The physical acrobatics of playing a violin

So while we are talking in terms of the brain and learning mechanisms, it might be interesting to consider what is involved in the physical activity of playing a violin.  There are numerous aspects of this, ranging from the physical geometry of the skeleton which requires the player to become a contortionist, to the physical control of muscles in the body, actions in coordination to produce complex motions and muscles operating at a speed that is actually beyond the speed of normal muscle control.

A violin can be played sitting down, as when playing in a String Quartet, or can be played standing up, as when playing in a Barn dance or ceilidh band. Each playing position is suitable for specific kinds of music, and each poses its particular physical challenges. The same applies to playing a viola, where the physical challenges become more extreme as the instrument is somewhat larger than a violin. The only sensible stringed instruments in a String Quartet, from the ergonomic point of view, is the cello which is almost always played sitting down and in an orientation that relates sensibly to the musician's bodily layout;

( Though I did see a cellist in a String Quartet busking at the Covent Garden in London, who played standing up. She accomplished this amazing feat by putting a strap around the scroll at the head of the cello,  and then putting this around her neck and shoulders, pulling it tightly so the cello sloped slightly away from her. She had removed the spike of a cello,  and was walking around playing in this way. She must have been a very strong young lady!  when I mention what I've seen to the  cellist in my string quartet, he said that in the distant past this has been common among monks and church musicians. This was in the days when many monasteries and small churches didn't have organs and relied on a small church band to play music. This band had to be mobile to play as the  Priest and others processed in and out of ceremonies. This was alright for violins, oboes and the smaller instruments, but posed a problem for the cellist. It seems that a small wooden peg was inserted into the back centre of the cello body or soundbox, with a rope around the musicians neck holding instrument dangling against the front of the body. In fact, he had a very old cello where you could see this peg hole.  As it was being used as a modern instrument, the whole had been expertly filled with a wooden insert. So what I had thought was an uncommon way of playing the cello, had in fact been quite common. You learn something everyday!)

Anyway, let's get back to talking about playing a violin standing up or sitting down. I'll talk about violins rather than violas and cellos, simply because I'm a violinist so can talk from personal experience.  When and why would you sit to play a violin, and when would you stand?  The difference is partly in the convenience of setting when playing a large group, so that everybody can see what they're doing, but can also be to do with the dynamics of the kind of music you're playing.

 Let's talk about sitting down and playing a violin. It is normal to sit when playing string quartets or when playing in a Symphony Orchestra. In a Symphony Orchestra it would be impractical to stand because the 50 or so stringed string players would obscure the view of the conductor by the woodwind, brass and percussion who are normally located at the back of the ensemble. Another consideration is the length of performance. An orchestra may practice for two or three hours in the afternoon and then give a 2 hour concert in the evening. Simply standing for that amount of time would be very hard work.

So let's think about the arrangement of the orchestra. The standard layout, described when viewed from the audience, is to have the conductor at the centre, first violins to the left, cellos to the right. Behind the first violins would be the second violins, and behind the cellos would be the violas. Thus there would be a 60 degree angle of displacement between violin 1, violin 2, viola and cello sections.

Behind the strings would be ranged the Brass and Woodwind sections. From left to right might be the French horns, the flute and piccolos, the basoons and clarinets, then on to the brass instruments of trombone, trumpet, flugel horns, tubas etc. Then to the right or below, normally jammed into any space between cellos, violas and brass, is placed the double bass section. Alternatively, if there is room on stage, they would be lined up dramatically to the right of the cellos. 

Then behind that is ranged the percussion section. Dependent on the Musical Work to be played, this might comprise just timpani in the centre of the stage. At the other extreme, there may be a continuous line of everything including the kitchen sink right the way from the left to the right of the stage.  Instruments like Tubular Bells, cymbals, gongs, glockenspiels, xylophones, vibraphones, handbells, side drums, bass drums, castanets and wood blocks, and even tea cups suspended from pieces of string, if I remember correctly. The list of strange things that composers have got musicians to hit bang scrape and thump, seems endless.

 So, with this array of people, which can number up to about 120 for some symphonic works, the logistics of arranging everyone so that they can see the conductor and the conductor can see them, is a major undertaking. The string section are normally on a flat stage at the same level as a conductor, or the conductor may be raised up half a metre high on a conductor's rostrum. There is normally staging behind the string section at a first level, to take the Brass and Woodwind. Behind that is a higher level of staging for the percussion.

 Not only is it a matter of viewing the conductor, but a matter of being able to get instruments on and off the stage. Getting 100 or more people onto a stage and off again, quickly and with their instruments, without knocking music stands and music everywhere, is a major feat in itself without worrying about having to play the music. Some instruments are left on stage, for example harps, which I'd forgotten about earlier and which tend to be positioned to the left of the stage behind the first violins and near to the French horn section. Sometimes cellists will leave their instruments on the stage, though with an instrument being worth anywhere between £5,000 and £100,000,  many are reluctant to leave them unattended on the stage. Double bass players more often leave their instruments on the stage. Some basses do cost prestigious amounts of money, many though are really bits of furniture, more like a cocktail cabinet or sideboard than a musical instrument. ( I think I might be lynched by some bass players for saying that, but who cares.)

So it clearly makes sense for violin and viola players to sit down when playing in an Orchestra. Having said that, I have seen a chamber Orchestra where all the string players stand. This gives a very different sound and emphasis to the playing, for reasons that I will explain later. In fact it had such a profound effect on the sound  that I tried this with my own chamber orchestra that I ran some years ago. It certainly produced a much better sound and a much more exciting sound, but there were too many complaints about sore feet or people feeling exposed as they played standing up rather than sitting down, so that I soon gave up the idea.