What Have I Learned in Medical School That Could Help Violists by Daniel Adams

The following article is by Daniel Adams.

Episode 1 What is a Muscle
Medical school is a fantastic way to learn a lot of things that could help your playing.  I’m thrilled at this early point in my career to offer some insight into the anatomy and physiology that I’ve learned which might be applicable to viola playing.  Today I’d like to write about what a muscle is and how it works, because if you understand some basic concepts, you might be able to get better control of your muscles, and thus better control of your music making.

Muscles get signals from the brain (via nerves–another chapter) and then pull generally in one direction.  If you understand where a muscle originates from and where it attaches to you can figure out how it works—muscles pull from where they attach towards where they originate.  So let’s take an easy example, your biceps brachii muscle!  The biceps originate proximally (meaning towards your body) from your shoulder and attach distally (meaning away from your body) at your forearm.  When you activate your bicep, it causes your forearm to move towards your shoulder.  Try it!  

You can see how activating this muscle is important for bowing, for shifting, and for vibrato (if you use an arm vibrato).  Put your viola and bow down (for now) and try pantomiming some of your favorite Bach Suite.  Start with just the right arm.  Notice your biceps and feel it activate as your bow moves in which direction?  That’s right, up-bow.  Does isolating this muscle on your up-bow help you to relax other muscles?  Try the left arm.  When you shift up you use your biceps.  How much do you have to activate your biceps to shift?  Can you eliminate some tension by using your biceps the least amount possible?

Now, lets try another example, one of the muscles responsible for moving your fingers—the flexor digitorum profundus.

The flexor digitorum profundus originates at the medial aspect of your forearm (closer to your body if your palm is facing upwards) and extends distally towards the palmar aspect of your fingertips, where it inserts (on all fingers except your thumb—your thumb works differently).  Considering our model from the beginning of this entry, you know that this muscle pulls your fingertips towards your forearm: it is largely responsible for left hand finger action.

Place your right hand on the medial aspect of your left forearm.  (If you need help with anatomical directions, notice where I placed the star on the image above).  Now, move your left hand fingers as if you were playing the opening of the last movement of Brandenburg 3.  What do you notice?  When you place your fingers down, you can feel the flexor digitorum profundus activate!  So moving your fingers actually in large part is controlled from your forearm!

Many violists have a problem with thumb tension in the left hand.  BUT, as you now know, the muscles which control your thumb (the thumb ‘grip’ muscles largely reside in the hand itself—which is why activating your thumb causes left hand tension) do not need to be activated in order to move the other fingers of your hand.  Practice something hard, maybe the third movement of Der Schwanendreher?  Can you play it only by activating your flexor digitorum profundus, and not using the muscles which control your thumb?  Try practicing with the amount of left hand pressure required to play in harmonics, this will help you to isolate muscle groups without tension.

I hope this has been a helpful start to thinking about how muscles work, and how medicine can inform viola playing.  Next time we’ll talk about muscles of posture.  Best of luck with your practicing!

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