Heidi Castleman on The 5 Common Causes of Injury for Violists

The following post is by Heidi Castleman.

When string players are injured, occasionally it is because there are structural weaknesses, irreversible inflammatory conditions, or other physical problems.  However, the vast majority of string-player injuries occur either because of an unsuitable fit of equipment-to-player or because of faulty playing habits.

Playing pain-free is not only essential to your success as a musician, but also a necessity for your musical imagination to thrive. The five most common causes of injury for violists are:

  • improper instrument fit and set-up
  • faulty practice habits
  • holding the instrument by squeezing rather than balancing
  • poor body support for the instrument and for moving the hands and arms around
  • squeezing with the thumbs

If you have a pain, I suggest “Stop playing!”  After the pain disappears, the task is to find the cause and fix it.  Should the pain become chronic, you will need to enlist the assistance of a health-care professional in designing a strategy for recovery.


1. Instrument Fit.

Violas vary in size and dimension much more than violins.  Long-term, making sure the viola you are playing fits you is critical to finding a playing style that is natural and comfortable.

There are 7 variables in the size and the shape of a viola that potentially can cause trouble for a player. These are: body length, string length, shoulder shape, bout depth, neck angle, fingerboard shape and string height.

Body length for viola

  • “standard” is between 16″ and 17″
  • under 16″ and over 17″ are also possible
  • angle of left elbow should be about 90 degrees/ arm should have hanging feeling as if you are holding moderately heavy fruit bowls


small 15 3/8″ {14 1/8″ [8 ½” 5 1/4″] }
medium 16 ½” {14 3/4″ [9″ 6″] }
medium 16 3/8″ {15″ [9″ 6″] }
Large 18 ½” Gaspar 17 and 1/2″ Amati

preferences in instrument size have changed
(Lionel Tertis, the first legendary violist, preferred larger instruments with deeper sonorities, whereas Primrose, the next viola giant, preferred smaller instruments with more tenor sonorities – permitting greater agility)

String length

There is no such thing as normal, but if one had to identify a standard, it would be 15″.
Only a few instruments have a string length longer than 15″/ If longer, be careful; such a length strains almost all hands.
Many instruments have shorter string lengths.

  • Advantage: for small hands, more left hand comfort
  • Disadvantage, especially on a larger viola: there is a slower, “flabbier” string response for the bow, projection and articulation are more difficult.

The proportions of the string from the nut to the body of the instrument when compared to the edge of the body to the bridge, normally should be  6″ vs. 9″.

Shoulder shape and bout depth

  • broad – advantage = deeper sound
  • narrow – advantage = ease in shifting above bout


  • high – advantage = deeper sound
  • shallow – advantage = ease in shifting above bout

Sound is always a personal choice; if you prefer a deeper kind of sound, a darker one, one with more bass, and therefore choose an instrument with broader shoulders and deeper bouts, you must be exceptionally careful in the way you play, especially in the neck and shoulder area, in order to play with ease and not hurt yourself. Many of the most successful viola soloists today, favor instruments with narrower shoulders and shallower bouts because these instruments allow a virtuosity the broader and deeper models do not.

As you shift above the body on the viola, it is extremely important to have the upper arm come around first to clear the body, and then the forearm continues to close from the elbow.

Neck angle, string height and fingerboard shape
Ideally a player should be able to just drop fingers; the effort involved should be similar to what you feel if you are idly drumming your fingers on a table.

Neck thickness and angle, fingerboard shape and string height all affect the ease with which fingers can just drop:
Thickness of neck

  • If too thick – hand has to expand too much
  • if too narrow – hand closes in too much

Neck angle
because of tension, over the years the neck angle can change, resulting in fingerboard being too low
old fashioned fingerboards sometimes drop off at a sharp angle (instead of being rounded) under C string,

  • Purpose to give vibrating C string (on cello and viola) more space
  • This ridge should be rounded off to avoid left hand fingers reaching too far.

String height on viola – measure near end of fingerboard

  • On A string – 4 mm
  • On C string – 6 mm
  • If too high, will start pressing,
  • If too low, will have no cushion space in which too release finger


2.  Practice Habits.

What are faulty practice habits?
If you want to assure disaster, never warm up, start out playing fast passages only, never wait to hear in your head how you want to sound, just start playing, read through things all the time, never practice small units or quietly, take a vacation for two weeks and start back playing 8 hours a day, or change a basic skill in your playing and repeat it over and over again many times a day.

