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Ruth Kuefler


October 26, 2008 at 4:11 PM

I have such a love-hate relationship with orchestra right now. On the one hand, I've always loved playing in orchestra, I have a great conductor, and it's one of my career goals, you could say. I love the feeling of working together in an orchestra, and the amazing sounds we can get when we do it right. I've also held various principle seats recently, and enjoy the leadership experience.

But. When you're recovering from tendonitis, an opera is not exactly the best on your body. We're doing Kurt Weill's "Streetscene" and, aside from the usual challenges of page after page of unfamiliar music, it has some challenging, awkward passages of questionable tonality. ;) All I can say is thank God I'm second violin. But still, I'm principle 2nd . . . so I still can't just fudge my way through the part.

Before I go on, I'll rewind two days to Friday, when I had another lesson with the pianist who helped me last month (See the post before this). I played a little Bach for her, and she tweaked my posture a little more: I need to stand with my feet wider to support my shoulders. To stand straight, it also helps if I think of stepping forward on my right foot slightly. I also need to keep thinking of having my jaw open and relaxed. One thing I've noticed lately is that my left wrist still gets irritated fairly often. I've been really watching my shoulder level and making sure I don't contract my thumb muscle. Still, just the action of moving my fingers caused pain after a while. One thing this teacher told me was to keep my left elbow out away from my body more. She said I'd gotten into a habit of contraction and control, so I should focus on opening and releasing. I'm finding this helps quite a bit. Also, with the finger action itself, I really need to keep working on only using as much pressure as necessary, and thinking of the motion as lifting and dropping, rather than placing. So that's the diagnosis for my left side. For my bow, she really wanted me to use more free motion with my elbow - not side to side, but up and down. She had me envision a helium balloon attached to my arm, which was what cause my arm to move. It looks kind of funny when I bow this way, but it does feel freer and more relaxed, and doesn't seem to inhibit my sound at all. So, I'm going to keep experimenting with it.

Which leads back to that love-hate relationship. After I played a little Bach for her, she asked me to play something else, more difficult, so she could keep diagnosing me. I had to explain that I really wasn't working on much solo repertoire right now, because I had to keep up with orchestra. And the old repertoire I used to play, I just couldn't now, because I had learned it with such a different set of technique. She immediately grew concerned about this situation, and wanted me to try and get out of orchestra. The thing is, there aren't a whole lot of strong violinists here right now, and my scholarship is dependent on my playing in orchestra. It's an awkward situation, and as I was explaining it, I found myself getting emotional. It's been a long time since I've gotten upset in a lesson, and I guess it was just the release of feelings that have been building up unconsciously over the past couple months. Honestly, in that moment, I felt like a failure. I'd been struggling to keep up in orchestra, and now the only thing I had to show for my solo playing was one page of Bach. This from the girl who was concertmaster last semester and went to Aspen.

I hate feeling so behind. But I agree that orchestra is not helping my situation. What I need is a couple solid months of careful, personal practice of MY music, the music that's going to help me really fix my playing. The opera opens Nov. 7, so I don't see how there's any way I can get out of it at this point. I can probably skip the holiday vespers concert in December, and even that will be a big help to me. That, plus Christmas break, makes two good months without rehearsal where I can really focus on my playing and try to fix these things for good. I've also decided to get a minor in viola, so maybe I can play viola in orchestra next semester so I have a slightly lighter load. I just hope this plan works. I really really want to get back to normal.

From E. Smith
Posted on October 26, 2008 at 8:47 PM
I'm sorry you are going through such a rough time! Do you think the time at Aspen added to the strain on your body, in terms of the tendinitis?

I would think that if you're having pain issues, viola might not be the best thing to start right now. Is there any way to take a leave of absence, maybe take off a semester, to get your healing done?

