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Ruth Kuefler

Well, this isn't overwhelming at all . . . ;)

September 30, 2008 at 5:55 AM

As I'm recovering from tendonitis, I'm trying to approach the solution from a lot of different angles. I did physical therapy for several weeks, and am settling into a routine of stretching, mild strength training for my arms/shoulders, and swimming. I've been wearing splints and taking an anti-inflammatory prescription the last few weeks, which I'm gradually weaning my way out of. I'm trying to drink more water and warming my wrists gently before practicing, to loosen up the tendons. For now I'm avoiding extra typing, writing, and handcrafts that tend to irritate them.

By far my biggest challenge is correcting my technique. Now that I'm more aware, I'm amazed at how much tension I was allowing in my playing. I've consulted my violin and viola professors, as well as my chamber music coach (a cellist) and a visiting pianist who specializes in musician injuries. Bottom line, the number one cause of my pain appears to be my poor posture. Over many years, I've gotten into the common violinist habit of raising my left shoulder and squeezing with my neck. I also tend to twist if I ever had to sit and play. In addition, I've had tension in both thumbs, especially the large thumb muscle in my left hand.

Basically I have a three-fold system of change to implement. First, though I'm continuing to use a shoulder rest for the purpose of stability, I'm trying to learn to play AS IF I wasn't. Basically, I'm resting the violin on my collarbone and balancing it between that point and my left hand (thumb and first finger joint). I'm trying to keep my shoulders very level, and only using my chin when necessary (and even then, not squeezing, but using the natural weight of my head). This is probably the hardest part for me. Unfortunately, according to that visiting pianist, I've gotten to the point where I literally don't know how to stand up straight. I'd think I was 'straight,' but in fact my left shoulder would be higher, especially if I put my violin up. I also tend to arch my back too much if I'm not careful. I've been using my MacBook a lot to video record myself and check up on all these things. I'm finding that my left shoulder tires more quickly this way, but it makes sense: now I'm actually holding up my arm independently and supporting the instrument in my hand when I play, as opposed to relying on shoulder tension to do both. I'm still using a shoulder rest, but trying to view it solely as an aid to keeping the instrument from moving too much.

So, though I'm not going cold turkey, as my viola professor put it, I still have to re-learn certain things like how to shift. I also have to constantly watch my left thumb so I'm not squeezing. I'm finding that to avoid this squeezing, it helps to keep my thumb back far enough and let it touch the neck on the left side (of my thumb), not the flatter fleshy part. Also, I simply don't need as much pressure as I thought to keep the strings down. Chords are still a challenge for me, but I'm practicing them very slowly to figure out the least stressful way to play them.

Finally, I'm re-thinking my bowing a little. My viola professor has had me practice really feeling the weight of my right arm and using that, as opposed to hand force, to really lead my bow. Usually the first thing I do when I take out my instrument is a certain type of long tones. I start at the frog, anchoring my bow and really hanging all my arm weight from my fingers. I try to breath and relax, and then gradually draw the bow. It sounds horrible, especially for the first few inches, since I'm using waaay more weight than I actually need. I'l draw the bow as far as I can comfortably and then change direction. I'm trying to keep my fingers a little more wrapped around the stick (for better weight distribution) and have my elbow just a little lower (so my wrist doesn't bend up too much).

The combination of this bowing work, along with freeing up my neck, is really starting to open up my sound. At the moment, I feel like I can't play anything. My practicing right consists for the most part of long tones, very slow scales and etudes, and short chunks of repertoire at very slow tempos. That's all I can manage without reverting to my old ways. Unfortunately, I don't know how my plans to transfer schools will pan out. I can't tell yet if I'll have the repertoire prepared in time. It's quite frustrating, but my first priority is healing and fixing my technique. I'm really grateful to be making these discoveries now rather than later, when it could be too late. I think that in the long run, this process will help me to be better than ever. Key word: patience. :)

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 6:21 AM
It sounds like you are doing all the right things to understand your problem and make changes slowly and consciously. As a violin teacher, I've seen many of my students make the same mistakes you used to: squeezing the neck of the violin with your left thumb; using more finger pressure than you need to keep the strings down; using hand force instead of the natural weight of your bow arm; not keeping the fingers of your right hand curled around the bow; and bending the right wrist up too high. The first thing I have a rank beginner do is to move the bow straight, slowly, and smoothly across at least half of its length on an open string and make a pretty sound. I emphasize the importance of this, even for professional violinists. I teach beginners, and your blog reminded me again of the importance of doing things just right from the beginning. When I read your blog, I learned the importance of teaching correct technique from the very start. I walk around my students so that I can see different things that may cause trouble. It is really remarkable how much difference a very small adjustment of one small part of the hand can make, sometimes causing bigger effects on a different body part. People who have played the guitar are likely to bend the left thumb and grip the violin with it, often changing the contours of the left thumb and hand, because that's what people do when they play the guitar. Frequently, when you're trying hard to do something, you tighten all your muscles, even those not directly involved. Playing for the teacher tends to make students physically more uptight than when playing at home. Being a violin teacher is a lot like being a physical therapist. I teach adult beginners, and they often have extra problems due to past injuries and the lack of flexibility that comes with aging.

I have used and taught my students a good way to judge issues like pressing down too hard on the bow. It's like the Buddhist practice of finding the middle way. First, play an open string pressing down on the bow really hard, so it sounds awful. Then use so little pressure that you can barely keep it on the string. Then experiment to find the middle way that is best for you. (Of course, the best middle way will vary with the music you're playing.) There is a fun and accurate way to determine how much pressure you really need to stop the strings with the fingers of your left hand. Start playing a note with your finger pressed down very hard, and then lighten the pressure. You will find just the amount of pressure you need to stop the string.

I have a question for you and the anti-shoulder rest people. To avoid hunching your shoulder too much, you rest the violin on your collarbone and balance it with the thumb and first finger of your left hand. What happens when you need to take the middle and lower part of your first finger away from the violin to play vibrato?

I really like your blog. You gave a good, clear explanation of the symptoms and how to treat them, and you stressed the importance of proceeding slowly. I hope you recover quickly and as soon as possible. I think what you wrote will be helpful to many other people.

From Tobias Seyb
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 9:17 AM
Glad to hear it's getting better!!

Finger pressure:
I learned a trick from my teacher (and teach it myself) that when you let the fingers drop with a little "pop" or short impulse (like when hitting the ball with a tennis racket, but without the power) it needs almost no pressure after to hold the string. This works fine for me, even when I am used to use much more pressure on the guitar, my main instrument.

"What happens when you need to take the middle and lower part of your first finger away from the violin to play vibrato?"

Thank you very much, Pauline, for this question. I didn't dare to ask this myself, but I'm interested to hear the answer ;-)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 10:26 AM
I'm glad to hear you're making progress towards overcoming your injuries and playing again with less tension. Keep up the good work!
From Corwin Slack
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 5:44 PM
Good luck on the recovery. We focus too much on shoulder rest vs. no shoulder rest but the real decision is between holding the violin at the shoulder vs. holding it at the left hand. I still continue to believe that the best way to force the left hand to hold the violin is to ditch the shoulder rest but what you describe seems to be a next best.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 6:03 PM
Wow, lots for you to think about! Congrats to you, though, for addressing all of this now, instead of avoiding it for years and having an even bigger issue on your hands.

