Why Cellists Stick Their Necks Out

bowling ball.png

By Miranda Wilson

How much do you think your head weighs?

Clue: a lot. About 6.8 kilograms (15 lbs). For comparison, the average cabbage weighs around 1.1 kg (2.43 lbs). Bowling balls max out at 7.27 kg (16 lbs).

This blows my mind.You are carrying something the weight of a bowling ball around on top of your neck all day. Chances are you’re also thrusting it down and forward while playing the cello.

Explains why your neck hurts, doesn’t it?

So why do cellists stick their heads forward all the time? Every cellist I know, including me, is guilty of this. The obvious explanations are that we’re leaning forward to look at a score on a music stand, or towards a colleague to give or receive a cue. In the afterword to Cello Practice, Cello Performance, I described my own journey towards releasing my bad habit of hunching over the cello by means of an unorthodox method — playing the cello lying down on the floor. Doing this made me more mindful of the inefficient lengths I was going to in order to keep doing my bad habit. It was a valuable lesson, but I still catch myself doing it more regularly than I’d like.

According to Barbara Paull and Christine Harrison, authors of The Athletic Musician: A Guide to Playing Without Pain, “When we bend our necks to look down, or bend down, or bend over, the front of the spinal bones move closer together to curve the neck or back forward. The discs between the bones are squeezed at the front and they behave just like jelly donuts.”

It goes without saying that this is terrible for our spines and can lead to tension headaches, eye strain, migraine headaches, and even some very serious problems such as injuries to the spinal discs and nerves.

The fact is that we ask a lot of our necks. Think of all the daily activities it performs for you! Circulation, breathing, eating, drinking, talking, singing… and that’s before you factor in all your weird cello-playing habits.

If it doesn’t feel good and it’s not good for us, why are we all doing it then? Could there be some deeper reason?

Reading up on public speaking and body language, I learned that the common head-tilting gesture associated with “listening,” whether in conversation or in music-making, is actually a gesture of submission. It exposes the neck, making you more vulnerable and less threatening. Your dog does it when she feels guilty after she’s busted eating shoes.

This is my dog. She’s lucky she’s so cute, because she’s extremely destructive.

This is my dog. She’s lucky she’s so cute, because she’s extremely destructive.

Then there’s the head-down gesture. That’s a self-protective stance (“duck!”), associated with shame, low self-esteem, or a desire not to make eye contact with the audience. I had a serious “Aha” moment when I read this, because I know that self-protective stance well. It’s what happens to us when we get stage fright.

How to return your head to the top of your body so it’s balanced on your spine

The best thing we can do with our heads is to keep them balanced, freeing up our necks so they can be necks again, rather than bowling ball carriers. When you notice yourself sticking your neck out in practice and in performance, you can do a quick, easy exercise to correct the problem. With the help of students in the University of Idaho cello studio, I developed the following exercises that first overcorrect, then release the tense head-neck stance.

1. How not to do it

In these pictures, I’m demonstrating two common mistakes. In the first one, I’m doing the classic “buzzard” stance of pushing my head forward and down. In the second, I’m tilting my head to one side. In both cases, you can see clearly that it puts a lot of pressure on my neck and makes my face and neck tense with the strain.

2. Overcorrect and release

You can do this easy exercise during even a short pause in practice or rehearsal. Simply overcorrect your head stance to give yourself an alluring double chin. Then release your head to the middle so that it is balanced on top of the spine.

3. Line of sight when learning notes

Obviously you can’t do this all the time, and certainly not in a concert or an orchestra rehearsal, but when you’re first learning a score you can try elevating the height of the stand so that you aren’t leaning forward to peer at the notes and your line of sight encourages you to keep your head on top of your body. Once you know the score well, you can put the stand back down and glance at the notes when you need to, moving just your eyeballs and not your whole head.

Further Reading:

Conable, Barbara. What Every Musician Needs to Know About the Body. Portland, OR: Andover Press, 2000.

Horvath, Janet. Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians. Milwaukee: Hal Leonard Books, 2010.

Johnson, Jennifer. What Every Violinist Needs to Know About the Body. Chicago: GIA Publications, 2009.

Paull, Barbara, and Christine Harrison. The Athletic Musician: A Guide to Playing Without Pain. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1999.

Wilson, Miranda. “Disarmed: Dropping the Protective Armour of Stage Fright.” Blog post, April 1, 2016.

Wilson, Miranda. “How’s Your Floor Tone?” My Studio Series, Strings, July 2016.

Wilson, Miranda. “Show Up, Look at the Camera, Face the Music.” Blog post, January 30, 2017.