September 2005

Kinesiology and Violin-Playing: an Experiment

September 23, 2005 00:40

Playing the violin can be a pain in the neck.

And in the shoulder, the back, the forearm, the wrist, the name it. It can become so excruciating that it makes us stop playing, and that gives one another type of pain... in the soul.

So in a sense, I suppose Lauren Deutsch aims to save our souls from that type of deprivation.

Lauren is a fellow teacher in the Suzuki program where I teach, and in her other life, she is earning her master's degree in kinesiology from the University of Southern California. She is conducting a study that will analyze the way violinists use muscles when holding the violin, playing in various positions and shifting.

“Most violinists have problems with their left arms, and mostly with overuse,” Lauren said. “Physical therapists will try to change their position to lessen the load, but how do they know what to change the position to? My study aims to get more experimental evidence for what a physical therapist would know instinctually.”

And this noble object is what convinced me to volunteer as...Lauren's lab rat!

Lauren Deutsch wires up Laurie in the lab.

Actually, she will have nine such rats, the main requirement being that each subject has played the violin for at least 10 years, so that his or her setup is fairly fixed.

For the first part of the experiment, Lauren simply measured how far my muscles could bend my arms, hands and neck to various angles. She took the measurement against a blue grid that she and fellow student Laurie Held had painstakingly made with masking tape and then painted to the wall of the lab.

Then I got the treatment: with the help of expert Witaya “Dan” Mathiyakoh, Lauren's team affixed 16 electrodes to specific muscles in my arm, back, neck and torso. Some of the muscles included biceps, triceps, finger flexors, upper trapezius, deltoids...I had to push against Dan's arm at various angles so that they could find each specific muscle and get it properly hooked up.

This took a good half-hour!

Then, they had to test to see how much juice I could put out, using each of these muscles. So I did the same series of pushes with Dan, and they recoreded a baseline of each individual muscle, getting what was my personal maximum contraction.

When this was done, in swooped Lauren again, to adorn my left side with 15 little silver, reflective balls on black patches. Several sat atop my head, held there with a nylon swim cap, and one was right at that little sensitive spot on the throat. Cameras would pick up these reflectors so that Lauren could run computer analysis on the various angles I'm holding while playing the fiddle.

There I sat, feeling like the Prom Queen, or at least a elaborately wired “Carrie,” a train of silver cords trailing me, electrodes and reflectors all over, basking in the bright light of three stage lamps, with five cameras trained on me.

“Now that you have all this on,” said fellow lab technician, Laurie Held, “We want you to be as natural as possible!”

Hah! My actual playing assignment was more a test of endurance than of violin chops. Lauren aims to see which muscles fire when a violinist holds the violin in first, third and tenth positions. So my job included: just holding the violin in the three positions, with three recordings of each; playing a small bit of a transposed “Perpetual Motion,” and playing a four-octave, G-major arpeggio. (Screech!)

For each item played, I started with my violin held in my normal playing position. Then she switched my violin so it was positioned 20 degrees farther to the left of my normal position, sending the violin way out to the side, for the same series of measurements. Then, she positioned it 20 degrees to the right, making the violin almost straight in front of me, for another round.

The idea is to see how much muscle is used in the players “preferred” position, then in the two “not preferred” positions, and to see if different muscles get fired up as this angle changes.

“Since most violinists' left hand injuries are treated by correcting harmful arm positions, we feel that it is important to study the musculoskeletal consequences of varying arm positions,” Lauren wrote in her experiment proposal.

Lauren's proposal also cites a 1986 survey by the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which showed that string instrumentalists were particularly susceptible to injury, and violinists as a group suffer more injuries to their left arm than their right. Lauren's study aims to provide information that will help people develop methods to minimize the risk of injury in violinists by defining better playing positions.

Good to have a scientist among us!

By the way, if you live in the Los Angeles area, have played the violin for 10 or more years, and would like to volunteer for Lauren Deutsch's study, she still needs people! Send her an e-mail.

4 replies

September 20, 2005 23:03

Some routines are so normal and right, it seems like they ought never change.

I had this thought about six months ago, when I was watching piano teacher/incredible lady Fritzie Culick work with Brian, who was then four.

“Oh, I don't need to get my camera out and take a picture of this,” I thought to myself. “She teaches him every week!”

