In this practice tip I am going to show you how to unlock tension in your shoulders.

Getting rid of tension is key to fluid playing and an open full tone.

Do you know how to unlock a stiff painful shoulder?

Do you know how to unlock a stiff painful shoulder?

In the age of computers, driving, and texting, our shoulders are in a hunched, closed position most of the time. Our bodies forget how to release it!

I work a lot at my laptop, and I know that I have a buildup of tension simply because of that. But the surprising thing is, I see this tension even in 8 year olds. Before I discovered this trick, I had a hard time getting them to release it. Telling them to relax, as with so many other “explanations” doesn’t seem to do it.

The following exercises are for any age and any level. I use them consistently in my own practicing.

I recommend that teachers and practice parents do them first on your own, so you can understand how it feels, before you teach it to your students.


The shoulder bones attach at the front clavicle; the rest floats free

The shoulder bones attach at the front clavicle; the rest floats free

  1. Swing your arms at your sides, without the violin or bow. Let them drop freely back and forth.
  2. Do one arm at a time, and feel the movement in your clavicle area with your other hand. This is the attachment point; the shoulder blades float free.
  3. With violin and bow, go to play position. Now drop your bow to your side and swing your right arm. On the third swing, arc the bow up above the violin and drop it down onto the string.
  4. “Plop” the bow down, don’t place it carefully. You want to let your shoulder and elbow let go and relax as the bow comes down. You will feel your arm and elbow drop into a "slot."
  5. Try to land in the lower half of the bow, without tightening up the shoulder. You may miss at first, but try again until the bow lands where you intend.

Important tip: Have someone watch you. They should see a subtle dip in your shoulder and elbow as you drop the bow onto the string.

Practice parent tip: Tickle your child's right shoulder as they play. This will remind them to relax and recover the position they started in from the arm swings.

Repeat 5-10 times and before starting each review piece. Repeat also before important downbow passages to get the feel of a relaxed arm and more open, expansive tone.

Left-side arm swings are done as follows:

  1. Put your bow down, and support your violin in play position with your bow hand up by your chin.
  2. Release your left hand, letting it drop to your side.
  3. Swing it three times; on the third swing, arc it up to the fingerboard.
  4. “Plop” your first finger down, using the weight of your arm. Don’t worry where it lands.

As with the bow arm, you are trying to get a feel of letting go at the shoulder. The left elbow should feel as though it is dropping into a slot under the violin.

Repeat 5-10 times for each finger. As you go, begin trying to aim approximately for third position, then for first position. Do not tighten up in an effort to place the fingers; let the arm drop and land without tension.

As you get comfortable with this way of placing the fingers, you will notice an increase in ability to land more exactly, while retaining agility and looseness in the fingers.

Further study

I recommend Alexander Technique and Golandsky Technique for further study and development of body awareness. How the arms, shoulders, and back interact is different for each person, and individual instruction may be necessary to understand your unique body type.

This practice tip may also be combined with Practice Tip #8 - Bow Sinks Down.