Not all, but many of injured violists have one or more of the above. If you were a Wimbledon tennis player, there is no way you would treat yourself this way.

What are good practice habits?

Warming up to play
Stretching is important; as in any sport, it is necessary to get muscles ready to move

  • Stretching out large body muscles
  • Stretching out hands is also important

Practicing slowly

  • Heighten your tactile sense (your fingers are sensors)
  • Notice coordination of your hands

Hear and feel ahead of where you are playing

  • If the brain gives the hands even a slight amount of notice, the hands will know exactly what to do.
  • Use silence before playing to prepare aural and physical images
  • Always give a preparation or signal through breathing, (as a conductor does)

Avoid playing whole sections at tempo until they are “glitch-free”.

  • Practice the most difficult measures slowly and comfortably and repeat until you can play them faster effortlessly.
  • Practice method: choose a reasonable length unit and repeat it, surrounding it with much silence. In the silence, the body relaxes and aims for the sound of the music as you imagine it.

Change things gradually
If you change something in your playing or the amount of time played daily, do it gradually, allowing muscles to adapt slowly

Changing a basic skill: Playing a 10th on the viola or the violin involves a fairly large stretch.
After a break, always come back to playing gradually

In returning after a break, Anner Bylsma, the Baroque cellist, suggests for the first three days, just play and do not listen to yourself; for most of us, our playing is not going to sound good after a break, but will fix itself if given a little while.

If preparing for an important audition, concert or competition, build up to 6, 8 or 10 hours of daily practice gradually
Putting sudden demands on muscles is a sure-fire recipe for disaster.


3.  Body Support
Poor body support looks like: collapsed posture, switching weight from foot to foot while playing, holding one’s breath, totally slouching while sitting. Players that experience back or neck pain may be suffering from improper standing, breathing and/or sitting.

Standing: How you stand is important

Body Alignment: Think of a stack above the arches.

  • In a straight line above center of arches: knees, hips, shoulders and head should be aligned
  • Forehead pulls back to seat head above spine
  • Head should not be twisted looking down fingerboard (will lead to upper back tension)
  • Abdomen goes toward spine on the inhalation; on the exhalation, weight is released

Breathing (From Diaphragm)

  • Think of breathing from back and sides; cultivate ease in breathing; when exhalation is complete, inhalation occurs naturally
  • Breathing keeps joints loose (it allows us to release weight, and not press)
  • Breathing allows the rib cage to open
  • Breathing keeps the shoulders open, down, and back
  • Shoulder blades should be flexible – they can move around rib cage


Alignment same as above, except over tail-bone
Balance between “Sit-bones” and feet (Feet must touch the floor, must feel the floor; feel enough power in legs, can spring up)
The appropriate sitting position for each player will be different based on length of legs, length of upper torso

  • Must be able to bow freely to tip on top string without hitting leg
  • Good chairs vs. bad chairs
  • Special chairs designed for orchestral musicians
  • Ergo cushion
  • Crowded seating arrangements can be a hazard

Deviation from these proper uses of the body frequently can cause physical problems.


4. Balance the Instrument: Avoid Squeezing

It is much better if the instrument sits on the collarbone
Balancing the instrument with little effort between head and hand allows for freedom of movement in playing (the scroll should feel light with 51% or more of weight on the thumb)
Shoulders are open, down and back
Head joint should always be loose
This allows the arms to have a hanging feeling.

Instrument position
Longer arms – more open, more on shoulder, scroll out some. Advantage – more ease shifting high up
Shorter arms – more in center, more on collarbone, scroll straight ahead more.  Advantage – deeper tone
At tip, bow and string should make a right angle
The physical make-up of the player, dictates the physical approach to the instrument.

Shoulder rest and chin rest
Shoulder rest

  • An auxiliary support; spreads weight so instrument supported by a broad area
  • Fills space; but if a player has a very long neck, he/she should not rely on it to completely fill space but rather explore a higher chinrest
  • Avoid sitting the shoulder rest directly on shoulder joint if possible; better placed on end of collarbone; otherwise will inhibit freedom of shoulder
  • Aim for “table” of instrument to be parallel to floor; can augment shoulder rest with sponges to achieve

Chin rest

  • If long neck, build up with chin rest extension (example, Steinhardt)
  • Shape must fit jaw contour
  • Side or middle seems to be personal preference

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