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I have been playing the violin for 5 months now. After about half an hour of playing I get a very bad muscle pain in the back my right shoulder blade. I usually ignore it thinking it'll go away, but it doesn't. Sometimes I take a break for like 10 minutes and then get back to it, but it always comes back. Is this pain normal for violinists? Is it something I should take serious or not? I don't have a shoulder pad. Would having one help?

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I've written a short guide to checking your posture from the ground-up that may help. –  luser droog Jul 16 '13 at 3:33
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up vote 6 down vote accepted

I'm not a violinist, but I am a professional trombonist. Although I can't give a specific answer to this question as it applies to violin performance in my own words, there does exist a study we call body mapping. Body mapping is basically human anatomy for performers as it relates to performance - it teaches you how to use your body correctly when performing your instrument. A quick search on Google for "violin body mapping" produced an article that I believe is directly relevant to your question: Body Mapping - Violin and Viola Shoulder Rests, written by Philip Pan. From that site, here's what is recommended:

  1. Stand in front of a mirror. Release as much as possible any habitual tensions resulting from trying to accomodate ill-fitting setups of the past. Remove your current shoulder rest and bring the instrument up to playing position without falling back into old tensions. With your neck and shoulders free and balanced, support your instrument entirely with your left hand. Make sure the scroll sits as high as you like it, and that the lateral angle (tilt) is also to your liking.

  2. Now look in the mirror and notice the space above the instrument, if any, that needs to be filled-in. Check the relationship of chin to chin rest. SAS (web page www.viva-sas.com) makes a unique chinrest with adjustable tilt in various heights – do you need that? The chin rest is less of a factor in securing the instrument than the shoulder rest, but it should be comfortable and not slip. My chin rest has a pronounced lip that tucks under my jawbone and feels very secure, even when slick with sweat. It’s right for me; others find it intolerable.

  3. Look at the space and the part of your body below the instrument, the “violin shelf”. Also feel it with your right hand. Specifically, determine what shape and size object is needed to fill the gap directly above your collarbone. The shoulder rest should not sit on the shoulder, for that is a point too far away from the counter-weight of the chin/jaw above and also inhibits freedom of movement of the shoulder. Now start trying different pads and objects to fill that gap. Try your old pad and notice its deficiencies: wrong height, angle, support area? Can you use a wadded-up towel or sponges to fill in the gaps and make it work?

  4. Some pad recommendations: the Kun or SAS pads are a good start, for they are available in many heights and have a good, basic ergonomic shape. The wooden SAS is more rigid than the plastic Kun, and it has very nice non-slip feet. The Wolf line is also quite adjustable. All of these have a flat cushion surface amenable to having additional padding glued onto it, should this be needed.

  5. If you go with a Kun-type pad and you find that the tallest model is still too short, you can add material permanently to the pad, or you can use a towel for extra thickness. If you must wear jackets with built-in shoulder pads, you may wish to fit your pad while wearing a jacket and then use a thick towel to compensate for the missing bulk when you play without it. To add permanent padding, obtain some closed-cell foam, such as that used in camping pads and boating cushions. Open-cell foam is too compressible. Cut it neatly with a very sharp blade, (I use my Henckels 8in. chef’s knife), to the exact thickness and shape that you need. If you have spent a lifetime with too-short pads, you may be surprised at how much additional padding you require with a tensionless shoulder and free neck! Be sure to cut the foam to the required shape, for you may or may not need a wedge-shaped pad to maintain the correct tilt of your instrument. Cut and try before gluing until it feels just right. Then use contact cement to fasten it all together. If the foam is not black, you can color the exposed sides with a magic marker after final gluing and trimming. If the foam against your body is too slippery, try gluing on a final strip of automotive inner tube, (thoroughly washed first!). It is very grippy, but it does leave black marks on white clothing; perhaps a grippy cloth would also work. If you get it all together and at some point decide to modify it, you can rip it apart carefully without damage to the Kun. If everything has turned out well, you should now be able to fully support your instrument exactly at the height and tilt you like with a dropped, tension-free shoulder and a neck fully and naturally lengthened. The simple weight of your head, not neck muscles, provides the clamping force which secures the instrument against your collarbone. Notice how other parts of your body now feel, (including your bow arm), and enjoy re-learning to play with greater naturalness, efficiency, and fluidity.

I hope this helps!

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Usually problems such as this come from poor posture while playing. A violin is not a heavy instrument like an electric bass guitar or an accordion, where back pain or other muscle or joint pain are more common. I have three suggestions.

First, learn proper posture. In addition to Nate Kimball's suggestion, try the simple principles of the Alexander Technique. Second, do some regular, moderate weight-lifting at a gymnasium as part of a regular exercise routine to keep all your muscles toned. Third, if problems persist, get your physician to write a prescription for you to visit a physical therapist, who will teach you exercises that you can perform every day at home to strengthen your muscles and your back and overcome these problems.

If you continue to play with poor posture and poor technique, your pain and difficulty may grow worse. Learning to practice simple techniques to correct the problems, and keeping up a regular regimen of moderate exercise, should take care of everything so that you can enjoy playing the violin.

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I play Irish traditional music on the fiddle (violin) and don't have these pains. So, no, it's not normal - you shouldn't get any pains of course. I would suggest finding a teacher who can look at your posture and work out what's wrong.

It seems sensible to me to try a shoulder rest though. If you have to grip your fiddle or your neck is bent over to the left, it seems likely you might get pains in the opposite shoulder where it's being stretched. You shouldn't have to grip your fiddle between your neck and chest - it should be rested on your shoulder and its own weight holding it against your chin. A shoulder rest can help bring the violin up to your chin so that your neck can be relaxed yet still be in contact with the chin rest.

I have a Bon Musica shoudler rest which can be shaped a little to fit the contours of your shoulder so that it's quite comfortable to hold.

It's important when playing any instrument that you are relaxed.

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Having a sore back after practicing is actually pretty normal, especially if you started playing less than a year ago. It may sound weird, but it is important to stretch after playing, particularly after a long practice.

You are correct to take breaks– this is definitely important. Make sure that you are relaxed when you play. As you probably know, tension is never good when practicing.

I would strongly suggest a shoulder rest; this will make it much easier to have proper posture, and you won't have to try so hard to keep the violin on your shoulder. I would recommend a "Wolf" or a "Koon" for a shoulder rest, although there are many different brands.

When you hold the violin, you should be able to easily grip the violin between your shoulder and chin without using your hands. If you can't do this, then a shoulder rest is probably necessary. Hope this helps!

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Violin is a finicky instrument when producing sound. It is tempting to reduce the number of involved variables by tensioning/locking joints, thus reducing the number of independently moving parts. But the inertia of those larger units is a bigger disadvantage than the initial gain in control.

Walking does not become easier in the long run by keeping the knees locked.

Try feeling the vibrations of the bow running through your fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders. Is there some barrier where it stops? Bad.

Check your stance in a mirror. Joint by joint: are there joints in unnatural positions? Joints which don't follow your bowing and position changes and vibrato naturally and supply? Do you lock any finger joints in left or right hand instead of having them curve naturally?

Do you pull up shoulders or do any other fixed stuff intended for keeping your violin in place? Your chin and shoulder rests and stance should provide the necessary fixture without any muscle groups requiring constant tension.

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