left shoulder hurting

Deanna said: Apr 7, 2011
Suzuki Association Member
90 posts

I need some help with a student whose left shoulder is hurting while she plays. She just switched up to a new violin—a bigger one (1/2 size) but it fits her just fine. She is using a Kun rest and that feels comfortable to her as well. Her shoulder doesn’t hurt when she just holds the violin in playing position, but after about 20 minutes of playing it starts to hurt on the top of her shoulder—about two inches from her neck. When it starts hurting she digs her elbow into her ribs and her violin points down at the ground.
From what I can see she isn’t hunching or lifting her shoulder and her posture seems fine. All I can think of is that maybe she is trying to hold up the violin with her left hand. It doesn’t really look like she is but she says the pain feels like when you’re holding your arm up above your head with a bent elbow. I can see her bicep flexing a bit when she plays. We tried adjusting her shoulder rest, using a sponge instead and relaxing her left arm as much as possible but it didn’t really help.

Any ideas what the problem is or what I could try to fix it?

Ruth Brons said: Apr 7, 2011
Ruth Brons
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Livingston, NJ
148 posts

Hmmmm….sounds like perhaps she just needs some breaks.
Twenty minutes is a long time for many young students.
Perhaps you can pre-empt the pain by inserting 5-10 jumping jacks every
5-10 minutes? or stroll around a bit during scales or review pieces?

Jennifer Visick said: Apr 8, 2011
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

First, what criteria do you use to determine if an instrument size fits a child? And what do you mean by “fine” posture? And is this instrument significantly heavier than the previous one? And is the student used to practicing more than 20 minutes at a time, or is there some new motivation that makes the student practice longer and in a more focused fashion (perhaps the tone quality of the new instrument is so significantly better that the student likes practicing longer?)

Specifically: Is the left elbow bent at a 90 degree angle or less when the student is in first position? Is the scroll at or slightly below the height of the chin in playing position, so that the left hand is not lifted higher than the top of the shoulder when playing?

I second the advice about taking breaks. Also, warming up and (gentle) stretching as if this is an athletic event may prove to be a good idea.

Biceps. Hm. Biceps are used to supine (it is impossible to get the left hand into any kind of a decent “western classical” playing position without some degree of supination). But the degree of supination doesn’t have to be the same all the time.

Is the left elbow swinging back (a little bit) for the higher strings and when the fourth finger is not in use, so that the shoulder joint is not frozen in the exact same position all the time? Is the palm of the left hand allowed to rotate (a little bit) so that the degree of supination is a little less when the third and fourth finger are not in use?

If you experiment by going back to a smaller size for a week and the problem does not disappear …. don’t forget to question the student (and parent) about things they are doing off the instrument, especially:
-any sport;
-any other performing art, like dance classes, or starting lessons on a second instrument, or practicing for the upcoming school musical that has lots of choreography;
-or anything that has to be lifted or carried.

And, maybe, inquire about how balanced is their diet recently, and have they started sleeping on a different mattress or something? I once had a student whose sudden onset of arm and back aches I could not fathom from any kind of instrumental posture or technique standpoint.

Eventually I discovered that the student had been using a backpack with wheels but that the wheel mechanism had broken recently and the child was now carrying the thing every day… with lots of homework, that’s like starting a daily weight lifting regimen without any of the precautions (warming up, stretching, cooling down or taking days off) that you would use if you were going to start weight training!

-Jenny Visick-

P.S. I highly recommend Susan Kempter’s book “how muscles learn: teaching the violin with the body in mind”. And/or the Conable’s book “What every musician needs to know about the body”. If you have access to a good Alexander Technique teacher who works well with children and with violinists, Alexander lessons might be a good resource too.

P.P.S. Obviously if the problem persists despite trying everything, tell the student to talk to their doctor about it!

Deanna said: Apr 8, 2011
Suzuki Association Member
90 posts

In terms of fit—yes, I measure fit by the arm being at 90 degrees or less in first position. I think I read about that in a Suzuki Journal several years ago. She is 10 years old playing now on a 1/2 size. While the instrument is bigger it’s actually lighter (or feels so to me) than her old violin. It also definitely has better tone quality. I know she has been practicing more consistently lately because she started a 100 day challenge about a month ago and hasn’t missed a day. It may be that she is just building up endurance. She has been playing violin for almost 3 years and is 10 years old so I expect her to be able to practice for at least 20 minutes a day.
We did talk about not holding the violin up with the left hand, or pinching the chin to the shoulder so hard that it lifts the violin. Like I said it doesn’t look like she is doing either of these. I’ll check next time about her left hand being higher than her shoulder.

We did take quite a few breaks during her lesson. Unfortunately once the pain starts taking breaks only helps for about 30 seconds when she goes back to playing.
She does dance a lot and she does have a big dance competition this weekend so that might be a factor…

I have the book “What every violinist needs to know about the body” by Jennifer Johnson. I’ll look in there to see if I can find any insights.

Thanks for the ideas!

Jennifer Visick said: Apr 9, 2011
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

Wow. if taking a break only helps for 30 seconds then I would say it’s definitely time to stop practicing with the instrument on the shoulder for the day. Or at least for half a day.

Perhaps specific instructions about incorporating types of practice that don’t have the instrument on the shoulder is a good idea. e.g., thought, planning, rhythmic training/rhythm sight reading, finger patterning in rest position, listening to recordings, air bowing, pre-vibrato exercises, listening to and critiquing a recording of oneself and then planning the next day’s practice session so that it’s efficient, music history research—etc., etc.

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