Printer-friendly version

Shelf Life for Musicians/Performers

Michelle Jones

Written by
Published: November 15, 2015 at 5:07 PM [UTC]

Everyone has a limited shelf life, not just athletes. Musicians and performers suffer for their professions every day. As a concert and rock violinist, my physical pains include much more than the visible calloused fingers and neck hickey, which is actually a large and permanent 3D bruise on the left side of my neck based on holding the violin and moving around intensely while performing. There's the neck and nerve pain directly associated with supporting the instrument that is heavier with electronics and batteries than a standard acoustic violin. There are repeating headaches from damaged nerves, among other constant pains associated with our injuries from repetitive motions. The dental bills alone could buy a nice house! We don't hold up a violin or viola with our hands; we clench our teeth and jaws to hold it between our shoulder and jaw so that our hands and arms are free to move up and down the instrument to create the notes you hear. The constant pressure and vibrations to our teeth and jaws means micro-fractures in every tooth, and overly strong bites that could pull a tractor like the James Bond villain, Jaws. Our right arm is busy holding a bow and balancing pressure and speed while moving around.

on the shelf

Unlike symphonic musicians, the Violectric and Fretless Rock rock violinists and violists stand and dance while performing, in 5"-7" heels, often for over 3 hours at a time. Dancers (especially ballet dancers) understand that the costuming and footwear are part of the show to do the job entertaining audiences. The constant dancing leads to calloused and sore feet, as well as lower back pains. This is in addition to the upper back issues directly related to playing violin/viola. Have you tried holding up your arms for 3 hours straight? How about while holding something in them? Then moving them around a lot?

Then there's the fingers and hands themselves. Sure, they are strong enough to support my weight only on my fingertips (yes, I try this regularly), and they are agile enough to move quickly across strings. But I know they are not the most beautiful fingers like hand models. They are short and stubby from the constant pressure since early childhood, and prone to arthritis due to the actions we must take for our profession. It takes me longer to warm up than in the past. My muscles are developed, but they are also older and less flexible with age. Diet and exercise keep them working, but like athletes, I know I have a "shelf life" for performing.

Equipment hauling deserves its own book, but I will mention that when you hire an amplified musician, you are paying mostly for them to haul their gear to your event/venue. The time, physical labor, and expense of amplified instruments is far greater than anything for an acoustic performance. I appreciate the days when all I have to do is sling a violin case on my shoulder and head out to a gig where I only have to unpack and tune, then I'm ready to play. With amplification, I have to: 1. own the proper equipment and gear to put on a great show; 2. own and maintain a vehicle large enough to hold all the gear; 3. load said vehicle 30 minutes before I have to leave; 4. allow enough time to find adequate parking and loading zones for said vehicle; 5. be at the venue 2-3 hours before I am supposed to play to allow time for setup and sound check; 6. deal with challenges at said venue (power, lighting, technicians, etc.); 7. put on a great 3-hour show after schlepping and setting it all up; 8. tear it down, pack it up and load it out and back into the vehicle; and finally 9. unload said vehicle when I get home. For most events, it's over 2000 pounds of gear total. And that's the normal, small events.

Mentally, we are constantly challenging ourselves to be better musicians and maintain playing abilities as we get older. Between the balance of constant self-doubt and self-confidence, we put ourselves "out there" for every performance. We are subject to criticism and praise. We are subject to haters and appreciators, especially within our own circle of friends and family. As performers, we have to leave our families on special days (like holidays) to entertain others. Most of us don't have regular schedules or can make plans more than a few days out at a time. I cannot count how many times I have made plans for a vacation and had to cancel due to gigs and opportunities. Or how many gigs I have missed after I made plans that could not be canceled. It's the mental state of mind of instability, and I have actually learned to thrive on that. For many, it's not enjoyable. But that's the risk of being a freelance performer. Many entrepreneurs in other fields understand the risk, too. Of course, that leads to financial and fiscal pains, for which I shall only mention that I continue to have my fair share of them.

It's these challenges and many more that we as performers face every day, and usually suffer in (mostly) silence. Why? Because we don't want to do anything else but our art/music/dance/performances. Each is a profession and a career.

SUPPORT THE ARTS means SUPPORTING THE ARTISTS with your time (attend live shows), your talents (volunteer whatever your talent may be), and your money (give to the arts you enjoy and purchase artists' work and recorded music). And remember to thank the people who do it for your enjoyment understanding the sacrifices they continue to make every day.

- with my sincerest appreciation to those of you who read this and continue to be arts supporters and fans. Love to you all! Vinylinist

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on November 16, 2015 at 9:08 PM
Hmmm...I've never tried performing in 5"-7" heels - but maybe that would draw a lot more attention to me! :-D
Posted on November 17, 2015 at 6:39 AM
As I am an Indian, carnatic music violinist, I sit on the carpet,a sitting position to hold my violin, perform for more than 3hrs,without any interval or break!I am Radhika venkatramana, a regular performer on the stage ,atleast have minimum five concerts, maximum ten concerts in a month.
So,you can imagine, what type of numbness, knee pain & because of playing very fast,the fingers & the right hand for bowing, pains a lot.
But this is my profession, my passion, I don't mind about these problems. When I teach also, I will sit on the floor, stretch my right leg a little, keep my violin in a comfortable position ,to teach,perform hrs together.
Posted on November 18, 2015 at 3:19 PM
Raphael you know you are now going to have to do that. In the heels. It will improve your poise.
From Smith Nathan
Posted on November 20, 2015 at 2:45 AM
I usually don't write mean comments. And I am sorry if this is mean, but please listen to Violectric and then tell me how someone is allowed to be a blogger on such a big, popular, important site for violinist!

The article was not bad, but someone of that level should not be allowed writing blogs. I usually look up to this site for suggestions and talk to other experienced violinist and here we have amateur band leader writing about Shelf Life for Musicians.
As far as I know Heifetz played 85-86 and he did not write blogs like that.

I am sorry that this sounds mean but I still cannot believe how this band is allowed to perform at Halftime of NBA games and other big time venue performances.

Please listen to the link, before someone gets mad. I just want this site to function as teaching tool from very experienced musicians especially on the front page of that site.

Thank you!

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on November 20, 2015 at 12:22 PM
@ 98. etc. Hmmm... are high heels like shoulder rests for the feet? ;-)

@117. etc. I've always loved classical Indian music! I'm just curious re one thing: why do so many Indian violinists keep the chinrest on their violins, when the CR never comes near their chins?

From Mary Carlson
Posted on November 21, 2015 at 11:41 PM
In response to Nathan Smith.... you weren't being mean. :)
I agree.

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine