Part 4: When Violins Attack: Confronting Habit in my First Alexander Lessons

I stood in the heroic mode of the great violinists. Or did I?

This is the fourth in a six-part series about my experience studying the Alexander Technique for the first time.

I jumped right into my Alexander lessons with Carol, coming twice a week in the beginning. As I mentioned yesterday, for the first two months or so, my lessons involved mostly classic Alexander procedures: chair and table work. As these lessons progressed, I started to notice my habits in these simple movements. I was becoming more aware: I remembered to check in with myself more often outside of lessons, and I would use a mirror, comparing what I felt I was doing with what I was actually doing.

As enjoyable as these early lessons were, I wasn’t very emotionally invested in sitting or standing. I was benefiting from what I was learning and enjoying the experience of moving in an unhabitual and easier way. But it was only when Carol suggested I bring my violin to my lessons that the sheer force of my habits came home to me. The violin was where all my aspirations and neuroticisms were tangled together.

My first lesson with my violin started as the others had with traditional chair and table work. After my table turn, Carol had me sit in a chair (a normal dining room chair with a flat wooden seat) while she went over to my case to take out my violin. When she brought it to me, she told me that she was going to hand it to me but she didn’t want me to raise it up to my shoulder just yet.

There is a wonderful feeling of lightness after a table turn, a heightened sense of your body. I was enjoying that feeling of poise when an odd thing happened. Carol handed me the violin and as I took it with my left hand, I felt my upper back jerk back involuntarily.

We looked at each other. I was puzzled. “Let’s do that again,” Carol said and took back the violin. She gave me a little bit more instruction: “Let me hand the violin to you,” she said, “and this time see if you can just leave yourself alone.”

She handed me the violin again and again my back jerked back. The movement was small, but quite distinct. It didn’t seem particularly healthy.

Again she took the violin away and handed it to me. Again I tried to leave myself alone and yet my back jerked back. We did this over and over again. I couldn’t control the jerk at all.

Then she took the violin away one last time and had an idea. She repeated the instruction: just leave yourself alone. Then she handed the violin to my right hand.

And there was no jerk back. I stayed poised.

The violin is held on the left side of the body (except in the case of “southpaw” fiddlers, who hold on the right). As Carol handed me the instrument, it was a cue to my body to prepare to hold it. But the cue was very specific: my back jerked back only when Carol handed it to my left hand, not my right.

As became clear over the next few lessons, the jerk back in my upper back was part of a larger habit pattern triggered by the violin. My head would push forward and to the left towards the violin chin rest. My shoulders would round forward while my upper spine pushed back. When standing, my hips would push forward, hollowing out my lower back. When sitting my hips would sometimes be more neutral, sometimes rolled back in the chair, making my spine a c-curve slump.

In that first lesson with the violin, I experienced the barest beginnings of the pattern. The only reason I noticed it was because my senses had been primed and my body poised through the traditional chair and table work.

Noticing this pattern helped me make sense of a photo taken at a dress rehearsal for a recital my last semester at Oberlin. I aspired to the heroic stance of the great violinists—if you’ve seen images of Jascha Heifetz, you might know what I mean—and I was clearly not standing heroically in the picture. My head and shoulders were pushed forward, my upper back back. The violin scroll was sloped towards the floor. I was disappointed. What a shame that the photographer caught me in a moment when I had swung the violin down, I thought, surely in the service of some deeply expressive effect.

But in my lessons with Carol, I started to realize this wasn’t a transitory expressive moment immortalized by the camera. It was my posture at the instrument all the time.

I then assumed that my slumpiness at the violin was the result of being tall and having grown so fast in high school. I reasoned that as I got taller, I didn’t adjust my set up—the chin rest and shoulder rest—enough to account for my long neck, and so I was forced to push my head down to my too-low chin rest. But then I discovered a candid shot of me practicing the violin at home at 13, and my posture at the instrument was exactly the same. I’d been holding the violin this way for a very long time.

The discomfort that I had experienced at the violin started to make sense. My head pushing forward was forcing the muscles of my upper back to work harder than they needed to. There was a tug of war between my shoulders rounding forward and my upper spine pushing back: no wonder I’d had those spasms underneath my shoulder blades preparing for my junior recital a few years before. With my head and shoulders pushed forward, the violin sloped down and the instrument felt less stable on my shoulder. My violin professor at Oberlin had constantly harped on me for over-gripping the violin with the thumb of my left hand. No wonder my wrists felt tight, I was constantly gripping the instrument to keep it from slipping off my shoulder.

I took some solace in discovering these habits. I was hopeful that with practice, I could overcome them. Carol also suggested that changing these habits would only be possible if I changed the set up on my violin: my existing chin rest was just too low for the length of my neck. It was forcing me to push my head forward and down.

We were in luck. Cliff Johnson, a retired bass player from the Minnesota Orchestra, made custom violin chin rests, any height and shape you needed. And he lived just a five minute bike ride away. I was excited.

I didn’t realize that things were going to get a lot worse before they got better.

Next: Of Chin Rests & Chickensin which I get a much higher chin rest and start to make progress in my Alexander lessons.