“Every time I try to play it just feels like I am fighting a losing battle with the violin.”

Try to notice the amount of pressure, force and tension that you exert in some of the most basic activities of the day.

Tying your shoes, washing the dishes, putting on pants, washing your body, brushing your teeth, flushing the toilet, eating, drinking, walking, making the bed, typing, writing, playing the violin.

The automatic nature of everything we do can be frightening. We don’t really do most things, they just do themselves. We can in fact pull the plug. We can notice how we do these simple things. We can evaluate the location of our elbow and shoulder while brushing our teeth. Does the toothbrush weigh 10 pounds? Well, why is your shoulder jacked up and your elbow flailed out? We see objects as objects. They all are realized in this category. So, this isn’t just about the violin. We need to do a bit of undoing in all that we do.

If we do everything with tension, we will exist in a permanent state of tension. If we exist in a permanent state of tension we won’t call it that we will just refer to it as our norm. As creatures of habit who will always choose the path of least resistance, we will perpetually be seeking an escape to a place or state of relaxation. On the surface, this appears easier than undoing and on the surface it is. Yet if it was truly easier we wouldn’t be perpetually searching for bigger, better and more exciting ways to relax and free ourselves from tension. If it was truly possible to escape tension by finding or indulging in a method of relaxation we would be there by now. But where we are is in the same place with more medicine, gadgets and quick fixes. There is a band aid for everything. To enter the flow we must rip off the band aid and stop buying band aids. We must go back and figure out how we are holding the toothbrush. Then, how do we set it down. Just like in meet the alien we at first will just notice bits of freedom. But as we keep undoing they will continue to present themselves and our ability to stay there will grow exponentially.

“So are you trying to tell me that playing the violin is actually going to help me relax rather than needing to relax after playing? I always feel so uncomfortable while playing and stressed. It doesn’t have to be like that?”



We are cavemen. The caveman, although I wasn’t there I can assume, felt:

clueless + overwhelmed + confused = still hungry

still hungry + things trying to kill me = need for action

genetics + need for action = tension

tension = grip of death

grip of death = this will always be difficult

So although slaughtering a mammoth to eat and tying our shoes are not even remotely on the same playing field, we still have the tendency to approach these tasks with a high level of tension. We want the end goal so badly that we once again do not even think about the how. We are completely obsessed with the result. We are programmed for results like 4 year old me knowing I need to play the piece, I play the piece and then people clap. Not noticing that with every note I played the thumb on my left hand did what was natural to it because of its monkey brain programming. It held on for dear life and hoped we would make it to the end alive.

If you ask someone what they enjoy doing I am going to guess that a majority of them will say relaxing. Of course we love relaxing, we have beaten the program into our minds that everything is a modern day equivalent of mammoth hunting. Not only this we add societal pressures and expectations to the equation. Now look back at day one of the violin. Look back on the first time you did anything. You probably had high and unrealistic expectations. You probably compared yourself to a master. You triggered the instinct of puckering up and holding on. Like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, “It’s not your fault.”

Until we enter the flow and open the doors to meet the alien we can coast through this whole ride on autopilot. We can keep searching for an escape from our norm of tension rather than ripping off the band aid and undoing that tension all together. Rather than our whole day being some sort of work with a reward of relaxation, undo that which causes the work to involve tension. Like an old Nintendo, hit the reset button.

We are re-programmable.

“Every time I try to play it just feels like I am fighting a losing battle with the violin.”

Without us, the violin would just sit wherever it sits, degrade and never move until the end of time. It is beautiful and detailed and possesses a lot of energy when in the right hands. But in and of itself, it is just wood, guts and hair. When a student picks up the violin, actually, when a student even just looks at the violin, they attach an existence to it. They make it alive. They give it a power it doesn’t deserve. They make it their arch nemesis that needs to be defeated. It becomes their foe on the mountaintop. They make it the counterpoint to their energy. Actually more often than not, the counterpart to their weakness. The violin has now become your biggest enemy. The violin now has the power to show off every area in which you lack. The violin will now bring out the worst in you. Why? Because you have allowed it to do so, you have given a piece of wood the identity of your arch-nemesis. You have given it the power. Rather than it being the extension of you, you are the extension of the inanimate object. In doing so you have also given yourself an excuse for all your wrongdoing and a reason for all your mistakes. If the violin is more powerful it cannot be your fault. If the violin is in charge then you are just the victim who is trying his best with what he has. Yet, as we know, what you have within and what you naturally brought to fight the violin foe is not even remotely the same.