Nonetheless, as I sat behind this pair, I stopped taking notes for a moment,. I wanted to take in the whole scene. There was little Brian, sitting straight up, this posture being achieved through Fritzie's great persistence. The piano bench sat as high as it possibly went, to hoist Brian's small hands to the keys. His fidgety legs resisted the stool set there for them to rest on; they were at least two feet off the floor and tended to dangle. He played part of the French Children's Song, yanked his hands from the keys, then spun around to Fritzie, flashing her a dimply smile. “When you get there, you go right back to the beginning. 'Da capo'!” she explained, placing her hand on his disheveled bedhead. “It means 'from the head'!” He put his little hand on his head and grinned.


A few weeks ago, Fritzie made a decision that had some implications for Brian, and for me: she decided to retire from teaching. The reasons for this were so clear, she did not even have to explain. She owns Old Town Music Store , serves on the board of directors for Southwest Chamber Music and is the accompanist for STEP , the Suzuki group I teach in. She is one busy lady! Still, she was genuinely sad at imparting this news. There is just no doubt she and Brian have a special relationship!

I set about making arrangements for a new teacher. And when I had talked with the new teacher (for two hours!) and made that decision, we told Brian.

“That's fine, because I don't want to play the piano any more,” said the boy who has practiced every morning for 65 days in a row. He stewed, for a minute. Then he smiled, “Just kidding!”

Today was Brian's last lesson with Fritzie. Beforehand we went to the grocery store, where he picked out a big pot that was thick with yellow and orange-tinged chrysanthemums for her. When we arrived at Fritzie's house, Brian looked like a small, walking pot of mums as he carried them to her door. He wasn't over this feeling of being jilted, though. Throughout the lesson, he occasionally banged out his songs with uncharacteristic ferocity. But we left her house smiling and laughing, and we know Fritzie is not out of our lives.

Really, come what may, she never will be. She'll always be the person who first helped him tap his little fingers, who showed him which one was “one” and which was “five.” She's the one who taught him to hold his hand like a “turtle house” and brought out a little ceramic turtle to show what she meant. She's the one who first made him play “Twinkle” and say, “I can do a high jump!” Her beautiful home is the first place he ever played for anyone, at what she so thoughtfully called a “play party,” not a “recital.”

Maybe when he is 18 he will open his piano book and see the epic picture Fritzie drew of Aunt Rhody's pond, the one in which that poor old gray goose expired. I just loved that she never gave us the white-washed words to sing with that song. For us, Aunt Rhody's goose “died in the Mill pond, standing on his head!” and there it is, in colored markers, upside down in the pond, with x's for eyes!

When he learned “Au Claire de la Lune,” she wrote in the French words for the song, then she explained them patiently to four-year-old Brian.

So we will take with us her attention to detail, her humor, her sophistication, and her great energy. Thank you so much, Fritzie!

1 reply

September 16, 2005 16:54


Ah, the trevails of the fifth stand. Actually, some of the people that got cut from the Mozart orchestra for the New West Symphony's performance with Pinchas Zukerman tonight and tomorrow were happy to go home a bit early last night. For me and a number of others, though, we took the chance to sit in the audience and watch Pinky play.

Frankly, I thought the violins sounded a bit THIN with those last few stands gone, but...
no, I fully expected a reduced orchestra for Mozart, as is the custom. It was nice to have the run-through yesterday with the too-big orchestra, and everyone still gets to play on the Brahms Double concerto. He gave us that opportunity on purpose, and it was generous.

I actually never had seen Zukerman play from the audience; the last time I heard Zukerman perform was when I was playing in the Lincoln Symphony in Nebraska. I think he nearly reduced the conductor out of that orchestra, which would not have been a disappointment to me!

I noticed immediately that he has a huge presence; he's like a big rock, right there in the middle of the stage. The Alpha musician, for sure, and there is a certain calm and strength to his upper body motions. His almost-white hair shines beneath the stage lights, and his expression goes between between stoic, beatific and mischievous.

Though Maestro Boris Brott was conducting the orchestra, Zukerman was quite involved in directing the group. He demonstrated numerous effects that he wanted: a quick bow here, a flourish there, a diminuendo then contrasting forte. So funny, none of the effects were hard to achieve, and yet it made me think about the fact that we all tend to play risk-averse in orchestra. It does not take too much more to make things sparkle, just a bit of energy, attention and spark.

