Violist Sheila Browne demonstrates balanced use of the shoulders. (c) Gerald Klickstein“The better you use yourself, the better you will play.”
–Pedro de Alcantara, (The Musician’s Way, p. 257)

Music making may be the most integrated of all human activities. It’s no exaggeration to say that singing or playing requires us to coordinate everything that we are – our bodies, minds, and spirits.

Often, though, the rigors of practice and performance cause us to use ourselves in ways that are less than optimal.

For instance, when confronted with challenging passages or high-stakes performance situations, we might tense up or grow anxious. Then, if we strain through the inner turbulence, injury and stage fright can ensue.

Such dis-coordination also causes us to underachieve artistically because a loss of integration in one aspect of our self-use triggers a cascade of consequences: An anxious mind prompts muscles to clench, taught muscles provoke a thinning of tone and a narrowing of imagination, and so on.

Added to that, when we’re on stage and we project ungainly body language, our listeners sense our unease, and our performer-audience connection suffers.

Shoulder Use
In this post, I’d like to focus on one of our most misused parts: our shoulders. Shoulders can be problematic for a number of reasons, among them:

•  The shoulder is our most mobile joint, so it’s the trickiest to coordinate.
•  When stressed, we almost universally lift and tense our shoulders.
•  As we inhale deeply or bring our hands into playing position, many of us stiffen our shoulders.

Here are two guidelines that promote better shoulder use:

  1. Before playing or singing, do some movements that warm up and release the shoulders: circle your arms overhead; roll both shoulders; swing your arms from side to side.
  2. When making music and doing almost anything else (e.g., typing), allow your shoulders to descend and widen; that is, rather than raising the shoulders or contracting them frontward, release them so that they drop downward and expand away from each other (the shoulder blades will move closer together).

Shoulders and Beyond
In my book The Musician’s Way I present comprehensive information for musicians to attain optimal self-use. Pages 250-257 address sitting and standing. “Meeting Your Instrument” (p. 257-269) explores five principles that allow instrumentalists to move with ease. Dozens of photos contrast musicians employing easeful and gawky body use.

As an example, in the following photos, violist Sheila Browne demonstrates awkward versus balanced use of the shoulders:

Violist Sheila Browne demonstrates unbalanced use of the shoulders. (c) Gerald Klickstein

Unbalanced shoulders (elevated left then right shoulder)

Violist Sheila Browne demonstrates balanced use of the shoulders. (c) Gerald Klickstein

Balanced shoulders

As you view these photos, keep in mind that, unlike static images, music making is dynamic. So rather than placing your shoulders or any other body part in an immobile position, apply the principles described in The Musician’s Way that allow for unconstrained movement and wholehearted music making. (Update: Also see “Sitting tall“)

One strategy to gauge your movement habits: video-record yourself playing or singing some scales and excerpts, and then evaluate your self-use, perhaps with the aid of a teacher.

See The Musician’s Way for an inclusive approach to gaining mental and physical ease.

All content © 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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