Common phrases I have heard from students, mind you, fully healthy student with complete control of their bodies and limbs:

“My arm doesn’t move that way.”

“That just doesn’t feel right”

“I feel like I am going to drop it”

“That is as loose as I can get.”

“If I don’t do that then I can’t play.”

If you want there to be, there will always a reason that you will not succeed.

In order to reprogram the grip of death we have to come to terms with some realities:

1. There is absolutely nothing stopping me from doing this with 100% comfort and ease except for an instinct that I have held onto for far too long. It is never too late to undo, rip off the band aid, and start over.

2. If it is not working if your flow is interrupted, something along the path of the flow is blocked.

Find it, learn it, undo it, practice it, remember it.

3. The mind is the start of the flow. You might use your fingers and your arms but those are just fleshy meat bags that don’t deserve any say in this.



I’m telling you! That is as loose as it gets! I think I’m just genetically predisposed to having a higher level of tension, I think it runs in my family.”

Most of us begin the violin with the violin in our hands (duh). Usually, the wording used by the teacher involves the word hold. We are often told to hold the violin or to hold the bow. Well, obviously we have to do something with them otherwise they will fall and smash on the ground. It is of no benefit to the beginning violinist that violins are usually incredibly fragile and expensive. This is a true setup for relaxation and success: Tell someone to hold the instrument and remind them that it is quite expensive, fragile, and breakable. Thus, the first impression of the violin for many is one of fear and a blind hope that they don’t mess something up or destroy this pricy ancient artifact. More often than not, because from day one students are expected to perform, there are already deadlines (recitals, auditions) and expectations that have been set for their future. So what may have seemed like a relaxing hobby… Instead, playing the violin has turned into something like tapping your head and spinning a circle on your stomach ( while juggling and jumping rope at the same time). The icing on the cake is that the jump rope is made out of gold and (you’re juggling are newborn babies, why not!). This is, more or less, the feeling a new student can generally have about his new fun and relaxing adventure into playing the violin. No wonder so many people quit before they begin! Rather than beginning the violin without the violin gripped to death in our hands, far too often a student is handed the instrument and expected to spin-tap-juggle-jump-etc and to do it well and be ready to play something epic in front of a group of people way too soon. Oh yeah, but you know, you’re gonna love it!

Rather than beginning the violin without the violin gripped to death in our hands, far too often a student is handed the instrument and expected to spin-tap-juggle-jump-etc and to do it well and be ready to play something epic in front of a group of people way too soon.


Oh yeah, but you know, you’re gonna love it!

Given the nature of a typical violinist’s first day it isn’t unbelievable when they say they can’t relax while playing. Or, that they are as relaxed as they can be. Since the moment they have begun playing it has been a trigger of tension. Like the famous salivating dog except rather than hunger, when you see a violin and think about playing it your body starts to feel you are living in a bucket of ice. In another example, when you speak to an attractive person for the first time and suddenly, become a blithering idiot. When you try a new motion, any motion, something foreign; the usual response of the nervous system is to pucker up and hinder your performance. Neither fight nor flight are great for mastery but they are our reactions. The mistake that is often made is cultivating and working with our juiced up defense mechanisms rather than unraveling and sinking into the flow. Our instinct for beginning is one of do it and move on. It will just keep repeating itself until we are sick and tired of the rat race, we quit altogether and let the instrument or hobby collect dust in the attic or we, heaven forbid, go back and start over. The tragedy is that we have so much more control than we allow ourselves. We are not the monkey folk we once were. We have mental options that we are allowed to exercise. Yet, these options are quickly forgotten. We begin the violin, we begin anything with a certain predisposition. Then, we wonder why it doesn’t go exactly how we wanted it to go in our ideal world. We cross the bridge, make our choice, and say something like this is how it is. Then rather than having the courage to be imperfect we power through. Rather than waste a single second of effort to go another way about it, we just march on like an ant. We throw ourselves into our limitation loop and let the monkey run the show. The monkey wants to succeed so he will take the method of the grip of death.

