Playing a musical instrument engages many parts of the brain, but it is not only a mental activity. Violinists, perhaps especially, are being continually reminded of our embodiment – that we play music with our physical selves. The noise we make uses almost every part of our bodies, and so violin playing involves a focus on and care for our physical health almost as rigorous as that of a dancer or athlete.
When I was growing up, my dad would start almost every morning with a long-distance jog. But he never just started running immediately upon getting out of bed. His muscles simply wouldn’t have the flexibility to cooperate and keep up with the vigorous, repetitive motions of jogging, so he started with a “warm up” routine of stretches.
Likewise, I have also had experiences where I had to rush to start playing, and was disappointed or felt uncomfortable in my performance – for the same reason – my body wasn’t “ready” to really work with me in my playing. I sound better, and feel more comfortable, if I take a few minutes to go through my own warmup routine, before either a practice or performance.
Playing violin can be a very physically awkward activity. Most people need months of training and careful practice before it becomes comfortable. However, ideally, you want your playing to feel as natural as possible. The violin should become a part of your shoulder; the bow should become your right arm. For the beginner, violin-oriented warmups can make learning proper motions much easier, and more fun.
Deeply in, deeply out, a few times. Not too complicated on the face of it, but a really important way you can focus your mind on your body and the present moment. By concentrating on breathing slowly, in just a few seconds, you can stop your busy mind and become aware of what your body feels like. This body awareness is indispensable towards developing strong violin technique. There are a wide variety of breathing exercises that promote calmness and bodily awareness. One of my favorites is “6-7-8” breathing. Breathe in through the nose and count to 6, hold it for a count of 7, and breathe out through the mouth for a count of 8.
Loose body, loose arms, loose hands:
Shake everything out, let all parts of your body get as relaxed as possible. As if you were made of paper, and could simply move with the wind effortlessly. Sway back and forth, and “scan” your body to see if there’s any place that seems to be holding any tension, and intentionally let that muscle get stretched into a place of calmness.
Then, bring your arms to your side and sway them back and forth. Shake out your hands, and let your wrists get “floppy” as you let the heaviness of your hands let them fall down and dangle loosely.
The Turtle and the Tree:
I use the image of the turtle and the tree to reflect a sense of the body “going in” to itself, and “spreading out” as wide as possible. Start by brining your arms to your chest, hugging your shoulders and bending down so you try to make yourself as small as possible, just like a turtle going into its shell. Hold it for a few seconds, then raise your arms and be a tree soaking up the sun. Be particularly aware of your shoulders, stretching them back so your chest can be as open as possible. Go back and forth between both of these stretches a few times.
In a fight, the natural instinct is often to try to attack the opponent with as much force as possible. The martial art of Judo (literally, “the gentle way”) turns that “common sense” on its head. Instead, you try to meet the opponent’s force receiving it, absorbing the attack and then turning it back on them. Pokémon Wobbuffet’s “Counter-Attack” is based on similar logic – absorbing force and then pushing it back.
So imagine another Pokémon is about to throw electricity/water/fire/whatever at you. Put your arms in front, perfectly straight. Then “catch” the attack by bending your arms and bringing them up to your chest. Finally, “throw it back” by straightening out your arms. Back and forth, quickly and aggressively but also smoothly.
(BTW, a very common bad habit for learning violinists is bowing by moving the whole arm back and forth, from the shoulder. This makes it impossible to keep a straight bow. This exercise is a great way to help you develop the habit of bowing from the elbow and wrist, keeping the upper arm perfectly still, instead.)
With both hands, bring your thumb and first (index) finger together in a circle, making an “OK” symbol. Then, move on to second, third, and forth fingers, connecting each to the thumb in a circle. Count to yourself, “1,2,3,4,3,2,1” over and over, seeing how fast you can coordinate the fingers together.
This is what I’ve worked out for myself, but you should feel free to create your own – working with a physician, physical therapist, music teacher, or yoga teacher to figure out what works best for you.
If it ever feels uncomfortable or hard:
Please don’t give up, or think that any of this excludes you from music making. For lots of people, both young and old, violin playing can be very difficult and even uncomfortable if done in a rigid “textbook” technique – the best violinists are continually modifying their technique with lots of creativity, patience, and bodily awareness to figure out what really works for them.
Sometimes it takes a lot of experimenting, alongside practicing what works until it feels “natural.” But music-making is something that every*body* can participate in. Your body already knows what it needs to be healthy, “pain” is simply a signal that something is off – to get you to stop doing something that could cause damage. So the key is to learn to listen, and move in a way that is respectful of both your limitations and your awesome capabilities.