DEVELOPING THE PORTABENE SHOULDER REST 
BY APPLYING THE PRINCIPLES OF THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE
TO VIOLIN/VIOLA SHOULDER REST ERGONOMICS
 
By Joe Armstrong*
B.S. Music Ed., MA
Teacher of the  Alexander Technique
Certified by the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique, London, England, 1972
 

 

MUSICIANS AND THE ALEXANDER TECHNIQUE

   As a method for developing and maintaining a balanced and integrated coordination in movement and at rest, the Alexander Technique has become highly popular among students and professionals in the performing arts. Numerous professional violinists and violistsas well as other instrumentalists and singershave also undergone the intensive three-year training to become qualified Alexander teachers in order to better help their students in understanding how to manage themselves while performing. The Technique is taught at many music and drama schools, including Juilliard, the Royal College of Music, the Royal College of Dramatic Art, and the Paris Conservatory. Alexander teachers are also employed at such performance centers as the Metropolitan Opera and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, to mention only a few. Both research studies and real-world experience have demonstrated its value (**see notes below).

   The hands-on work in Alexander lessons with an experienced teacher often unmasks "hidden" tightnesses that have built up in people's musculature over many years of subconsciously managing their general balance and poise in daily activity as well as in specialized tasks. As these, often unbalanced, patterns of tension are revealed and transformed into a more unified coordination, people find that they experience a new-found power of control in all that they do and in all tha they react to in life. This more balanced overall supportive action of our musculature that supports us in relation to gravity's constant downward pull from moment to moment, both in motion and at rest,  establishes a basis for a high standard of excellence in all that we do and often provides us with a choice over how we react and how we direct our energies in all we do—particularly when it comes to activities such as musical performance that require a refined and superlative control. It's from this broad perspective of excellence in overall balance and poise that we have attempted to address the issue of violin and viola support—as opposed to looking at it as a more localized issue of neck, head, torso, and arm musculature.

   As the Alexander Technique gives violinists and violists a more refined understanding of how to contend with the obstacles they may encounter in mastering their instruments, it teaches them how to address these obstacles on a moment-to-moment basis during both practice and performance. So it often involves a close examination of the demands that they face in supporting their instruments, especially when when it comes to dealing with current shoulder rests—and particularly the common "bar" type (Kun, Wolf, Resonans, Comford, Everest, Mach One, etc.) as well as the demands of using no support beneath their instrument at all. While reckoning with this issue for over thiry years, my partners and I have developed what we believe to be a more effective design that is based mainly on supports both along the collar-bone and on the chest just below. We've arrived at this perpective in collaboration with numerous professional violinists and violists who have been my students in the Alexander Technique who had expressed dissatisfaction with most models on the market. It is a design that we believe has the potential to benefit both those who have studied the Alexander Technique and those who have not.



EXAMPLE I

Here is a video that describes fairly well the problems players have with bar-type shoulder rests.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60CRw5yE0B8           


 

THE PROBLEM

      As Alexander Technique practitioners have discovered, many upper-string players frequently raise their shoulder and hold it tense and they also use their neck and head to supply a matching pressure on the chin rest from above in order to maintain their instrument at the best level and angle for playing. These efforts are particularly noticeable when players need to shift their left hand, fingers, and thumb quickly from a high position on the neck of the instrument to a much lower one. Repeating or sustaining these unbalanced shoulder and neck tensions during practice, rehearsal, and performance can build up chronic tightnesses that set the stage for any number of medically diagnosable conditions, such as thoracic outlet and carpal tunnel syndromes, tendonitis, and focal dystonia. But even without such diagnoses, these unbalanced tensions tend to block the coordination between the neck-head-torso region and the arms and hands that needs to be the foundation of superlative playing.

