twist my arm
June 8, 2009 3:12 PM   Subscribe

fiddle filter: why won't my arm do what I want it to do when I play the fiddle?

I've just decided to learn to play the fiddle. Fifteen minutes into my first attempt at practicing scales, my left arm is stiff and hurting and won't bend properly. The position that I need to get my hand into seems very unnatural and uncomfortable. Is this me, or does it come with the territory? Am I physiologically unfit to play the fiddle? Am I doing something wrong?
posted by crazylegs to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Par for the course. It IS an unnatural position. I played violin for at least 3 years before this stopped happening altogether. Just take breaks, stretch your wrist out, etc. Your body will get used to it eventually. It might be that you need to play for shorter periods of time at first and work up to longer sessions.
posted by Knicke at 3:25 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

The position that I need to get my hand into seems very unnatural and uncomfortable. Is this me, or does it come with the territory?

I think it comes with the territory. It's going to take a while to build up the correct muscles - make sure you're working with a professional to get the proper position so you're not over-extending in either direction. 15 minutes of practice before you arm gets tired sounds about right for the first week. I remember having to break up my practice sessions into a couple 30-minute blocks rather than do an hour at a time for a good while after I started.

A couple final thoughts - the violin should be almost completely supported by your head and shoulder with little tension in your left arm. Also, make sure you're not trying to hold the fiddle straight out in front of you. This kid has great posture.
posted by muddgirl at 3:30 PM on June 8, 2009

It's a very odd position, and it can definitely hurt when you begin. Your right hand will probably hurt as well for a while due to the way you should be holding the bow. However, one important question: are you using a shoulder rest? As muddgirl says, your left arm should not be holding the instrument up.

Even if you plan to try to teach yourself, I highly suggest taking a few lessons with someone. The violin's a difficult instrument at the beginning, and (speaking as someone who never had more than a few lessons!) it can make a big difference to have someone show you how to hold things, how to position your hand, etc.
posted by ubersturm at 3:50 PM on June 8, 2009

The suggestion to split up your practice time into smaller chunks, especially if you feel any pain, is spot on. It's really easy to injure yourself if you don't.

One other tip: you want to make sure that your arm is roughly in a straight line from the palm of your left hand down to the crook of your elbow. Make sure you're not pushing your wrist out and away from you towards the scroll, or collapsing the wrist towards you. I see these tendencies in a lot of my students, and it can cause a lot of tension and pain in the left hand and wrist while fingering.

Good luck!
posted by Fiorentina97 at 3:54 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hi there. I've been playing for almost 15 years now, and I'm very excited for you to be beginning to learn! I'm not sure what method you are using to learn (whether it's a class or self-taught) so some of my advice may be kind of "duh" but, here it is just in case.

First, make sure it's the right size. Violins come in many sizes, and an incorrect size can cause the pain you are mentioning.

Second, double check how you are holding the violin. The body should be supported completely with your head and neck - you should be able to hold it and keep it in place without your hands. A chin rest is almost something of an absolute necessity for proper posture in many cases.

Third, make sure your hand is resting on the neck of the violin correctly. Your wrist should never make contact with the neck. Many people make the mistake of holding the violin with their hand and part of the wrist, which is extremely uncomfortable in the long haul (and makes for an exceedingly poor sound). But don't go too far in the other direction where you have your wrist leaning out away from you. The neck should rest in the crook of your forefinger and thumb, with the other fingers curving over the neck with a loose grip. Your hand doesn't actually "hold" anything, it just rests on the neck and provides minor support.

Fourth, you hold it at an angle to your body - not sticking straight out in front of you. A chin rest will help you get to that angle more naturally.

And finally, you have to sit up straight. You can do everything else I listed, and if you slouch in your chair you will feel and sound awful. It takes a lot of work to naturally fall into the right posture but you will feel and sound all the better for it.
posted by sephira at 4:25 PM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

You can learn an insane amount from this website, Violin I did!

Pain is not good. If your wrist hurts, don't do it. This is not a no-pain, no-gain situation. If you have pain, in the long run, it's not going to be good, even in the begining. You need to figure out how to make the contortions (and they are contortions) in your body without pain.

Listen, I have a long background in music, and then switched to the fiddle after playing double bass for many years. I was really suspicious of classical players, because I saw a lot of them playing fiddle music badly, and I didn't want a part of that. But I developed a lot of bad habits, and in the end I went back and found a really good violin teacher who could teach me the things I wanted to learn, and it's made a world of difference.

Your in Kingston, Ontario? I bet you could find a) a great Cape Breton fiddler to give you fiddle lessons, and maybe b) a really good classical violinist to give you some lessons on technique and how to hold the instrument.

