“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 either playing instruments or singing 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.
“Playing instruments or singing requires us to coordinate everything that we are – our bodies, minds, and spirits.”
In this post, I 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:
- 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.
- 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 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 awkward body use.
As an example, in the following photos, violist Sheila Browne demonstrates awkward versus balanced use of the 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 highly effective strategy to gauge your movement habits is to video-record yourself performing a some excerpts, and then evaluate your self-use in your recordings, perhaps with the aid of teachers or fellow musicians.
- Video recorders to consider: Zoom Q4n. Excellent audio as well as video. HD camcorders at Amazon.
Related posts can be found in the Injury Prevention category.
See The Musician’s Way for an inclusive approach to gaining mental and physical ease.
All content © 2010 Gerald Klickstein
Excellent article! I’m linking it to my next blog post about Identfying Shoulder Pain and What to Do About It. Thanks for the information!
As a violinist I learned, through years of AT studies and from some great teachers early on, especially Ramy Shevelov, and more recently, Marc Destrube, that good back alignment and well balanced, relaxed shoulders (crucial for an open, flowing sound and technique free of tension) are achieved from sensing a connection to our central vertical core, and to imagine our appendages freely attached, unrestricted, like components of a mobile, from this center. However, achieving two matching, low, comfortably hanging shoulders while playing an instrument as asymmetric as demanded by string playing can’t be achieved by just being told to do so. It requires visualization and mental imaging, and finding symmetrical sensing and movement exercises fitting to each player. I’ve developed many such imaging techniques over the years which I employ for myself and in my teaching.
I see how neck and shoulder tension remains a significant challenge for so many students and professional violinists/violists and thus I am fascinated by how others are dealing with these challenges.
Dmitry – thanks for the comment. You bring up a most important point: we express our emotions through our bodies. And stiffening the shoulders as you describe may be one of the most common responses to stress.
Among guitarists, right shoulder tension is especially prevalent – we tend to stiffen our right shoulder as we lift the right arm into playing position; also, the right shoulder doesn’t move much as we play (unlike the left shoulder, which moves quite a bit), so it’s easy for tension to creep in.
I think you’re also correct that better habits of muscular use can bring about positive mental & emotional effects. If we feel stressed, let’s say, then releasing rather than tensing our shoulders creates a physical pattern that doesn’t support the stressed emotions; then, the stress tends to ease. Plus, when we project relaxed body language from the stage, our listeners become moer relaxed too.
I expect that you’ll get good results from bringing attention to your shoulders and consciously releasing them. If problems persist, though, I recommend lessons from a teacher of the Alexander technique.
Gerald, thank you for the article. I play guitar for a couple of years and recently I’ve got pain in the right shoulder. That was strange because I thought I have my shoulders settled in comfortable position. What I have found is that my shoulders reflect my state of mind. Like you smile when you are happy, you stress your shoulders when something in your life gets hard on you. When I realized that, I started relaxing my body and shoulders intentionally. I’m yet to see how it works. What’s good here is the fact that like you become a bit happier if you simply smile, possibly life’s pressure becomes less if you simply relax your body. Have you any experience with that?
Very helpful comment, Hrish. Thank you.
I concur that right shoulder tension is widespread and ignored among classical guitarists – many players experience the discomfort that you report.
I’ve observed that the problem often stems from two causes, although there can be other aggravating factors.
First, as guitarists bring the right arm into playing position, the arm has to be lifted, pronated, and then lowered; these motions aren’t always well coordinated, so the shoulder gets unnecessarily raised and held during and after this process.
Second, guitarists commonly position their instrument in less-than-ideal ways, particularly too low and to the left, which causes many to curve their spine to the left and unnecessarily lift the right shoulder in response.
Lessons in Alexander technique or the Feldenkrais method can enable guitarists and other musicians to deal effectively with these sorts of issues. And students shouldn’t depend solely on music teachers to help with such problems, because many teachers aren’t paying attention.
For example, one college-age guitarist came to me with back pain (which I instantly saw was due to awkward positioning), and when I asked what the student’s longtime teacher had advised, the student claimed that all the teacher could say was, “My back hurts too.”