   Here is cellist and Alexander teacher Vivien Mackie’s description of what happens to muscles as musicians play. It's taken from her article "The Alexander Technique and the Professional Musician," published in Interlude: Journal of the Boston Musicians' Association:
 
It is important for us to know that movements are made by contraction of muscle, and that the contraction is virtually instantaneous, whereas the decontraction, which restores the muscle to its normal resting length, takes about ten times as long. This means that movements performed repeatedly at very short intervalsas in a trill, for instancewill involve a progressive shortening of the muscles concerned, since there simply is not time for full decontraction to take place. Each repeat of the movement therefore requires more contraction than the last. This also applies, on a grander scale, to a long bout of practice . . . . Unfortunately it is possible for a much-used muscle to “forget” its resting length, and fail to decontract as fully as it should; so we may get a permanent shortening of certain muscle groups, which shows as round shoulders, when the chest is over-contracted for instance, or in hands which refuse to open fully. We shape ourselves by what we do.***
 
   All of what Mrs. Mackie says would, of course, apply to any sustained muscular activity required by supporting a violin or viola while playing for any length of time, as well as to the efforts involved in raising the arms and hands and keeping them up while executing all the necessary motions and contacts required in playing.
 
   The shoulder rest dilemma that many players face is well described first hand in an email to me from Dawn Dover, a professional violinist and violin teacher. The email is quoted with her permission.

November 4, 2010

Hi Joe,

My name is Dawn Dover, and I am a violinist from the US. I stumbled upon your Alexander Technique article, which led me to your very interesting invention. I am VERY interested in this because my career has been completely derailed due to issues of injuries in the shoulder and neck. They were beginning as far back as 20 years ago, and then a car accident pushed it all over the edge. I have been down off the instrument for 4 years, although I am teaching.

I have been toying with shoulder pads FOREVER, as most of us have, being tall and long. I came to the exact same conclusion as you, in regards to the fact that the angles and placement of the rests were always in the wrong place, and that the use of the collar bone was instrumental in solving this issue. When I stumbled onto your article, my heart leapt with great hope! I really want to get back to playing, but NO rests have been able to fill the gap, so to speak.

Sorry to be so effusive, I am just desperate to move forward. I am almost 50, and I am so sad that my life-long career has come to this. I have done many therapies, come very far in healing, but whenever I hold the violin and REALLY play, my neck immediately says, "no." So, I stop. I am hoping this is the answer for me. It looks very similar to what I had been envisioning in my own mind and in my own drawings.

I would love to jump right to BUYING the product and to bypass having to try to create my own. I am not into the marketing thing really. I just want to go back to playing.

I really hope that you can help me. I have faced great sadness in the past few years. I would like to be happy and playing again! Not to mention, I have long-necked/-armed students that I sent your links to, and they too have these issues due to their builds. They are so hopeful as well.

I played in the San Francisco symphony for many years, and many of my tall and long violin colleagues have had surgeries, mega amounts of body work, and studies with Alexander and Feldenkrais professionals, but without that proper set-up, they still suffer! So, if this rest is what I think it is, you have hit gold, and you will be overrun with requests.

Thank you, and thanks for putting so much work and effort into creating something fresh and new. It is about time we have something available that actually works!

Sincerely,

Dawn Dover

 

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EXAMPLE II

In this video the celebrated violinist Hilary Hahn gives a good description of problems faced when dealing with both chin rests and shoulder rests (6:09 minutes into the video). Although she doesn't appear to be looking at the issues from the perspective of the Alexander Technique, she does stress that a player's "alignment" is the most important thing to consider when attempting to find the best setup for playing—particularly so that neck, head, torso balance is not disturbed and no nerves in the neck region are being pinched.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2cYfL29SBU


 

 THE PORTABENE SOLUTION: THE PRIMARY CONTACT

  

   Through close scrutiny during my forty years of teaching the Alexander Technique to professional violinists and violists in the Boston area, my partners and I and my violinist and violist collaborators have developed an alternate form of support—the Portabene Rest (US Patent 7,368,645 B2)—that differs considerably from all other commercial rests and, we believe, allows for greater freedom in the neck and shoulder regions and, therefore, in the left arm, hand, thumb, and fingers. We have found that a primary contact—of an appropriate height and angle for each player—must first be accurately established at the collar-bone, right beneath their chin/jaw (when their head is maintained in a balanced relation to their neck and torso and not at all tilted sideways, lowered forward and down, or pulled back). This primary contact needs to extend out along their collar-bone and slightly over the top of their shoulder where the collar-bone meets the top of the scapula (the acromion process). Primary collar-bone contact allows a directly aligned oppositional pressure to be made by their head/chin on the chin rest that requires very little neck and torso muscular effort to sustain in relation to a corresponding contact on the chest area immediately below.*** Once this balanced, collaborative relationship between the collar-bone and chin contacts is established satisfactorily for each shape and size of player, the secondary contact can then be more accurately established on the chest just below it.
 

EXAMPLE III

This video describes solutions for playing without a shoulder rest. It illustrates well the option of using a high chin rest, and it emphasizes the usefulness of a support for the bottom of the violin right on the collar-bone.*****

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yZpxgcIPbgQ

 

EXAMPLE IV

Here is another video of a violinist explaining how to play without any support at all beneath the violin. One of the commenters notes the matter of subconscious tensional compensations that we can develop after many years of using our musculature in a certain pattern, which can also build up into more or less permanent tightnesses that carry over into daily life even when we are not performing the task that creates the tensions. He comments:

"I can see that you raise your left shoulder, and the interesting thing is that you do it even when you don't hold the violin. So maybe you have adjusted to it to that extent that you do it all the time, unconsciously. I mean, it is rather simple physics: If there is a gap, you will either have to lower your chin or to raise your shoulder, both is not recommended. So there are people who simply have to use a shoulder rest, else they will need to hold the violin with the left hand."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xfrV-xw380

 

EXAMPLE V

In this video interview, Stephen McMillan, a violinist in the Houston Symphony and inventor of the Sure Tone Rest, points out that his colleagues who use the common bar-type rest frequently have trouble with it falling off their instruments while playing. When I surveyed upper-string players in the Boston Musicians Union, they reported the same problem. I have found that the bar-type rest usually falls off because players have tried to position it closer to their collar-bone, where they naturally feel they need more support. But the feet of the rest will not hold securely to the edges of the instrument when they are moved in that direction. The bar-type rest can only remain secure when its feet are positioned directly opposite each other across the wider part of the back of the instrument.

McMillan also explains why symphony players may often feel more need for a shoulder rest than soloists who sometimes claim they can manage to play without one. He says that it's one thing to practice at one's own pace and perform a concerto that lasts for half an hour or so, and then quite another thing to play almost constantly for numerous hours of daily orchestral rehearsal and several hours of concert performance (sometimes nearly non-stop) in addition to daily practicing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brGZbTMr0fQ&feature=youtube

________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

THE SECONDARY CONTACT

   We have found that the secondary contact of the Portabene Rest functions best if it is a flat, oval shape that can be angled to rest on the rib area directly beneath the collar-bone according to the shape and carriage of each player's upper chest. In most cases, only a small contact (of about 4 inches in length and 1 1/2 inches in width) seems necessary as long as it is positioned in the most complementary relation to the collar-bone portion of the rest and as long as it is adjusted to lie evenly on the player's chest/rib cage.

      These contacts at the collar-bone and chest/rib-cage, we have also found, can allow the player to support the instrument with a minimal and balanced effort in the neck and upper torso. Because there is no need to support the violin or viola so much with the left arm, hand, and thumb, players can use them more freely in the manner of cellists, who need not support the weight of their instrument. The upper-string players’ left arm and hand can also remain more integrally connected to their head-neck-torso coordination, and as their left-arm coordination with their head-neck-torso is improved, their bow arm and hand can also become more harmoniously integrated with their central coordination.
  
   Of course, the relationship between collar-bone shape and chest shape often differs from player to player according to individual physique and general habits of carriage. Style of playing, size of instrument, type of chin rest, and even apparel can also require a range of adjustments in angle and height of both the collar-bone rest and the chest rest. My partners and the professional players who have tested the unique features of the Portabene Rest feel that it meets all these requirements and that it should benefit almost all players who find they need a more balanced support beneath their instruments. Technically speaking then, the term "shoulder rest" is no longer applicable; "collar-bone and chest rest" is actually more accurate.
 
