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Exploring the Wilderness of Proprioception (1 of 2)

Violin playing is sort of like driving. Once you figure out a few basics, you can enjoy the ride.

Okay, so by “a few,” let’s be real, it’s more like a few dozen. Here’s a starting list: bow angle, bow speed, finger angle, lift one arm, drop the other arm, elbow below hand (but not too much!!), feet apart, bow straight, listen to the sound, hug the string. Whoops, relax your arm. And curve your pinky! Except at the tip. And bend your thumb. Okay, now for the notes..

As teachers we sometimes make our students’ task even harder. We spend much of our lesson time telling them what lane to stay in, and how to merge onto the highway … but very little helping them experience the metaphorical steering wheel.

In fact, as violinists we mostly aren’t even aware of our own steering wheel. The mechanics of playing are second nature to us by the time we begin teaching, and the steering wheel wasn’t obvious to us (or to our teachers) back when we were twelve.

The most crucial sense that we use when playing violin is invisible. It’s one of the ones we don’t learn in kindergarten, and it’s associated with body parts we heard of only in college, or never heard of at all (they were not even named until after 1906).

Our students have never heard of this sense. And largely because they don’t know it exists, they’re not using it with awareness or intention. No wonder their driving is erratic.

Even as adult players, we ourselves rarely tune into this mystery sense.

Until, perhaps, an injury suddenly wakes us up. That was my experience. I got tendinitis in college, and crash-landed into a whole dimension of my violin playing that had been hidden from me for my entire violin study.

This mystery sense makes every part of violin playing easier. It gives us greater control over our bow velocity. It allows us to get a strong sound more efficiently. It tells us whether we are slouching or standing tall. It manages what string our bow is on, and offers a sense of confidence in our bow direction.

How We Create Tension in Our Students

When we teach we often say things that actually prevent our students from experiencing this sense.

What do these problematic communications sound like? Totally innocuous. Like, “Keep your bow straight,” or “Try to get a cleaner sound,” or “Do it more like this [demo].”

Our students may accomplish the result … while white-knuckling the steering wheel (they do have one, after all) and simultaneously pressing both the brake pedal and the accelerator.

As they get more advanced we wonder why there is tension in this student’s playing. Or why that student looks so awkward. Maybe they need to practice more? Or maybe they don’t have the right “feel” — whatever that is. Maybe it’s “just how they are”?

It’s not how they are. It’s their training. And it’s not our fault — we were trained the same way. It’s a wonder all of us aren’t walking balls of tension. Or perhaps, it’s no wonder we are.

What is this missing dimension, and how can we incorporate it into our teaching?

The Sensory World of Violinists

Let’s consider for a moment how most beginning violinists rely on their senses:

Vision: Staying on the tapes, staying in the bow lane, keeping the bow straight
Hearing: Getting a clean sound, listening to the tuning (maybe).
Touch: Ummmm …

Notice how heavily weighted the above list is on vision. Even getting students to listen can be tough. (When I ask my middle school beginners to listen to their third finger, they stare at the finger tapes hard enough to practically melt the plastic.)

So what important sense is missing from the list above?

Is it taste? No, clearly wrong. Smell? Okay, cute, but come on.

The important sense many of us have never heard of is proprioception, or awareness of physical position and exertion. It is wonderful and slightly mysterious, and truly underrated. It only entered the modern scientific discussion in 1906 (a good historical review here).

Of course, it’s been there all along; we just rarely pay much attention to it, partly because unlike the other senses, the organs of proprioception are invisible to us. Proprioception is how we can:

  • find our arm when our eyes are closed … even when it’s not touching anything, and even if we just woke up.
  • adjust our grip to hold an uncooked egg (versus an iron shot put)
  • step over a pile of legos without looking at our foot.

Our modern world is strongly visual and verbal … so much so that we are spectacularly unaware of our internal sense of our body. It’s easy for most of us adults to go days at a time without really feeling our body, unless we’re experiencing pain. Getting back in touch may sometimes feel like journeying into the wilderness. It helps us discover and release tension, and is closely connected with our emotions.

Proprioception is our best friend in violin playing. We can feel a movement long before we hear the results. And it’s usually more accurate than seeing, which is, among other things, notoriously bad at lining up two curvilinear objects off-center under our nose (aka the bridge and the bow).

Here are a few exercises for you (or your advanced students) to begin uncovering this dimension of your playing.

“Tree Trunk”
Relaxation Exercise

Stand tall, knees slightly bent.

Close or soft-focus your eyes.

Imagine all the water in your body draining into your feet and sinking deep into the ground. You will literally feel your body become heavier. Allow your tailbone to drop under you as you relax.

Imagine your body is a tall ridgepole from which your limbs are hanging like a heavy coat.

Scan your body, releasing tension as you go: eyes, neck, shoulders, elbows, pelvis, legs, feet.

Take some slow, deep breaths.

Weight Balancing

Play a few phrases of Meditation from Thais. Notice how you are moving your whole body. Especially to notice how you are shifting your weight on your feet to balance your bowing. Notice the pattern to when you bend your knees, or if you’re not using them.

Bow Arm
Speed, Angle &
Acceleration

Play a few measures of Kreutzer #7 (the one with martelé and string crossings). Notice the sensation in your arm as you move from G string to E. Also notice the sensation of your fingers on the stick as you create the martelé. When do your fingers engage and release? Where is the motion originating?

The next article will go into how to explore proprioception with your beginners. If you’ve found this interesting, I hope you will share this article with a friend or colleague.

Proprioception, Part 2: The Language of Proprioception

If you are intrigued by what you discover on the exploration above, our Book 2 workshop goes more in-depth in whole-body movement, teaching vibrato, bow choreography, and musical expression. Find out more here: