Thoughts on Posture by Ivo van der Werff

Some thoughts on POSTURE, taken from my book, A Notebook for Viola Players by  Ivo van der Werff, with comments by Jill Valentine and Sergein Yap.

Many of the technical problems and faults viola players encounter can come down to posture, that is, the way we hold ourselves and our instruments.

Certain key words describe the attitude and approach we should have: poise, balance, weight (as opposed to force), and flexibility. There are of course many more descriptive words that can be used, but these few give an idea of the general attitude, both physically and mentally that we should aspire to.

Holding and playing a viola is not exactly the most natural physical process, and a lot of tension can arise from bad posture. It would seem obvious (although always less straightforward in practice) that while playing, the general posture must be as natural as possible. To this end we should observe the way we naturally stand. The feet should be slightly apart and flat on the floor, balancing between the heel and the ball of the foot. The legs, knees, and hips should be relaxed. The lower and upper back should exhibit the natural curve of the spine (not holding it straight), but not leaning to the left or right. The shoulders should be down and the neck straight with the head balanced evenly. When we put the viola into position we should still have this basic, natural posture. The only thing that might change slightly is the position of the head, which might turn and drop fractionally into the chin rest.

If sitting, then we must make sure we are balanced. It might help to tilt forward slightly to keep the lower back from collapsing. This can be achieved by tucking the legs under the chair directly underneath the body and (where possible) using a chair that is both high enough and where the seat is not tilting backward. Of course, no one has the same body shape or proportions, so for some (especially those with shorter legs), sitting with the feet slightly apart and firmly on the ground with a right angle at the knee joint might make for greater comfort. This is such a personal thing but one worth spending time experimenting with. Most players spend the greater part of their lives playing sitting down, so getting this very basic aspect right can prevent a lot of unnecessary problems such as the collapsing of the lower back, a tightening of the upper back, and a lack of overall flexibility.

As regards the actual position and angle of the viola, I would suggest the following points be taken into account. There are two ways of finding the optimum position for the viola. One is to make sure you can reach the point of the bow easily on the C string with the bow straight, or, in other words, at right angles to the string. The other way is to experiment with holding the left arm in a playing position, without the viola, and move it to the extreme positions to the left and right. Be aware of the various muscle groups and how they pull. To find a balanced position requires placing the arm in between the two extremes where the muscles on either side of the upper arm are “in equilibrium.”

Of course we are all built differently. Players with shorter arms might find the viola needs to be slightly more in front of them to achieve a straight bow at the point on the C string. On the whole, the viola will end up at a (very) approximate angle of 30 degrees from the direction you are facing.

Another very important factor is where the chin rest is placed on the viola and, subsequently, where the chin is in relation to the tailpiece. The instrument can feel totally different when held with the chin directly over, or to the left of, the tailpiece. In the former position, the bow will feel a lot higher; in the latter a lot lower. Again, my advice would be to find a balance between the two (depending on one’s build, of course), but the determining factor should be the comfort of putting the bow on the string.

As to the angle of the viola to the ground, I would suggest the following. As viola players we need to be aware of the pull of gravity. Obviously this is downwards, but to look at many players you would not think so. Violinists, with smaller and lighter instruments, can hold the violin higher without the same amount of effort it would take to hold a viola. This is an effort that can be very counterproductive to producing a good sound. It is generally better to allow the viola, pivoted between the collarbone and left hand and with the weight of the head counteracting the weight of the viola, to drop naturally to a position just below the horizontal. (I should also point out that dropping the viola too low is also counterproductive, restricting the movement of the left arm, especially laterally.) This allows one also to utilize the weight of the bow arm more effectively, creating a warmer, richer, and more resonant sound. (This will be discussed more fully in the section on bowing.)

