The Biomechanics of Healthy Performance

By Carol Navarro

What does physics have to do with teaching the violin? Everything – if young musicians want to develop playing techniques and practice skills that will help them avoid injuries that are all too common in serious performers. After a year-long sabbatical, Hal Grossman, instructor of violin at Interlochen Arts Academy, is prepared to blend science with art to help his students learn skills that will help them play violin in a healthy way.

Grossman now has the distinction of being the only violin instructor nationally-certified in somatic integration for high school students and teachers. Somatic integration describes the brain’s awareness of the natural patterns of movement for the muscles and bones. He anticipates that this knowledge will guide his unique and comprehensive approach to teaching students how to avoid pains and stresses that are common in musicians with rigorous practice and performance schedules.

“Complaints of aches and pains, from students as young as 13, have been a real concern for me,” said Grossman. “That’s why I pursued this.”

Grossman never expected to return to college but when he decided he needed better understanding of anatomy, he enrolled in course work in both Biomechanics and Human Anatomy at the University of North Carolina. Over the next months, he made the difficult transition from teacher to student, garnering empathy for his own students along the way.

Through his studies, Grossman learned how the mechanics of the human body can affect a musician’s ability to perform. Tension, force, gravity, support, and stability, as well as emotional stress are the external and internal forces that can affect the health of the muscle and skeletal systems.
“The body is designed for movement and likes to move freely in space,” explained Grossman. “Our muscles and bones allow for this. Repetitive movement, sustained position and taking a muscle beyond its range of motion are the three single causes in muscle disorders that result in chronic pain and dysfunction.” These insights helped Grossman explore how musicians’ habits can alleviate or unintentionally cause pain or discomfort. Over-practice can cause excess repetitive movement; the action of holding the instrument is sustained, and incorrect alignment can cause muscle pain.

Understanding the external and internal forces acting on muscles and joints is the science that will give Grossman’s students greater freedom to pursue their art. “The adolescent musician needs a more specialized approach because aches and pains can be the result of shortened muscles attached to bones that are still growing. As a teacher, it is very helpful that I can now think and analyze what is going on for my students biomechanically and provide guidance when they experience pain,” said Grossman.

But even more important, by applying somatic integration and basic anatomy understanding to violin playing, he can teach his students how to avoid injuries such as tendonitis and carpal tunnel and tension related headaches.

“Prevention is always the preferred treatment,” said Grossman.   

About Sabbaticals at Interlochen: Interlochen regularly grants sabbatical leave to a small number of full-time faculty for professional growth through study, travel, writing or artistic exploration. “The personal and professional growth that results from sabbaticals directly benefits students, other teachers and the institution as a whole,” explained Ted Farraday, vice president of education at Interlochen Center for the Arts. “We know that professional growth is one of the major contributors to strong teaching and increased quality of the learning experience for students.”