Pointless Things Your Teacher Tells You That are Technically Accurate: Relax. Part II in a Likely Indefinite Series.

A few years back, when I came up with the idea of this series of blog posts, the first topic I thought of was not this one, which some teachers act as if is the Holy Grail of technique. It was certainly not in my mind at that moment and only recently, as I have been teaching more, did I feel this was most necessary to address.

            At studio class in conservatory, a constant was the barking of “just loosen up”, “just relax,” “just let your shoulder’s rest”, “just let the weight of the bow play the instrument”, “just. . . just. . .just. . .just. . .just. . .”

            The word “just” is really the problem here. It conveys the idea that your best playing is on the other side of flipping a switch. You could do this now, if you so chose, but your current state of not doing it tells us you refuse. This is, of course, a mockery of the truth of the matter. The student does have a choice, but the choice is closer to stepping out to a long and difficult road through uncharted territory. The choice to face sounding worse than your best in the moment to gain greater powers of playing in the future. Teachers too often want immediate results, desiring their students to leave the studio in awe of them, “fixing” problems with immaculate ease. The problems, however, aren’t really fixed. They must go the whole week without their teacher, and the ready-made solutions rarely work as effectively in the practice room. This is a great irony that, in the teacher’s efforts to provide quick solutions, the student takes longer to learn.

            I propose, in contrast, that the student be sent on a journey. This journey has a guide, but the student is in no way unaware of either the arduous work or the time that this path will take. However, when it is done he will know that he has covered and truly cleared a great deal of ground. No stone unturned, no root left festering. He has a level plain upon which to build his technique.

            This is all an over-complicated way of saying the student must be taught how to relax. People often act as if relaxation is not our normal state. It isn’t. Our bodies developed through most of history needing to respond immediately to internal and external stimuli. If yours didn’t, then it was likely you wouldn’t last long. While these muscular reactions are absolutely natural and necessary for survival in the wild, they aren’t always ideal for violin playing. For example, your right shoulder might be inclined to raise as your upbow gets closer to the frog. From my experience as a teacher, I can almost guarantee that that is the case. My beginning students always react with raising their shoulders when I teach them to do a full bow. It’s a perfectly natural response to the motion of raising your arm, and it is detrimental to your bow control.

So, what can be done? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen teachers merely tell their students to “just relax” their shoulders, or to keep their shoulders down. As you might have guessed by everything I’ve said so far, this is not only useless, it might be counterproductive. The teacher should instead focus on nurturing the student’s “Mind-Muscle” connection.

What, exactly, is this connection? I believe that I will devote an entire blog post to this someday but, in short, the Mind-Muscle connection is full awareness and control of which muscles you are using to perform a certain movement. We often move about without taking any thought as to what muscles or groups of muscles are causing our movement. While this will not negatively affect our day-to-day activities (though it might cause muscle imbalance and therefore joint pain later in life), it becomes a significant problem when you are trying to do something that requires more specific motor patterns. You must develop a connection between your active mind and the muscles you are seeking control over.

I start out teaching this awareness from the student’s first lesson, as they learn to move their fingers up and down on the string. If I didn’t set very clear parameters for the movement, there would instantly be chaos in their left hand. If I merely told them to move their fingers up and down, and gave no other instruction, their untrained muscles would react in whatever way was necessary to make the fingers rise and descend, resulting in an inconsistent and ugly left hand. Instead, I give them clear instructions: “a slight curve to the fingers, don’t squeeze the string, move only from the base knuckle, make the movement going up and going down mirror images.” This is a lot of information for someone to take in, but if I continually give them these cues as they attempt execution of the movement, I have them doing the correct movement by the end of the lesson. Some students are a bit slower than others, of course, but once that connection is made, they can do the movement with relative ease.

Now, repeating the instructions to the specific movement isn’t the only tool to help the student improve their mind-muscle connection. Helping the student visualize it through illustrations and cues is also very helpful. An example I often use is for the student to imagine a string, running from their brain all the way down to the pertinent muscle. I take my finger and, starting from their head (without physically touching them, of course) slowly trace down to the point of movement. Sometimes the student will be able to do the correct movement immediately, and other times the student will need a few more cues. For example: with the “string” still connected from their head, I have them imagine that they are tugging on the string in their head, moving the muscle like a marionette. It is also helpful to touch the joint from which they must move. All of these will slowly build up the direct connection they must have between their minds and their muscles.

Speaking of slow building, I cannot stress enough how important it is for the student do start these new movement out as slowly as possible. This will be much slower than they would imagine is necessary. I tell them to take whatever speed they were about to do and do a 3rd of that. You can also tell them to divide the movement pattern they are attempting into ten different micro-patterns and do each individually and sequentially. If you don’t have the proper patterns built in, you cannot jump into the movement. They must be built from a very, very slow base. Once that base is established, however, it is nearly unbreakable.

            But what does this have to do with relaxing? Well, in the same way that we train the mind-connection for muscles that we want to move, we must also train it for muscles that we want to stay dormant. This always goes back to the raising of the shoulder of the bow arm.

With nearly every violinist I have known or taught, there is an inevitable tendency to raise the right shoulder during an upbow. This destabilizes the bow-stroke and often causes a skittering if the player uses much more than an inch of bow. It doesn’t take that long for the student to learn to keep their shoulder down, but often the same problems, especially the skittering, continue. This is because the offending muscle, the trapezius muscle, to be exact, is still active in their bowing. You must help them find the mind’s connection to that muscle and use that to eradicate its involvement. This would be the desired goal of telling a student to “just relax” while playing but produces a much clearer and effective result.

So, teachers, be sure that you are fostering the mind-muscle connection in your students. And students, demand clearer and more detailed answers to your problems in playing. It may take more time, at first, but will pay out so much more in the end.