Finally, it should be possible to hold the viola easily and comfortably without support from the left hand although, when playing, there will always be an element of counteractive support from the left thumb. The shoulders should be relaxed, the left shoulder must not push up toward the shoulder rest (a common fault), and the head should support the viola without being “forced” or pushed down. In other words, the neck muscles must also be relaxed. If this is not possible, then perhaps the combination of chin and shoulder rest needs attention in terms of shape and position. Indeed, it is well worth spending time finding the best combination of chin and shoulder rest considering that any discomfort here will stay with you every time you play and might well cause technical problems that would not otherwise exist.

Many players manage perfectly well without a shoulder rest, utilizing the left hand more in terms of support. This can work extremely well and give one a greater sense of freedom, but for some (myself included), shifting downward can be a problem as the viola tends to feel so much less secure. The extra support required from the head and left hand creates a more complex technical arena in which to work, and the viola also tends to be somewhat “flatter,” making it harder work to play on the C string (i.e., the right arm has to be higher). However, without a shoulder rest on the viola it can be argued that there will be more resonance, without the restriction across the lower back of the instrument, so improving the sound. As players we have ultimately to feel as comfortable as possible with what we do. Everyone is different, so everyone should experiment to find the optimum position for comfort and technical flexibility. Remember though, a bad habit can feel more comfortable than a correct one. Any change is difficult at first, but the proof is in an improved sound and greater technical freedom and security.

Breathing is something that all players neglect to their detriment. Too many players are totally unaware of where they breathe from, often only using the top part of the lungs, rather than deeper breaths that singers would use. Tight breathing can also add to tension across the chest and front of the shoulders, and, just as this can lead to a tightening of the vocal cords and a less resonant voice, so the sound produced on the viola can become tighter and less sonorous.

One common area of tension, which can lead to all sorts of problems, is the jaw. How often do we all clench our jaws while playing? This clenching tightens the muscles in the neck, which in turn tightens the muscles in the shoulders. If the jaw and face in general can be relaxed, this will actually help free up the shoulders and back.

In conclusion, when playing the viola, nothing must be “held rigid.” Everything must be in balance but allowed to move naturally. It is right and proper to move as long as the movement does not get in the way of the music we are playing or the sounds we are trying to produce.

Comments from Students:

Regarding the angle of the viola to the ground, especially, I feel like I’ve been told every possible solution. There’s a huge variety in opinions and the majority of people I’ve worked with seem to swear by one angle that the viola should have at all times. I think that after 3 years of studying here with Ivo and with other teachers over the summers, in general it works best for me to keep the viola lower, left arm a bit below my shoulder level, as Ivo likes, but there are times musically that I tend to bring the instrument up. It doesn’t actually change the volume much—it may even diminish it a little—but especially in times of high tension or a big climactic passage it affects my attitude toward what I’m trying to say, which hopefully ends up being worth a little less volume.

 -Jill Valentine

After reading through Ivo’s entry on basic setup and posture, I wanted to add a few small points coming from the perspective of someone with shorter arms. For years I struggled with basic setup, constantly changing my chinrest or shoulder rest and the respective heights for each with the aim of:

1) finding the most efficient way to play with a “straight bow”;

2) finding the optimal height and angle of the viola so that I am comfortable in 6th position and higher on the A string as well as 3rd position and higher on the C string.

For those with shorter arms, like myself, that are struggling with the issues I mentioned above, I’d recommend trying a center mount chinrest or one that is close to center mount, such as the Wittner chinrests. After changing to a center mount chinrest, I am able to play much more easily with a straight bow at the upper half to the tip and am much more comfortable coming around the upper bout of the viola for higher positions on all four strings.

In terms of the angle of the viola to the ground, I completely agree with Ivo in having the scroll slightly lower than horizontal so that the chinrest/lower bouts of the viola pivot upward toward our chin. This past summer I went a bit too far, combined with my bad habit of hunching forward in difficult passages of music, and found that my contact point was disturbed because I was constantly fighting gravity pulling my bow toward the fingerboard. Awareness and discipline to make sure that my posture is comfortable but still keeping basic technical elements proper (consistent contact point when needed) is one of my goals for this academic year!

Sergein Yap

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