Having now set guidelines for contending with the nature of our hand anatomy, it would be useful to cover briefly the most common deviations from nature that lead to muscle tension.
Note that the following habits persist in all levels of violin mastery and are not an indication of musical competency or overall level.
Having said that, tension does set real limits on speed and fluency in both hands. When faced with such limits, the natural reaction may be to power through with increased effort, which tends to lock up muscles further, leading to a vicious cycle.
Furthermore, when accumulated over a prolonged period, muscle tension is the most common cause of injury in practicing musicians. The only way to beak this cycle is to become aware of it and mindfully monitor how your hands feel as you tackle a fast passage or an awkward shift. I like to call it active relaxation.
The muscle at the base of the thumb is the biggest muscle in the hand and therefore the biggest contributor to tension in both hands. As an experiment, you could try tensing up your thumb while keeping your hand loose and relaxed. The fact that doing so is almost impossible means that monitoring the thumbs is the best way to keep the rest of the hand free of tension.
1. Unnatural hand positions commonly lead to tension.
If becoming actively aware of your thumbs while playing eliminates most problems regarding hand tension, shaping your hands more naturally will take care of whatever tension that might remain.
As mentioned in the previous article, the shape of both hands must be as close as possible to the loose shape the hands assume while hanging idly at your side. In the right hand, this shape is quite easy to maintain. In the left hand, however, stretches and playing awkward double stops may at times disturb its natural posture.
Nevertheless, one must actively default back to it immediately after the difficulty has passed.
Like with other aspects of posture, the position that the wrist should take is one closest to nature, i.e. straight and relaxed. Assuming the straight position as default, the ability of the wrist to bend up and down is an important part of violin technique.
In the right hand, this ability is responsible for regulating the angle of the bow to the string at the extreme upper and lower parts. This angle is important for good sound production and should remain at a right angle (90 degrees) at all times.
In the left hand, it is equally important to preserve a straight wrist as default for finger dexterity. Here, the ability of the wrist to change its angle is called upon to keep the fingers above the string in positions above the fourth as well as for vibrato.
At this point, you may have spotted a pattern. This of course is that the default posture of both hands should always be as close as possible to their loose, relaxed and idle positions. This is logical, since muscles tend to tense up the further one deviates from their idle positions. This idle position should be studied, internalised and maintained while playing the instrument.
The shoulder is no exception to this rule and should remain in its lowered, relaxed position at all times. A raised shoulder in the bow hand is one of the most common tension causing habits among violin students and even some professionals. This problem is often exacerbated by stage fright. Stress tends to tighten the back muscles, leading to a raised shoulder.
A useful exercise I use with my students is raising the shoulder in a shrugging gesture as high as possible while in playing position. Once the shoulder is raised as high as it can go, the student drops the shoulder down as low as possible. This can be repeated several times to become comfortable with a low shoulder position while maintaining bow contact with string.
Note of Caution
As one begins implementing changes to long established habits associated with holding and manipulating the instrument, it is important to keep in mind that our muscles tend to resist change.
This inner resistance is a natural response to any change, even when this change makes playing the instrument fundamentally easier. To fully transition to a tension-free functioning of the hands, one must practice keen mindfulness and attention. This skill of self-monitoring of one’s muscles while playing is fundamental to total violin mastery.