During the first movement, Zukerman leaned over to interact with the first violins, with immediate results. And when he wanted less sound from the orchestra, all he did was open his arms and the orchestra hushed on command. As serious and demanding he was, he was punchy with the jokes, playing in place of the first movement cadenza, the opening of the Beethoven concerto, which morphed into the end of the cadenza. He worked in a bit of Mozart 3 for the second movement's cadenza, and some Bach E major Partita for the last. All violin “in-jokes,” which did garner some good laughs!

It will be a lovely concert, tonight and Saturday night. Come see it if you are in Southern California!

4 replies

September 15, 2005 00:31

I'm afraid I'm sitting on the very precarious edge of the orchestra for this concert with Pinchas Zukerman.

Zukerman is playing two concerts, Friday and Saturday, with the New West Symphony .

He'll play the Brahms Double Concerto with his wife, Amanda Forsyth, and Mozart Concerto No. 5, hopefully with a somewhat larger-than-usual orchestra...

I'm hoping this because I'm playing on the fifth stand of the first violins, and he made it clear tonight that he usually plays with four stands of firsts for Mozart. But, he said we can all stick around. If we play really quiet.

I played really, really, really quiet.

Zukerman knows exactly what he wants, and because everyone respects him tremendously and because he has a powerful presence (okay, he interrupts!), he gets it. As I mentioned before, we were mailed parts with all his fingerings, bowings and articulations written in. During first rehearsal the concertmaster changed a few bowings (my stand partner leaned over and said very seriously, with furrowed brow, “Wait...aren't these Superman's bowings? Change them?”) Indeed. Zukerman noticed, and we changed them right back!

What a virtuoso violinist. The Mozart just spills out of Zukerman's hands, with the greatest of ease. And even if my back-of-the-section colleagues and I get sent to the audience at the last minute, I'm having a great time.

Zukerman's ideas are totally exquisite, and he has no trouble turning around and instructing the cellos to play just a little shorter, then demonstrating. Or the first violins not to kick the low notes. Or, the funnest moment for me, in the Turkish part of the finale, he has the second violins playing their flourish with great gusto during the little chromatic crescendo part, you know the one? It's just such a great ride when everyone is attending to these details, and under the guidance of an artist who has such a perfect sense of them.

3 replies

Teachers and Mentors

September 10, 2005 23:53

“You know,” Lorenz Gamma said one recent day after hearing me play some Bach, “that you really could let loose a bit more with the bow. For this passage, let it be a bit uneven, less measured.”

“It sounds totally pedantic,” I concluded, like a good self-conscious adult, rolling my eyes at myself.

“No, not exactly,” Lorenz said. “What is good is that you are the kind of player that has learned that kind of control. I spend so much time trying to teach that to my students. But now, if you can learn to let it be freer, and you will be the kind of player who has both the control and the freedom!” He stood there, smiling at this revelation. And of course, I smiled, too.

When I asked my friend, Lorenz, to help me by listening to my Tchaik about a year ago, I simply had the instinct that, of the 100 or so violinists and teachers I know in LA, he probably could help me the most. All I really knew was that he, too, had gone to Indiana, and that he was extremely well-versed in the violin literature. And that he played a breathtaking Bach Chaconne for his doctoral recital a few years ago.

I am familiar with good teaching. Spoiled by it. I studied at Northwestern University with Gerardo Ribeiro and Indiana University with Henryk Kowalski. I watched Josef Gingold teach master classes. I've just spent the last 10 years studying the art of teaching, seeking out the best teachers of children, like Jim and Jackie Maurer of Colorado, Helen Brunner of London and Liz Arbus, who teaches in my Suzuki group. I'm a teacher myself, and I aspire to be a good one.

Lorenz has spoiled me further. Though he is only in his mid-30s, I see all the characteristics that I have found in the very best of teachers coming together quite gracefully in this intelligent and articulate person.

There are teachers, and then there are mentors. The best are good at both. A teacher can tell you your pinkie is at the wrong angle, your spiccato needs a bit more wrist, your tone is not quite light enough for Mozart. A mentor helps you see the violinist you are striving to become.

It takes a certain generosity of spirit to see such a thing in another person, and to cultivate it.

This week UCLA named Lorenz its interim Lecturer in Violin, as the remarkable American violinist Mark Kaplan is relocating his pedagogic activities to Bloomington, Indiana for now. As the wife of a USC instructor, I'm not supposed to praise UCLA, but the school has made an exceptionally fine choice!

5 replies

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