As violinists and musicians, it is easy to get so caught up in our intense love for music and our need to practice endless hours that we forget that we are physical creatures with wonderful bodies which do so much for us. We are athletes, and just like athletes, we must get to know our own bodies with all their strengths and limitations. Unlike athletes, however, we will want to practice our art for decades, and in caring for our physical self we must develop both incredible sensitivity and power.
When you are injured, whether due to an accident, sudden overuse, poor playing habits, long hours at the computer, or some combination exacerbated by worry and stress, it is easy to panic. This will not particularly help! Remember that nearly all musicians, particularly string players, will deal with injuries at some point in their careers. There are many ways of treating injuries and getting the help you need. In the process, you will become a better player AND you will live more happily in your body. I love the Chinese character for crisis; it is actually a combination of two characters – one for danger and the other for opportunity.
Here are some possible ways for you to get help:
1. Medical doctor – Dr. Michael Charness at Mass General specializes in musician’s hand injuries. He may splint the hand for a period of a few weeks and send you to a physical therapist who gives you exercises. I am not usually in favor of splinting, mainly because when you immobilize an area it gets weaker, therefore the risk of injury remains when you return. I am also very wary of operations, because of scar tissue, and cortisone shots, which are temporary but do not help your body learn to heal itself.
2. Chiropractor – Dr. Stuart Grey (617-738-7428) has an office near BU and has helped musicians. Often hand and arm problems in violinists originate in the neck.
3. Feldenkrais – Olivia Cheever, at oliviacheever.com. Feldenkrais is a system of retraining your nervous system so that you perform actions without strain. I see Olivia once a month and my work with her has been invaluable in my teaching. She works at Longy. Google Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of the method.
4. Stretching and related activities – yoga, tai chi, qi gong – anything that teaches you more body awareness. I attend Brookline Tai Chi Academy. I love tai chi because it is a form of moving meditation; it centers me, teaches me to feel inside my body with ever more awareness, opens my joints, stretches my muscles, and is great for balance (both mental and physical).
5. Alexander Technique classes are a well-established body awareness path. Betsy Pollatin at Boston University is an excellent teacher.
6. Personal trainers can give you carefully calibrated exercises and stretches to balance your muscles, strengthening arms, shoulders and back. Find someone with experience of injuries, if possible someone who has worked with violinists and musicians, not just a local sports jock. Kelly Bellinsky at Performing Arts Occupational Therapy, 1330 Beacon, is great. (617-277-1550)
7. Deep tissue massage therapy such as Reiki. For pain relief, massage is often the first and best line of defense. My violist friend in the National Symphony gets a weekly massage – it’s tax deductible!
8. Tui Na is Chinese acupressure, and is fabulous: Carolanne Oller at Ancient River Healing Arts, 1141 Beacon Street in Brookline, 617-566-3603
9. Some people find acupuncture to be life-saving.
10. If you have tendonitis, icing and aspirin or Ibuprofen (not acetaminophen) are great.
11. Find a violin teacher who can help you identify areas of tension when you play, particular in your hands, arms, shoulders, neck, hips, legs, and feet.
Injuries are likely to occur because we are out of balance, weak in some area, working muscles without releasing them, or not able to listen to the signals our bodies give us when we use them. Most often healing will mean a combination of:
- retraining muscles to work more easily and efficiently, with every action followed by a release
- learning how to listen to early signs of distress from all related body areas
- feeling ourselves in our bodies as much of the time as possible, so that we don’t strain or pull ourselves in daily living
- getting massage, stretching, or other exercises to help us loosen up and learn what a relaxed muscle feels like
- getting strengthening exercises for imbalanced and weak muscles– violin is extremely asymmetric
- getting our spine and neck into alignment so that nerves can give proper signals to muscles
- calming inflammation with icing and anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or Ibuprofen
Except for certain cases of prolonged or chronic injury, I always recommend the slower route of healing, stretching, strengthening, and reconnecting to your own awareness of your body—intense people are often so focused on thoughts and musical expression that they miss their own kinesthetic sensations.
You may have to try several things before you find just the right combination. For me it was retraining on the violin, seeing a chiropractor, getting some exercises, finding a great Feldenkrais teacher, and then doing Tai Chi. I still do many of these things and am stronger and more flexible than I ever was as a youngster. Be patient, this is important work and it will affect your whole life, not just your violin, and you will be better off for having undertaken it!