The physical acrobatics of playing in a string quartet

It is traditional for the quartet to set, though it is not unknown for a quartet to play with violin and viola standing and the cellist sitting. This gives a problem of levels, the cellist being unable to catch the eye of the other players. It is vital for all the string quartet players to have eye contact, as it is part of the signalling method for timing and dynamics. I've seen a quartet getting around this difficulty by the cellist being positioned on a rostrum three feet high in order to get eye levels constant. Again I would say the sound from this quartet was far more exciting in many ways than from a sitting Quartet, but there are few cellists who are happy to be placed on a pedestal in front of an audience, so this is quite uncommon. It is also quite a kerfuffle getting cellist and musician onto the pedestal in front of an audience and it must be big enough that there is no danger of their chair or instrument falling off if they move a little during the performance.

 So, why do some musicians stand to play certain kinds of music? The reason is that because of the geometry of the skeleton and muscles, and the movements that are required to generate sound and dynamics in a stringed instruments, the standing position is a much more appropriate dynamic and geometric position.

Let's look in detail at the position and movements required to play violin. The violin is tucked under the chin to give a location relative to the head and spine. From the head and spine, the shoulders support the left and right arms. The left arm is bent around and in front of the head to support the violin and bring the hand and fingers into position to play the fingering. ( Strictly speaking the Player does not support the violin with his left hand. This restricts the free movement of the hand up and down the neck of the violin and also restrict the speed of the fingering. The violin is in fact maintained in its horizontal position by pressure from the violinist chin on to the chin rest of the violin, clamping it between chin and shoulder. Violinist use a shoulder rest to close the gap between shoulder and violin. Although this seems like hard work, if done properly, the weight of the violinists head is sufficient to hold the violin in this position. Learners use muscular effort to try and hold the violin in this position, because they're frightened of dropping the very delicate instrument. One of the tasks in teaching the violin is to get the position right so that the violinist can relax and feel confident that the violin will not fall. In the past, before shoulder rest were invented, violinist had to lift their shoulders or standing very peculiar positions to hold the violin between head and shoulder. Violinist like Paganini, (1782-1840) were very flexible people, and pictures or should I say paintings show him standing in the most  unlikely position just to hold his instruments.

To continue: on the right-hand shoulder the arm extends out horizontally to hold the bow and push the bow up and down the strings. There is a critical central point in the spine at the neck, which is central to the violin and arms. So now let's look at the movement that have to be accomplished from this central point.

Look at a video of a violinist playing a fast and lively piece of music specifically at what the right arm is doing. It will be moving extremely fast push the bow back and forth. Not only is it moving fast from left to right, but it is undergoing extreme accelerations in a number of different situations.

Lets first look at accelerations when the bow changes direction. To demonstrate, hold your right arm out horizontally in front of you. Move it left and right over a distance of about 40 centimetres as fast as you possibly can. You're probably not moving as fast as a violinist has to move their arm when they're playing a fast passage, so try harder! Are you still doing the movement? Keep doing it now for a minute, no for five minutes, no for half an hour because you're playing a string quartet work by Mozart or Haydn, and that normally lasts about half an hour. I bet you can't do it!

Ok can stop for now. Let's look at on of the consequences of doing this action. Sit on something like an office or dining room chair.  Sit upright with your feet flat on the floor. Now do this violent wagging of your right arm from side to side as violently as you can. You will notice that your body and in particularly this critical point on your neck, is wobbling from side to side on the chair in reaction to your arm being moved violently. If while you were going through this wobbling motion with the upper part of your body while at the same time you were also trying to balance a tray with a glass of wine in your left hand, you would spill the wine everywhere. When you're playing a violin, you're not holding a glass of wine in your left hand but you are doing an intricate fingering motion with your left hand and trying to get your fingers accurately onto very narrow strings that are extremely close together at the same time. Furthermore, as your hand is around the violin neck of the instrument, if your left hand is wobbling from side to side it would wobble the whole violin. If the violin is wobbling how can the right hand be moving the bow actively across the strings, touching only one string and avoiding touching the others that are only perhaps a millimeter wave from the bow hair. The answer is simply that you couldn't. So it is imperative to have stability in your body while your right arm is thrashing around wildly and trying to put you off balance.

So now let us see how a seated violinist stabilizes their body position. I asked you to sit on the chair with your feet flat on the ground and it didn't work.

Let's now try this slightly different exercise. (Incidentally, if you are sitting on an office type swivel chair, get rid of that, you don't stand a chance. Find yourself something like a good solid reasonable height dining room chair.)

Sit on the chair with your feet flat on the ground, now move your right foot to the right side of the chair and to a little behind you  and place your left foot slightly under the chair and balance forward slightly. The aim is to get yourself in a position where you can slightly lift yourself up off the chair, maybe by an inch or two.

The real test of whether you are in the right position is to get someone to remove the chair from under you for a few moments, (then put it back before you fall over.) If you are in the right position and taking your weight on your legs properly, you should be able to lift the weight off your bottom so that a person can take the chair away for maybe a second then put it back, without you falling over. In that position you are much more stable.

 I'm not joking about taking the chair away. When I played many years ago in my County Youth Orchestra , we had one violin teacher who in sectional rehearsals would get us to practice sitting positions. He  would go around the section taking chairs away from under people's bottoms. People rarely fell over, or if they did they learnt very quickly how to sit properly. (He was always ready to catch them so they didn't fall flat on their back, though can you imagine the outcry if a teacher tried that nowadays! They would be in front of the court for abuse. I think the world has gone mad in this regard, and I really don't know how teachers nowadays manage to teach instruments, which is a complex physical activity, without being allowed  touching pushing prodding or otherwise physically interacting with their pupils, actions which would get them into infinite trouble these days. This is one of my pet subjects, so I'd better move on quick.

Ok, so we are sitting on the chair with our feet in the positions that I've described, taking maybe 50% of your weight on your legs. Now lift your right arm, stretch it out in front of you and wag it  from left to right as fast as you can, as you did before. I think you will find that the upper part of your body, in particularly your head and shoulders, is very much more stable. This is the position for playing a violin in a String Quartet and orchestra. If you are a glutton for punishment, stay in this position for 10-15 minutes wagging your arm. Unless you're a stringed instrument player, your legs will turn to jelly within a very short time, your arm will hurt and you will give up. It takes many years of practice and pain to be able to do this for a couple of hours rehearsal and a couple of hours concert, without collapsing in a heap. You have to develop the strength and right muscles, and in fact in this respect string players are really quite athletic. This sort of physical athleticism is very specific the violin and viola player, and tends not to apply the majority of other instruments which are relatively physically benign.