How to Play the Violin Comfortably without Pain with Jennifer Roig-Francoli

by | Apr 11, 2018 | 0 comments

85% of violinists experience pain while playing the violin!

Expressing your emotions through music, fluent bowing, fast playing, playing in tune and inspiring performances are NOT possible when you are tensed up.

Jennifer Roig-Francoli is an inspiring violinist and Alexander technique teacher with a big heart and a lot of love for music. She teaches violinists to play with ease, so they can make beautiful music.

In this interview I’m a guinea pig and get an Alexander technique lesson from Jennifer, which you can follow along. You’ll discover how you’re breath and movements become more fluent when you focus on ease and not on tension.

After my interview with Jennifer about the mindset for music some time ago, I’m happy to have her back to talk about the physical aspects of violin playing:

Are you playing an instrument andexperiencing pain?

Jennifer: I have come into contact with many many musicians in my life and whether they are beginners or professionals, unfortunately pain related to music making is really common. Pain has a wide range of course. My students would often come to me for an Alexander technique lesson because they had tendinitis or rotator cuff issues or carpal tunnel or I had one student with jaw issues and she was about to have surgery. So unfortunately this is very common. There are a lot of studies that you can find on Google about orchestra musicians and how a very high percentage, some say 85%, of orchestra musicians are in pain. Another interesting fact is that they don’t want to talk about it. Musicians are very shy about revealing their discomfort and their stress. It is not just physical pain there is also a lot of emotional pain as well. There is a lot of performance anxiety in professionals as well as beginners again, your skill level does not matter. But seriously there is a lot of suffering!

Zlata: The majority of musicians are in pain certainly in high pressure environments it is really taboo. Because if you tell it people are afraid to lose their jobs or not pass an exam. But even for amateurs, I heard about people who can’t play for 10 minutes.

Jennifer: that is right. And there are a lot people who then stop playing. I had this experience in college there was a period where I got a shooting pain in my arm and I literally could not press my pinky. I know what that’s like. It is very scary you start to worry about your future, are you going to be able to play? Are you going to need surgery? There is a lot of frustration and uncertainty: you don’t know if you will get better or if you will get worse. You don’t really know what to do about it, maybe you go to a doctor or chiropractor or alternative practices those can, but I have not come across any technique as effective as the Alexander technique to really get to the source of the problem. Because most therapies don’t address the whole person. Even as they do, the ones that I have found are not actually teach you

  • how to take care of yourself,
  • How to start healing yourself and
  • how to prevent recurrences if you are already in pain or
  • how to prevent pain if you are lucky enough not to have discomforts.

Those are the things that are invaluable, when you can learn to use your own experience and know what to do. It is just so rare. And musicians are afraid to even tell people if they are employed as musicians. They don’t want people to know. It is a real problem.

Alexanders techniques refers to lessons, not to therapy.

Jennifer: It is very very important. It can be therapeutic for sure but Alexander technique is an educational method. It is not a therapy. You don’t go to an Alexander teacher to be treated, you go to learn. You actually will most likely feel way better so it may feel like a treatment, but along the way you’re actually learning what you can do on your own. There are different ways to learn the Alexander technique. The way I do it is kind of on the cutting edge because I do most of it online now. I have learned I am interested in Alexander himself, he was an actor and had a performance issue himself, he got chorus. He learned how to solve his performance problem, his discomfort, by himself. And he did it by experimenting and observing himself, getting to know his habit. He got to know what he was doing to himself to cause the problem. Then he figured out how to solve his own problem. And he did it! So he cured the voice problem he had and then he was able to teach other people to cure or to deal with their issues whatever they were. After 17 years of teaching his methodology, he started using his hands. For a long time the Alexander technique was a hands-off communication method. So I am interested in how Alexander taught himself without a teacher, what was his thought process. That is what I am helping other people to realize that you have so much power in your mind. Your mind is so powerful to make changes in your body. You have no idea how powerful the mind is. It is really simple actually once you realize that it takes:

  • observation
  • a little bit of patience
  • a will to take care of yourself, put your well-being first.

If you have the skills, you have them for life. You can apply this knowledge of how to integrate yourselves in the best way possible. You can do that in anything you do: playing your violin or going on stage and being comfortable in front of an audience or walking down the street. Any activity where you use your body improves because you know how to use your mind in a healthy way.

Zlata: Some people might not have a clear picture of what this means. But your mind is actually steering, controlling what you do with your body. The only thing is: we do a lot of things unconsciously. So you don’t know that you are doing them but your mind is doing them. So it is a matter of conscience and learning how to change that.

Try out the Alexander techniques with me in 7 steps..

Jennifer: Yes! Would you be interested in just a couple minutes of an experiment right now?

Zlata: Yes of course, I would like to be the guinea pig! I also have my violin here if that is necessary.

Jennifer:  You actually don’t need the violin because it is really about what we are doing with the mind and the body. But let’s just try some out and see what happens.. Everything we do is an experiment with the Alexander technique.