Also...and this is huge...fitting the violin to your neck with a good shoulder and chin wrest makes a huge difference. I think that's mentioned on the Masterclass site.

Good luck!
posted by sully75 at 5:23 PM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sephira is spot on.

Posture is everything when it comes to musical instruments. I am a self-taught bass player (electric), and only after I worked on correct posture and hand positioning did my playing take off by leaps and bounds. I would play for 20 minutes at first and both hands and arms were literally cramping on basic scales and songs. Only after I was shown the correct posture and limb positions by a good friend who played bass did I begin to really develop the stamina to play for extended periods of time. If there was pain or fatigue I would take a break.
posted by Gravitus at 5:56 PM on June 8, 2009

So much time spent in violin lessons is just about holding the instrument properly. You could be hurting because you are doing it wrong, or because you are doing it right and it is new to hold those positions. I imagine you're pretty tensed up as you are practicing as well. I had to use a shoulder rest in order to be comfortable enough to relax completely. You'd really want to get fitted in person rather than just buy one from the internet, though.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:26 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yay for you learning fiddle! You haven't included a ton of information in your question for us to be able to give you lots of specific feedback, but it's probably not you, and you're probably not physiologically unfit to play the fiddle. I usually start brand-new adult players off on no more that 10-15 minutes of practice a day for the very reason that fiddle-related arm, wrist, and hand positions are weird and first!

Sephira's advice is good, and I'll just add that a shoulder rest can also be a big help for some people when trying to sort out how to hold a fiddle. Play in front of a mirror whenever possible as you get to know the instrument.

The sound is a bit crappy on this link, and the instructor is endearingly awkward, but he goes into a pretty good description of how to think about your left hand position at around the 1 minute mark of this clip:

This dude has a nice, relaxed left hand, and the video cuts to an extended close-up of that left hand at around the minute mark:

I have questions for you - what kind of music do you want to learn? Have you ever played any other musical instrument? Has your fiddle been set-up properly? Are you taking lessons? If not, do you know any fiddle players?
posted by Hellgirl at 7:40 PM on June 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

-Shoulder- rest. Blah. I kept calling it a chin rest, and I know better than that. The chin rest is important, but for the most part it's the shoulder rest that you'll need more than anything. It keeps the violin up at shoulder and eye height and prevents you from having it angle down away from you, among other things. Definitely invest in a good shoulder rest. Make sure that you bring your violin with you when purchasing so the rest gets fitted to both your violin AND you.

When you practice, it isn't just the notes - you need to practice your posture. I cannot stress this enough. Your body is an extension of the instrument, and you need to practice the whole, not just your fingers. Pick up your violin and just hold it, find your proper placements, then put it down. Five minutes later do it again. Keep doing this daily until you just pick up your violin and your body falls into place. And don't ever play a single note until you are sure that you are holding the instrument correctly. It will be harder to unlearn and then learn the correct way than it will be to just learn it right the first time.
posted by sephira at 8:41 PM on June 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've played the violin (classical) for 19 years. I don't actually know much about learning to play fiddle online (and I would HIGHLY recommend that you take lessons in person), but I just wanted to say offer a word of encouragement. I've been working on refining my posture and left hand and arm positioning and movement the entire time that I've been playing - like every other violinist! - and there's always more to learn. It takes a LONG TIME to learn to play the violin, but it is very well worth it. Don't get discouraged; you're not abnormal. The violin is very complicated and even people who are professionals are still refining and updating their technique. Even after you've mastered the basics, there's always wrist angle to think about, the angle at which the fingers fall on the strings, using the weight of the head to hold up the violin rather than clamping with your chin, proper angular rotation of the forearm while shifting and changing strings, the angle of your hips (which sets up your whole posture), even weight on both your feet, and ENDLESS details about how exactly to put your fingers down... and more. It's hard! But you can do it.
posted by Cygnet at 5:28 AM on June 9, 2009

Oh, and let me add:

One reason you may be hurting is because you haven't developed the right muscles for playing! Both my boyfriend and I are (nearly) life-long violinists, and it produces some amusing physiological affects: both of us have a conspicuous bump of muscle at the hinge of our right elbows (from bowing), an extra-strong left side of the neck, and an exceptionally strong muscle going along the pinky side of the left hand. That's the muscle you need for fingering, and it's kind of amusing when it gets so strong you can see the difference when you flex your hands. Until then, keep in mind that while playing an instrument may not be very aerobic, it DOES require muscles and you have to patiently develop them.
posted by Cygnet at 5:32 AM on June 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

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