Address Upper Back Pain Before Buying a New Shoulder and Chin Rest

One of the most common areas of discomfort in violists is the upper back. While this can be caused for a variety of reasons, a fair percentage of players (especially those with very large violas) will compensate for the size of the instrument by bringing their shoulders forward in an attempt to reach around the instrument. This causes a lengthening and fatiguing of the upper back muscles, further contributing to poor posture by eventually weakening the back muscles and allowing the chest and anterior shoulder muscle to shorten and starting a vicious cycle, along with causing other issues that will be discussed later.

If the player is set on using a particular size of viola, a more Primrosesque bowing technique could alleviate the need to bring the shoulders forward. Primrose focused on contact points between the viola and the bow, with the bow varying from the typical 90 degrees at some points, particularly near the tip. While this does stray from conventional bowing technique, eminent viola players have managed to achieve quality tone production with it.

If caught early enough, an observant music teacher can prevent future discomfort by simply correcting poor posture before it becomes a chronic issue. Most individuals do not fall into this category, most often having their back and shoulders hunched forward to varying degrees which not only places stress on the back muscles, but can cause premature wear on the rotator cuff.

To find out which category you fall into, stand as you normally would with your hands at your side. If your thumbs are parallel to each other, you are in the first category. If they point inward at all, your posture is suffering. For those in the latter category the following exercise is recommended: Stand with your arms in front of you, palms facing you. Your upper arms should be at a downward 45 degree angle with the upper arms at an upward 45 degree angle so that the elbows are bent at 90 degrees. Lean forward at the HIPS (not the back). While keeping the palms facing backward (you will need to force your hands to rotate inward in order to facilitate this), slowly bring your arms out from in front of you to your side being sure to keep your upper arms bent upward. You will begin to feel the upper back muscles contract. At the end of the movement, try to puff your chest out (or squeeze your shoulder blades together) while pushing your elbows forward and your hands backward (and keep trying to rotate the hands inward). Keep your hands facing the back as best you can. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 10 times. If you do this in the correct way and pair it with chest stretches, it should aid in developing proper posture. However, it is equally as important to be aware of posture outside of rehearsal as it is inside.

The player should seek to correct posture wherever possible, especially in routine situations that involve a lot of sitting. Even certain sleeping positions can be a contributing factor. Sometimes the discomfort can be centralized in the right or left side of the upper back. If this is the case, the instrument angle can be the source of the problem. Many violists will play with the viola too far out to the side. To create a perpendicular angle between the bow and string (sometimes called the “Suzuki Box”) the right arm has to reach around the instrument, causing similar issues. The proper corrective for this issue is to bring the instrument more in front of the player so that his or her upper arms are about 45 degrees from the centerline of the player and 90 degrees from each other.

If the player is suffering from upper back pain on the left side, the opposite is true, and the same fix can apply. However, this variation is often fixed in young players and is, thus, less common in more advanced musicians. If arm position is correct, the musician may be compensating for an overly large instrument, in which case refer to the Primrose bowing discussed above.

While these tips can aid in the pursuit of pain-free playing, they do not address what is most often the underlying cause of the poor posture; an ill fitting chin rest and shoulder rest. Every musician is unique and has a different build. This means that the same setup that one person has is not necessarily what another requires.

Most people gravitate towards using shoulder rests, especially people with longer necks. This places the instrument higher up, creating a situation in which the shoulders overcompensate by lifting higher, causing tension. A chin rest fitted to the player is more desirable. It is, nonetheless more difficult and expensive to obtain. A more budget friendly option might be to find a chin rest that is slightly too short and add extra layers of cork underneath. However, a professionally fitted chin rest will always be superior.