  1. So right now, the first question I always ask is: what do you notice about your body right now? Zlata: I think I am doing my best to sit up straight. Could you be more specific you do with your body to sit up straight? I am using the muscles of my abs and my back to not sit bowed. 
  2. Oke great, let’s try something. What would happen if you really exaggerate what you are doing right now? Zlata is straightening her back even further. Haha, I think the people who are watching are sitting like that as well now, because we reflect what we see. If you really exaggerate, can you imagine if you would stay there for a long time? What would happen? I would probably fall down on the floor. But you realize that you do not want to hold that and you want to come back here. If you did that for a long time, you would probably start to hurt. Can you imagine that?
  3. And right now as you are sitting there, can you notice any tension related to what we just did? Yes, I can feel my back somewhere around my shoulders. I do not know the term in English but somewhere around my bra area. Yes so around the shoulder blades, the back I a little tightening right? Oke so you feel that.
  4. Oke now let’s try something else. Now, scan your body, just take a moment. Is there a place in your body where you feel less tension? My legs I think. Oke so there is relatively more tension in your back and less tension in your legs. So both places feel different right? Is there another place in your body that is relatively ease or comfortable right now? My hands. So you got relative ease in your hands.
  5. What happens if you bring your attention again to that tension in your back? Go ahead and move your arms while you pay attention to the tension. Both move their arms up and down. Just feel what that is like. Then stop and now pay attention to the ease. Where do you notice ease right now? I think my arms and hands and legs. Okee great, so notice that the ease in your legs right now, good. You are starting to breathe a little more freely, I just saw that change.
  6. So notice the ease in your legs and just get curious about the ease in your legs as you move your arms again back and down. Yes just watch the ease in your legs.. Good, what is that like? I think I moved differently. Can you say how? I think it was different too, I see it. How was it different? I think when I focused on my back, I moved more like a robot. When I focused on my legs it became more fluent. it became more fluent. Yes that is what I saw too.
  7. So here is my question: If you use your arms to play the violin, would it be helpful to notice some ease while you are playing and moving your arms or notice the tension in yourself while you are playing? Ease of course. However, people who are in pain, are very good at bringing their attention to their pain. And when you are noticing pain and you are paying attention to pain or any kind of discomfort in your body, any tension. When the attention goes to tension, you are increasing tension. Then your movement becomes more difficult, your vibrato is going to be harder, your wrist is going to be stiffer. It is going to be harder to do anything with your arms and fingers if you are focusing on tension.

Start simple and remember to do it.

Jennifer: Whereas there is a quick and simple shift you can make! Which, Zlata, you just performed beautifully. And then for everybody who tried and was also able to do this, watching the video. It is really simple but it is not something that we have ever practiced before. This is a skill, this is an attention skill that actually requires practice to be able to do this while you are performing a complex skill such as playing the violin. This is why I would start without the violin with Alexander technique. So we strengthen the connection between the mind and the body in the context of noticing ease and then your movements in general can get easier when you know how to do that. Then you can apply that in playing the violin and everything you do while playing the violin is easier. It is pretty amazing, the mind is so powerful but you need to use it constructively.

Zlata: It is perhaps simple, but it is not easy. I think that if you are in pain your attention goes naturally to the pain. That is just how our brain is wired so I think it may be difficult for people to rewire it to noticing what is relaxed and where you feel ease.

Jennifer: You are right. It is natural for the brain, we are wired for survival. The brain is designed to pay 5 – 8 times as much attention to what is wrong then things that are just fine and normal. So that is normal. If you pay attention to your tension and pain that is normal. However, it is not helpful! Because once you focus on pain and tension you are increasing that or you are prolonging the cycle. You are preventing your healing, you are slowing it down. Whereas you bring your attention to what is going well, it is really easy. It is amazing. Zlata, we have never even met before today, never worked together and you were able to do it like that. Now you are not in a lot of pain. People who are watching and are in a lot of pain may think ‘oh but I am in a lot of pain I will not be able to do that!’. I challenge any people watching here to do this little exercise that we did. Switching the attention and if you need help you know where to find me I am online all over the place. In my experience, and I have free stuff online as well on Facebook, but in my experience even people with a lot of pain, old pain, can make this shift and learn how to do it very quickly. Like within a day or 2 that quickly I am talking about. What is not easy is to remember to do it. So that is why you need me to support and the community and other people who are working on this too because we help each other to remind each other ‘oh yes I don’t want pain I need to redirect my attention! Oh yes, there is ease.’ Because the ease is always there. But if you are in a lot of pain, at first you may need to give it a little time to give it up.

Zlata: It is also important to know that it is possible to play the violin even it is impossible to play very well without ease, but I think a lot of mainly beginners or people who play for a couple of years, have the feeling that they have to work hard or something. It is not construction building or so.

Jennifer: I understand and a lot of it stems from a fear of dropping the violin I have discovered and the fact that our violins go up here. One of Alexanders major discoveries was that the head-neck area is primary to all of our coordination. So all of your tension passes through the neck. It starts here so if you are clamping your violin in there, even just before you are making a note, you are compromising the ease in your system: you are compromising your coordination. So the very first step, I just thought a new beginner adult student, we spend almost the whole lesson on creating an ergonomic setup that would help her to have the violin in the neck area so that it is just there and she does not have to clamp. I am saying that 99% of violinist that I have ever met are doing the clamping thing. If people learn it soon it is so much easier than doing it later.

Zlata: I think this is a great taste of your work and I would love to refer people to other stuff that you share. You have a lot of free stuff online. You can find them in the description below. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience!

Click here for the Mind-Body Checklist + Guide “The 7 Keys to Make Your Music Sing!”

Click here for the Cycle Warmup Challenge 

What’s your biggest insight you gained from this interview? Share it in the comments below:

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