Thanks for this article. I used to unnecessarily (and unconsciously) lift up my right shoulder while practising my classical guitar. That led to a lot of discomfort. It took some research to find out that I need not lift up my shoulder, just my arm as far as needed – and the difference between the two is often missed by most. Now I just let my shoulders drop to their natural level, and attempt to stay that way consciously throughout the practice session. It’s been a great change!
Hi Terry. Thanks for the positive words. Sorry to hear about your shoulder injury – ouch!
Researchers observe that plenty of musicians incur injuries from sports and exercise, but that doesn’t mean that we should avoid workouts. Rather, I think that we should acquire expertise regarding how to exercise and move efficiently. To that end, a combination of movement education (e.g., Alexander or Feldenkrais) and athletic training often does the trick. And you’re so right that warm-ups and practice breaks are essential.
Hi Gerald. Thanks for this important article and for your book (I keep re-reading it)! I am a full time busy organist who recently recovered from having a frozen shoulder. I believe this developed from over-extending myself on the arm machines at the gym (in addition to my full playing schedule). The physical therapy I took taught me how interconnected the neck, arm and hands are. I now realize that as a musician I need to carefully consider all other physical activities that I do. I now incorporate warm ups and stetching into my daily routine and take regular rest periods when practicing. I would be interested to know if other musicians have had any problems from working out at the gym (or if they all no better than to invite this trouble)! I think I will redirect my gym membership funds to learning the Alexander Technique…
Thanks, Mark. And congrats on earning your AT teaching certification!
I concur that our habits of use away from our music-making activities cross over into our playing or singing. So as we refine our self-use in practice and performance, we should do the same in our activities of daily living, recognizing that doing so is an ongoing process (which I’m thinking about at this moment as I type).
All told, as artists working in holistic, integrated ways, we grow our musical abililites and live happier, more authentic lives. What could be better than that?
Great article. As musicians I think it’s important how we carry ourselves (in Alexander Technique terms how we ‘use’ ourselves) while we’re playing, AND while we aren’t playing. If you tense your neck and raise your shoulders while cutting vegetables, you’ll probably continue this habit while walking or playing piano. Whether or not this habit started at the instrument doesn’t matter that much. To me the above pictures show each shoulder being lifted unnecessarily. They don’t need to be involved in this way, or used in this way. Definitely check out this simple, logical, straightforward technique. It stopped the incredible pain I was in, and I got so into it I became a full time Alexander Technique teacher here in NYC. Also check out Pedro de Alcantara’s other books.
Hi, Alexandra. Thanks for bringing up the important topic of asymmetrical playing positions. Many instruments oblige players to use their limbs asymmetrically, but such asymmetry doesn’t have to trigger discomfort. For instance, notice how aligned the above violist looks when she demonstrates balanced shoulder use, even though viola playing is highly asymmetrical.
AT training should provide you with what you need. Also consider taking more frequent practice breaks – maybe pause for 2-3 mins every 15 mins. and, during your breaks, variously do some gentle yoga and the first four restorative movements shown on p. 76-80 of The Musician’s Way.
Yes I have had problems with tightening of shoulders when I played piano. Now I play an irish harp, and that is a different kind of tightening that occurs over the hours in practice.Posture at the harp is asymetrical, and I have had a dull aching right shoulder pain 60 minutes into practice. I have experimented with various chairs and boxes to elevate the harp, and various sitting postures(on edge of seat, in middle, at back, and even behind the harp; I have been doing yoga, which has helped, and seems similar to your description of drawing the shoulders down and back.I read about how to sit at an office chair and have used those principles as well(sit with lumbar support at back of chair, and have thighs slanting downwards.
Just started reading your book, and will look into the AT.
Thanks for sharing your story, Susan. As an Alexander technique (AT) practitioner myself, I concur that small, relatively simple changes in how we use ourselves can result in big changes in our actions and experiences. And musicians worldwide report dramatic relief from pain and tension after learning some basic AT concepts and skills.
Links to AT resources are located on this page at MusiciansWay.com: https://www.musiciansway.com/wellness/
I almost stopped playing because of shoulder and neck pain. Then I happened onto a local Alexander Technique teacher and the few lessons I had with her made all the difference! She taught me what I was doing that was causing my pain and showed me some very, very simple strategies to stop doing it. If you’re a musician in pain, for sure explore the Alexander Technique.