Heifetz and shoulder injury

April 27, 2005 at 04:37 AM · Hi all,

In another thread, I came upon this quote:

"'Jascha Heifetz will be 79 years old Saturday. One of the greatest violinists ever, and perhaps the greatest sheer technician the instrument has known, he doesn’t play in public anymore… In 1975 he underwent a shoulder operation that has effectively precluded any thought of further concerts.’ "

I don't know much about this; was he really forced to stop playing permanently, at least as a performer? And, what was the problem he developed in his shoulder? (As I likely need a shoulder operation too, I am trying to find out just how much it can affect violinists) Anyone know about this portion of Heifetz's life?

Replies (33)

April 27, 2005 at 05:53 AM · Greetings,

it is discussed in detail in the biography by Ayk. The operation wa s presumably concerned with the rotator cuff. he was never able to raise his arm as high again so he relearnt how to play in a different position/angle.His playing was still awesome at his final recital which is available on cd.

Szeryng said that in his opinon this operation was not necessary. This doe soften hold true and there are many options one can explore before surgery which is smething of a gamble.

To get a good perpsective on this I sugegst you read the Musician as Athlete which is the story of a really botched unnecessary shoudler operation and a description of how the right therapy was really all that was needed. The lady who wrote about her experiences then went on to team up with her physio to specialize in musicians clinics. Other alternatives include, Alexander Technique, Feldenkreis, Reiki, yoga, and so on. Surgical invasion of this delicate area is a desparate resort.

Cheers and best of luck,


April 27, 2005 at 11:32 AM · Rotator cuff surgery is complicated, and recovery/healing/rehab complicated. If at all possible Buri's advice should be followed.

April 27, 2005 at 01:38 PM · He played with a very high elbow which essentially was the cause of his damaged rotator cuff.


April 27, 2005 at 08:29 PM · Preston: really? I hadn't heard before that his injury had something concrete to do with his technique. Do you know whether it was his right shoulder that had the operation? (I assume that you are referring to his bow elbow? I'll have to go back to my pictures of him...I had never thought about his left elbow being high.) :-)


April 27, 2005 at 09:21 PM · There's a news story out today about a Danish study showing that surgery is no more effective than exercise for rehabilitating a rotator cuff injury.

March 1, 2007 at 03:59 PM · I know this is two years after this original blog, but I recently saw this about Heifetz and I wanted to put forth what I have heard about that. Heifetz had been performing in Israel and had included a piece by a Nazi composer. It was not long after the terrible holocost. To make a somewhat long story short, some man attacked him outside of his hotel and hit his right arm with a iron bar. From then on, he couldn't hold his arm as high as he used to. You can find the whole story on Wikipedia.

-Daughter of Deborah Potts-

March 1, 2007 at 04:41 PM · Deborah ('s daughter), the story you're referring to occurred much earlier (late 1950s, if memory serves) than any shoulder injury for which Heifetz may have had surgery (1975). As far as I know, his last public recital was in 1972, so the surgery would seem to have been post-career.

As for playing with a high elbow, it was neither high nor low. If you observe the videos of Heifetz in action, you'll find the tip of his right elbow pretty much on level with the index finger of the right hand. Essentially, you can see the bow and the right upper arm (shoulder-elbow) as two parallel bars across which a slab of relaxed, heavy sirloin - the lower arm (elbow-wrist) - is laid like a crossbar. Ok, a DRAPED crossbar.

March 1, 2007 at 05:50 PM · Wow, great idea. Play a nazi-composed piece in Israel in the 1950s.

March 1, 2007 at 05:53 PM · My good friend Aaron Rosand compared me favorably to Heifetz one day at his house. He said, and I unfortunately quote, "Ray, you and Heifetz are alike." I perked up, but was wary of anything Aaron had in mind. He said, "yup, you both have Arthritis in your shoulders." Then he laughed very hard.

March 1, 2007 at 06:13 PM · The "Nazi" piece in question was, according to something I read, the Strauss Sonata.

Heifetz played with a very high right shoulder. It's not ideal and he seems not to have been able to solve problems related to playing at the frog. People who have been around longer than I seem to think this business became more pronounced as he got older. It seems to have caused him problems eventually.


March 1, 2007 at 06:14 PM · Enosh - I am not sure "Nazi composed" is a correct description of Strauss or his role. During the Nazi period, Strauss collaborated, serving in some capacities in the official culture establishment including as head of the musicians group. He apparently did this primarily to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and her family (and was mostly unsuccessful despite his collaboration). For more information on the plight of musicians during this period, see Michael Kater's "The Twisted Muse: Music and Musicians during the Third Reich" which is probably the seminal authority on the subject. In any event, the Israeli reaction is understandable.

March 1, 2007 at 06:21 PM · According to Pierre Amoyal, the problems that led Heifetz to the mentioned surgery were originally caused by a fall (in his boat IIRC, but I’m not 100% sure) in the 2nd half of the sixties and principally due to the massive use of cortisone (which was praised at that time as miraculous drug w/out collateral effects…) in the treatment.