Good luck to you!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 10:11 PM
I`m so glad you are working sensibly and succesfully through these challenges.
It sounds like your piano playing specialist has done Alexander work. The theory6 behind what he is saying about `not knowing` is so importnat. Basically we have a sixth sense which is almost never talked about. To recognize this simply put your arm above your head. How do you know its their? (Assumning you do? It certainly isn`t from any data coming from your five senses. This sixth sense is constantly sending data to your control system so that yur body can function. This data is streamed through a kind of nerve called a proprioceptor, the vast majority of which are situated in the neck. When the neck is screwed the data about your whol e body is also screwed with it so we literally don`t know or rather we `know` something about what the body is doing but that imformtaion is incorrect and the more we act upon that information the worse things get.
Alexander Teachers don`t talk much (if they know what they are doing). The simply help the body remember how to funcyion naturally using their hands.
I hope that you can go to a good Alexander Teacher. I can honestly say I learn more depely about the rela nature of the isnturment from this and related fileds than from all the greta teahcers I ever annoyed.
Pauline, sorry you had to use the erm =anti rest.` I don@t use or teach with them but I let people make their own choices. The question you raise is somewhat hard to explain. It is simply an issue of balance. The violin is momentaily balanced on the thumb or momentarily touching somepart of the finger or something. The only time there is a probblem is if there is tension in another part of the body causing an imbalance. In this sense not using a shoulder rest is the ultimate diagnostic tool. It is atcually much harder than using a rest because you cannot get away with misuse of the body. Thus in the long run one learns to be very aware. For example I practce a daily exericse as foolows:
On a single bow repeat the followinf four times. Play a futh finger b in second position on d string. As fast aspossible play a fisr finger c in 6th posiiton and then return to the b. I mean really fast and with super clarity. The thumb stays where it is. This is not done by cganhing the shape of the finge to a greta extent. If the body is in its optimum sate then the violin remains completely stable in spite of this huge throwing action . I practice variations of this using differnet combinations for just a few seconds.

There is no diffuclty in performin vibrato or shifts or any other technique if one doesn`t use a rest. Bad technique is bad whatever road one takes.

From Anthony Barletta
Posted on September 30, 2008 at 11:16 PM
Good work, Ruth - glad to see you on the path to playing w/o injury. I need to be constantly reminded of many of the points you make, so thank you.

Regarding the question: "What happens when you need to take the middle and lower part of your first finger away from the violin to play vibrato?"

I'm by no means an expert, but it seems that not everyone agrees that the first finger needs to pull away from the neck of the instrument when vibrating, even though this is commonly taught. An example of this might be seen in the video clip posted today under the Oistrakh B-day celebration/CD giveaway. Am I correct that his first finger continues to contact the neck when vibrating?

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on October 1, 2008 at 1:24 AM
didn`t quite follow that, but it is not true that keeping ther index finger againstt he neck inhibits vibrato. The contact is minimal.Letting go completley is not a problem though
From Michael Schallock
Posted on October 1, 2008 at 4:59 PM
Great discussion. These discussions sure help me and my teaching. Thanks to everyone.

Another point to remember about the vibrato is that although the base of the first finger can slide along the neck of the fiddle and still provide support there is also an element of left forearm rotation which can provide a nice vibrato motion without the first finger sliding at all, especially with the second and third finger. I am not advocating exagerating this motion but not having it at all will severely restrict any vibrato.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on October 1, 2008 at 10:03 PM
that`s for sure. Oistrakh demonstartes that beautifully.
From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on October 2, 2008 at 12:44 AM
Thank you all for the advice and interesting discussion here. As some people have noted, I'm finding that my vibrato is not necessarily inhibited by first finger contact. Also, sometimes I can just support with my thumb, especially if I'm using gravity to my advantage and holding my violin up enough. Shifting is a little tricker for me now, not because its any harder necessarily, but it just requires different motions and timing that I have to get used to. I'm working on Kreutzer #1 right now - it has a wealth of benefit for all these things.

Unfortunately, I can't find any Alexander technique teachers nearby, but I did find a Feldankrais practitioner. I rented some Alexander technique DVDs to watch over the weekend and hope to meet with the Feldankrais lady soon. Some of my professors have done Alexander technique, so they've been telling me what they know. So far, so good. I got though a 4 hr orchestral dress rehearsal the other night with no wrist pain! Yay :)

From BJ Berman
Posted on October 2, 2008 at 6:10 AM
Hi Ruth,

This is BJ from Pueblo and I come from a family of string players except for my turncoat sister Debby, who is a pianist and the dean of the Colburn school in LA.

My genius uncle, William Berman, about 5ft, 7inches, played one of Carleen Hutchins' 20 inch violas on his shoulder for orch, chamber music, and solo recitals for 22 years without injury of any kind.

I have taken unfair advantage of him by letting him do all the work then benefiting from it for my "continuing education" in playing the violin with complete relaxation and even using the violin to keep the symptoms of degenerative joint disease (spine, bilateral carpal and cubital tunnel syndromes) completely at bay.