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on October 26, 2008 at 11:25 PM
actually there is nothing stopping you form withdrawig from the opera on medicla grounds. These things happen and your career is more importnat. I would hazard a guess that if your grant was effected as a consequence the grantess would actually be open to a law suit so I wouldn`t worry about that. I am sure whoeevr is responsible would not be so mean and stupid anyway.
You might consider borrowing a lighter bow. If you have to play tremolo for many pages rest your bow hand on your knee. ugh Bean used to do this in Bruckner symphonies.
Beware of holding the bow horizontally poised above the string in order to `lead.` Keep it pointing skyward to keep the weight off your aerm arm.
Strecth all the time in the rests.
Figure out with your presumably sympathetic stand partner when you are actually going to take some breaks while other splay on your behalf. Make sure everyone knows about this and the reasons why.
Take ice pack or stick on cooling pads (we have them inJapan but i odn`t know what they are calle din foreign countires....) Keep eevrythin cool. drink lots of water(pee in a bottle?) take extra omega htree flax oil , vitamin b 12 and try Ray Randallssolution of going to a vet.
Best of luck,
From Patricia Baser
Posted on October 27, 2008 at 1:56 AM
I had an overuse problem in my left forearm in college. I had to cut back to 30 minutes a day and then added something like 5 minutes a week. I played in the chamber orchestra instead of the big orchestra for a semester and postponed a jury so I could heal properly. I was at CIM, so I was able see specialists at the Cleveland Clinic. Once they ruled out any kind of nerve damage, the emphasis was on not using pain relievers (so that I could truly address my particular problem). This was in combination with physical and occupational therapy, heat & stretches before, cold after, breathing to release tension, etc. I had to rethink everything outside of violin as well (using a grip for a pencil, having a different work study job that did not involve filing, etc.). It took a semester, but it was totally worth it to heal and understand my physical limits. Opera is always rather brutal to the body. Perhaps you could get some sort of excused absences without affecting your scholarship. You need to think long term, and that this is a temporary setback. You do not want it to become a permanent one.
From Drew Lecher
Posted on October 27, 2008 at 2:31 AM
Hi Ruth,

I know you have been have some very serious difficulties, but have not followed closely as I was recovering from leg surgery for some time.

You mentioned lifting the fingers. That action will stress through your knuckles into your hand and wrist. We do not lift fingers, as a pianist does, we simply release and hover.

Also, periodically try raising and lowering your left arm while playing. Just a few times during scales, arpeggios, repertoire, etc. Lift the arm as a unit simply from the shoulder joint—the violin should go up and down vertically, say 6 to 12 inches. Feel the lightness and ease of the instrument and your arm. Note how easy it is to maintain your sound.

Stand/sit in an alert fashion and breathe deeply into the diaphragm. "Suck in the gut and tuck in the butt" like a dancer.

Develop liquid/fluid motion in all areas with incredible balance and posture in all you do.

Hope I haven't been redundant to what others have contributed and hope it assists you.

God bless,

From Ray Chen
Posted on October 28, 2008 at 4:48 AM

So I'm just an amateur violinist but I'm also a computer guy and tendonitus, carpal tunnel, and lots of other repetitive stress injuries are an occupational hazard for me.

My advice -- in addition to some of the other good advice above, spend some time learning tai chi or Alexander movement or anything else that trains you to improve your relaxation and awareness of your body mechanics and how relaxed (or not) your body is while moving.

If you're going to make a living as a musician, your body is critically important. Take care of it.

- Ray

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 28, 2008 at 7:06 AM
I think your pianist is giving you excellent advice. I read it carefully and teach my beginners to play that way from the start. I want them to develop good habits from the start so that they won't run into trouble later. I'm glad she is helping you.
From Rosalind Porter
Posted on October 31, 2008 at 3:25 AM
Keep meaning to add a comment - so while I try to get sleepy (I must not take naps in the early evening...!) a quick thought:

Do you do a warm-up everytime before you start playing? Not with the violin, though of course that is advisable too, but gentle stretches, deep breathing, shoulder circles, floppy hands etc etc. I think it might be something worth trying, nothing that hurts of course, but just making sure your body is ready to start playing before you start playing.

Also, don't start to do practice in a really cold room - I always found when I practised in our university clock tower practice rooms where the heating was pretty well non-existent and the wind blew upstairs and under the doors like a banshee, then I'd often get aches and pains in my muscles, whereas if I bagged one of the warm practice rooms in the music department - no problems!

You should speak to your student advisor about maybe cutting down occasionally on orchestra rehearsals if you are suffering from tendonitis, people are reasonable about things like that...

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