One of my specialities as a teacher is helping my violin, viola, and cello students become as efficient in their technique as possible. Ergonomics is the study of efficiency in any activity, but can be said to have two guiding principles. First, any activity should always be accomplished with the least amount of physical or mental effort. Second, activities should be streamlined to only include those actions or thoughts which are absolutely necessary.
When people first start to adopt these guiding principles of ergonomics, they may feel as if they are supposed to move mechanically and in a robot-like fashion. Invariably, tension sets in, and the student is left feeling worse than when they started. However, one of the greatest authorities on body ergonomics, Mathias Alexander, would heartily disagree!
Mathias Alexander was the creator of the Alexander Technique, a system of creating body awareness through reducing static tension in the body as well as operating within the mid-ranges of each range of movement. Through this system, Alexander has helped countless actors, dancers, athletes, musicians, and many others - including myself!
When I was in my third year of college, I developed debilitating tendinitis in my left shoulder. It was so bad that I couldn't even hold my instrument for four whole months. Not only did I have to take a semester off playing, but I also literally had to retrain my body how to play again. At first, I tried things like physical therapy, massage, immobilization, and acupuncture, but nothing seemed to work - until I discovered the Alexander Technique!
I realized that my philosophy on movement had been deeply flawed up to that point. For example, when I had to use my 4th finger on a lower string, I would simply reach with my fingers to get over to the other string. What I discovered is that I was overloading my smaller muscles with strain and tension instead of using the larger and more capable muscles of my shoulder and back. Furthermore, whenever I would stretch with my hand, I froze my shoulder to act as a fulcrum for leverage, thus immobilizing it and creating static tension!
How did Alexander Technique help in this situation? First, if I wanted to perform with the least amount of physical effort, I had to choose muscles that had the highest efficiency. My hand had to strain to the very limits of its range of motion to reach over and play a 4th finger on the next lowest string. Swinging my left arm from the shoulder joint would have been a much less strenuous movement, but would have still accomplished the same task of centering my hand over the next lower string, thus creating more economy of movement.
Second, because I was no longer stretching my hand to its limits, I allowed my hand to stay more in the middle of its range of motion. At the same time, swinging my arm from the shoulder socket was not impinging on its range of motion either, allowing me to also stay within the middle of my range of motion. When we stay in the middle of our range of motion, we lessen the likelihood that we will experience overuse injuries like tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.
However, the most important benefit of learning to have economy of movement and operating in the mid-range of motion is that static tension is reduced, if not eliminated. When I allow my shoulder to swing, enabling it to center my hand over that lower string, I also release all the static tension my shoulder had been holding up to that point. The more I allow my body to move freely, the less tension it is allowed to hold.
Of course there are many more examples I could present, but they are almost too numerous to list. The takeaway is this: musicians must move in order to create sound, and wherever there is movement, there will be the question of ergonomics. If a musician is well set-up and properly educated in how their bodies are made to move, they can play for a lifetime without pain or difficulty. And isn’t that the aim - to be able to practice art for the rest of our lives while enjoying every moment?