I only found out about the wrist and elbow conditions because they tested my spine and included my arms in the test. Neither the doc nor I was aware that I had it until he read the printout from the electronics.

I also spent the first 11 yrs of my working life being a biochemist, so my interest in things medical has always been strong.

Now to the point of all this background. I absolutely hate to see or even hear of cases like yours because the relief is usually so easy to find in most of them.

It lies in the chin AND shoulder rest combination.

Now bear in mind that what I'm saying to you has nothing at all to do with the decades long discussion of shoulder rests or no shoulder rests.

Try this, and don't complicate it at all unless it doesn't work, which is possible in a few cases. Begin with a Kun std or Muco shoulder rest and no chin rest to find the height you need to use to eliminate almost all the muscle power needed to maintain the instrument in playing position. Then add a thin chin rest. Keep the shoulder rest at it's lowest adjustment at first and proceed as follows.

Place the shoulder rest curve over your collar bone, not over your shoulder. Keep it between the end of the collar bone and the neck itself.

Now, with arms at your side, limp, as you would stand without the instrument, turn your head a little left remaining vertical, no tilt. Now lower you chin just enough for the chin rest to touch, not press, under your jaw bone, and release the weight of the instrument gradually with your left hand.

While you let the weight down increase the pressure of the jaw bone only enough to keep the instrument from falling. It should now be resting sort of floppy on your collar bone held only by it's own weight pressing down on the shoulder rest with the chin rest pressing up on your jaw bone. All involved muscles should be relaxed and the instrument should be free enough to bob up and down slightly if you speak.

From this point on you simply introduce your technical demands slowly and with great care not to tighten your grip on the instrument itself with either neck or left hand and your pain should over a relatively short time, be greatly reduced or gone.

Two more quick points. If the chin rest cuts into your jaw bone but the instrument seems to be well supported without pressure, have someone carve or plane off the excess wood at the spot where it is hurting you.

Second, have a friend or family member take hold of the neck and pull the instrument out from your light hold on it by pulling away and slightly upward to see that the grip on it is light enough to avoid muscle tension and/or spasm.

I have used this series of maneuvers with many people of many ages and all stages of development and, so far, it has never missed. Nevertheless it is far from absolute or guaranteed but certainly worth a shot, since it takes so little time and effort and probably no cost.

Now I noticed that yesterday's Oistrakh winner was Jay Azneer. He is an Osteopath as well as a singer, and as such has a unique viewpoint on this subject in both arts.

When he was in school and I was also, I taught him for a while. This was the time when I was first thinking that these things might turn out to be important to the health of performers like us, so I suggest that you write to him and see if what I think about your case may have some medical merit.

I wish you a speedy, simple, complete, and permanent recovery, and hope that you have many years of great pleasure with your playing, free of pain.

Thanks for your patience with this long letter, and of course, write me if you think I might be of help. I would definitely like to know if it helps you.

BJ Berman

From BJ Berman
Posted on October 2, 2008 at 7:12 AM
Ruth, I forgot to tell you one of the most important things to look for.

Judge the final position you will attempt to use by comfort and then check it by looking in the mirror and comparing the height of the bridge with the RIGHT collarbone. Get it down as close as possible to that height. This relieves the need to raise the right arm too high to get to the G string.

If you write Jay he will probably tell you that any tension from shoulder to fingertip in either arm will telegraph itself through the shoulders to the other fingertip. In other words, anatomically, if one part of the playing mechanism is tense, it will eventually be the entire mechanism that will be tense.


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on October 3, 2008 at 5:13 AM
>Now, with arms at your side, limp, as you would stand without the instrument, turn your head a little left remaining vertical, no tilt. Now lower you chin just enough for the chin rest to touch, not press, under your jaw bone,
BJ makes an absolutely crucial piont here which may well be part of your trouble Ruth.
The vertebrae at te top of the spine have diffenret finctions. If you turn and tilt at the same time you mix them up and end up with dics in odd positions. It is vital to turn the head firast and -then- drop it so the body can sue the corretc components for the job.
A lot of player smake this very serious error.

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