This predisposed programming to what we think the violin is and what it is like to play it is a recipe for tension. Every instinctual response that occurs when we encounter a seemingly special object is triggered. What do we do with such objects? We hold them. What is one of the first things a baby can do? Grab and grip and hold the giant alien finger that has presented itself. It isn’t the fault of the student for tensing up to the level of metal when they start the violin. They actually were born this way. One of our first responses is to hold on. But when this was programmed into Uncle monkey the violin was not in existence. Typing was not in existence. Driving a car or 90% of normal activities were not in existence. Yet, we still approach them all with a hold on for dear life mentality.

I have never heard of an ancient cave man playing the violin. If one had appeared before him, he would probably use it for fuel or try to beat something to death with it.

There are two choices, play the violin like a caveman or evolve.

I have never heard of an ancient cave man playing the violin. If one had appeared before him, he would probably use it for fuel or try to beat something to death with it.

There are two choices, play the violin like a death gripping caveman or evolve.

Many of us begin with the first choice, myself included. I don’t quite remember the exact thoughts in the beginning because I was four. I have some memories from my start but they are just that, memories that could be factual or reproductions I have fabricated later in life from looking at photos. Who knows, and really, it isn’t important. I do know that it came quickly, it came easily, I was drawn to music and it made everything a little less empty. It didn’t require much work to play the pieces I was given in a way that the audiences or my teachers would deem good. So, as a young student I thought very simply about the violin. I am asked to play this piece. Okay, I will listen to it and soon I will know how to play it. Done. Next. Move on. Repeat. But the unfortunate byproduct was that I still fell victim to the natural fear and instincts within:

1. This is like juggling-jumping-spinning-and-brushing-your-teeth at the same time.

2. This instrument is expensive so don’t break it.

3. Definitely do not drop it, be careful, hold on!

4. What size tuxedo will you need for your first performance?

5. Oh yeah, relax! Are you listening? I said relax!

Not only this, but as a 4 year old, my only education had been in the school of holding stuff. I felt like I knew quite a bit:

1. Hold mom’s hand when crossing the street.

2. Hold fingers that are extended to me.

3. Hold onto things and put them in my mouth to examine.

4. Hold a fork to eat because I’m four, time to be sophisticated, no more shoveling food with dirty fingers (still struggling).

They say musicians are more than likely to excel in mathematical skills. Here is a formula to summarize:

clueless + overwhelmed + confused = stressed

stress + schedule + group of peers = need for action

genetics + need for action = tension

tension = grip of death

grip of death = fucked from day one

So the grip of death is one of the most natural and most likely outcomes for beginner violinists, guitarists and people doing things with their arms alike. This is the violin killer. This is the happiness and relaxation killer. All we simply have to do is go back and realize that we have a choice in control and an undo button. Now, this undo button does not work instantaneously. It requires patience, discipline and a want. Where it may seem daunting to begin undoing just ponder the alternative. Continue gripping, trying, struggling, wishing and hoping that someday it will magically fix itself and get better before our bodies are too old and decrepit.

Now which one sounds easier?

One can actually take this same formula and apply it to a plethora of activities that cause the so called grip of death Take a second to analyze anything that you do, right down to holding the remote and changing the channel. Are you aware of how tightly you are holding it? Are your fingertips white from lack of blood flow? How hard do you really need to push the volume button in order for the TV to pick up the signal? When a remote has a dead battery a person is more than likely to spend about five minutes pushing the buttons down with all their weight and both hands thinking the sensor is weakened.

To be continued…