Sunday, April 22, 2007


Controlling the bow arm

Over the past several days, maybe even gradually building up over the past few weeks, I've noticed a tension in my right shoulder that radiates up into my neck and jaw and down into my upper back. Normally I'm able to work out these types of tensions with a variety of relaxation-breathing-imaging-cracking techniques that I've learned over the years. But nothing has worked - this new tension would not go away, in fact, it's continued to get worse.

This morning as I was warming up with my cello, my mind drifted off thinking about something else and I almost completely stopped paying attention to what I was doing. I must have gotten pretty distracted because all of a sudden I realized I had "let go" of my right shoulder and was just using my wrist and forearm and elbow with the bow. The tension in my shoulder had released and my neck and jaw tension was almost gone.

As I played on, I tried using a progressive tense/relax process to sort out exactly which muscles I'd been using to do what. I figured out that I have been "pushing" with my back and shoulder (with feedback to my neck and jaw) as I moved my arm to move the bow. With some further trial and error, I was able to adjust which muscles I was using, letting go of most of the action in the back/shoulder/neck/jaw muscle group while still controlling the bow with my arm, elbow and wrist. Actually, it was easier to do it than to try to describe it with words.

But what a difference! I felt more in control of the sound itself, not just which notes I played, but also how they sounded. As I continued to play, I felt the tension begin to creep back in, so I stopped, redid all the relaxation steps again and played on. This happened several times throughout the session. It is hard to continuously focus on just one aspect of playing technique.

Even better, I also noticed that with so much of my attention being focused on the right arm muscle controls, my left hand pretty much did what it was supposed to do, effortlessly - and with a relaxed thumb! I played through several pieces almost without thinking about my regular trouble spots and found that I didn't stumble on them this time.

Now, the challenge is to remain conscious of these muscle control thoughts, but without thinking about it anymore. It's all about control.

Playing technique aside, I am quite pleased with the quality of my sound of my cello. The strings I'm using are really nice (Dominants on the lowers and Larsens on the uppers). They seem to be a good match. Currently, after a lot of trial and error, I've ended up with a 7-gram Bice eliminator on the g-string. Although this produces a slight "booming" sound around the Bb, I've been able to work around it by sliding the eliminator a bit toward the tailpiece. Yesterday, I checked the angle of my bridge to the cello's face and found it to be quite warped. It wasn't too difficult to restore it to its proper position, and it re-tuned quite easily. So now, I'm wondering if this warping is due to quality of the wood.

Tension problems are cruel because they always seems to creep up when one is motivated and practicing a lot. It sounds like you've got the right approach to getting rid of it. A few years ago I had a bad tension problem in my back and couldn't practice for a few months, and just when I was really starting to make some good progress! The only thing to do in that situation is stay positive and tackle the problem objectively.
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