a full private lesson studio in conjunction with her work as Suzuki Violin Program Coordinator and Visiting Specialist for Montclair State University in New Jersey. She has also served as a clinician for the South Carolina Suzuki Institute (over twenty years).  She holds a Master of Music Degree in Viola Performance from Temple University (Philadelphia) and a Bachelor of Music Degree in Viola Performance from The New School of Music (Philadelphia), and is an alumna of Charles Castleman's Quartet Program. She studied with Max Aronoff, Leonard Mogill, Heidi Castleman, Evelyn Jacobs Luis, and Davyd Booth. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  1659 Hits
1659 Hits