   An additional aspect of the Portabene Rest that should be of great value to players is its triangular attachment to the back of the instrument. We found this was necessary in order for the chest rest portion to be properly placed, but it has also proven to allow for a fuller sound because it's not compressing the instrument from side to side as the bar type rests do. This aspect was validated for us by an esteemed luthier, and most of the players who have tested the Portabene Rest have remarked at how much fuller their instrument sounds when using it.

   A Portabene Rest prototype is currently in the late stages of development. For more information about it, please contact me at joe@joearmstrong.info.

Revised, 2018.

 


NOTES

*Although I am by no means an accomplished violinist or violist, I have some eperience learning to play the violin during string class in college as a requirement for my degree in music education. Later on, after I became an Alexander teacher and began teaching professional violinists and violists I had some violin lessons with two of those professionals who were my students. Added to that, I also had a year and a half of intensive string experience in learning to play the cello with my colleague and former Alexander teacher training course classmate, cellist Vivien Mackie, who studied with Pablo Casals for three years in the 1950s. Otherwise, I have specialized in flute playing and have studied flute with Carl Petkoff at Illinois Wesleyan Univesity (1962–1964), former London Symphony flutist Alexander Murray at The National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan (summers of 1965 and '66), and former first oboist of the Boston Symphony, Fernand Gillet (1973–75). Among my students of the Alexander Technique have been string players from the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops Esplanade Orcherstra, Emmanuel Music, the faculties of Boston University, New England Conservatory of Music, and the Longy School of Music, as well as many other free-lance professional violinists and violists in the Boston and New England area. I believe that these experiences and studies may have helped me to have a deeper insight than most other Alexander teachers—particularly those who do not have any formal musical training—into the issues confronted by upper string players when supporting their instruments, and I have drawn extensively on this diverse musical background in developing the Portabene design.

**Research studies on the Alexander technique were initiated by Frank Pierce Jones at the Tufts Institute for Psychological Research during the 1960s and 70s; they are summarized in his book Freedom to Change: Development and Science of the Alexander Technique, Mouritz, London, 1997. More recently studies include one sponsored by the British Medical Journal that examines the effects of the technique in dealing with back pain (see: http://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a884 ). I also wrote my master's thesis at Tufts in 1975 on the effects of the technique in dealing with stress in musical performance. As subjects for the research portion of the study, I used an MIT piano repertoire class (see: http://JoeThesis.html).

***Mackie, Vivien, “The Alexander Technique and the Professional Musician,” Interlude, Journal of the Boston Musicians' Association, Local 9-535, July-August, 1990. The article also appears in the appendix of ‘Just Play Naturally,’ Mrs. Mackie’s account of her study with Pablo Casals in the 1950s and her discovery of the resonance between his teaching and the principles of the Alexander Technique (Boston: Duende Editions, 2002; Xlibris, 2006, p. 164).
 
****This collar-bone rest contact is made possible by using a base structure that is attached at three points to the back of the instrument instead of the usual two-point, oppositional attachment of the bar-type rests. One foot attaches over the lower waist point, the second next to the button, and the third (by way of a spring mechanism) opposite the waist point. A master luthier has confirmed that this three-point attachment enhances an instrument’s sound because it involves less compression on the back of the instrument than the bar-type rests. This sound-enhancing property has been verified by many of the violinists and violists who have tested the Portabene Rest..

*****An option for those who choose to support their instrument entirely with the left arm, hand, and thumb, but who wish at times for a more comfortable contact along their collar-bone, could be to use only the collar-bone portion of the Portabene Rest. This could be very helpful when a player is executing downward shifts from a very high position, where some degree of "holding" between the chin/jaw and collar-bone is needed—as Alex Marcus suggests in his video course on how to play without any added support beneath the violin (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoyqydEC9s8).