I don’t think theory with the “high arm” makes any sense, all the people I know who have (loving or hating it…) listened to Heifetz agree that he played with minimum muscular effort, and he seems to have predicated it to his students, too.

March 1, 2007 at 06:45 PM · Tom, I figured it must've not been a "nazi" piece... I was just going by what the previous poster said.

March 1, 2007 at 07:07 PM · Actually Heifetz didn't play with a very high shoulder or elbow if you watch him. Players like Szeryng or Rabin, played with a higher elbow/shoulder than Heifetz. It goes to show you there's more than one way to do something well! Most people are under the impression Heifetz did play with a high shoulder because of that famous still publicity shot of him playing high up on the g-string.

March 1, 2007 at 07:32 PM · Hello all, Thanks for clearing that up for me. I am a fan of Heifetz so I have watched him play numourous times on dvds and like one of you said, he looks like he has a high elbow, but that is on the G string. Also the "high elbow" is sort of a Russion style I believe. However high or low his elbow was, it sure didn't limit him.

March 1, 2007 at 08:41 PM · Greetings,

yes, Emil is corret about the injury.It was early and unimportant.

No , Heifetz did not play with a high shoulder. Taht is an elementary mistake taht beginenrs make which makes bowing impossible. One simply cannot bow taht way.If you want to see an example of a advanced player with a raised shoulder check out the Gingold master class tapes. In one of theb later tapes a student is plauying with a raised shoulder and it is just a terrible ess.

High elbow? Not really. As noted above, Szeryng often went higher.

Part of the proble is a myth was born about Heifetzs bow arm through a publicit shot in which the camer,man moved his arm up t get the face in.




March 1, 2007 at 09:20 PM · I think the high elbow myth is similar to the one about Heifetz's "fast" vibrato....

March 1, 2007 at 10:35 PM · Greetings,

I can`t type with high shoudlers either...



March 1, 2007 at 10:39 PM · Very true Kevin, actually if you listen to Heifetz very carefully he used a very *slow* vibrato most of the time. He just vibrated everything so it gave the audience the impression of an intense vibrato. I think Kreisler did the same thing.

March 2, 2007 at 03:40 AM · The book Buri is recommending is The Athletic Musician. I vigorously agree with his recommendation - shoulders basically shouldn't work at all the way they are designed. The strong muscles tend to pull the arm up out of the socket, and the tiny rotator cuffs keep them aligned. The author thinks every violinist should do rotator cuff exercises. Best book on shoulders for musicians.

And Heifetz's vibrato is differentiated (fast or slow, wide or narrow, changing in the moment), the highest compliment one can pay a vibrato, if one is in the habit of addressing vibrati anthromorphically.

March 3, 2007 at 01:54 PM · Good discussion. I would add this:

1. I don't think we should look to the Nazis for medical advice.

2. Problems like the ones discussed on this entire website appear an occupational hazard for people who play an instrument like the violin their whole lives (i.e., repetitive overuse of muscles and tendons without the proper care and rejuvinating effects of techniques like the Alexander Technique and others -- or even with them).

3. Any kind of surgery ought to be a last resort.

4. There are some things that Heifetz has never been given enough credit for, such as integrity (as an artist) and courage (physical and otherwise). Daniel Berenboim is currently doing what Heifetz did so many years ago - championing the works of Richard Strauss and Wagner in Israel. Whether you agree or disagree, you have to admit that this takes guts.

5. Seems to me that Heifetz's exemplary posture makes it appear that his shoulder is high when in fact it looks quite natural and relaxed.


March 3, 2007 at 03:55 PM · Addendum: Seems to me that the Heifetz vibrato wasn't necessarily faster than anyone else's, but it was very "focused" or "narrow" or something like that. I think of Gitlis as having a "fast" vibrato when he gets intensity. Do you think this is true?


March 3, 2007 at 04:26 PM · I agree Sandy...I have some recordings of small pieces from the 20's and if you listen to say, the Girl with the Flaxen Hair by Debussy, one will find a plethora of vibrato speeds and colors...amazing...

March 3, 2007 at 08:14 PM · Gitlis and Mutter are VERY different from Heifetz :)

March 4, 2007 at 06:24 PM · This is from "Heifetz As I Knew Him" by A. Agus:

He suffered a subcutaneous hemorrhage in his right shoulder when the muscles and tendons separated from the shoulder bone, as I understood what happened. He had had trouble with his shoulder for years but dismissed it as a professional hazard and kept on playing. Now, though, at seventy-three, he couldn't ignore it any longer, and his doctor recommended immediate surgery...

After the operation: Since he couldn't lift his right arm properly, he compromised by holding his violin lower and turning it sideways to meet the angle at which he could move his arm.

There is more (page 164), though I do not recommend the book, as I do not think it is more than revengeful gossip. Anyway, keep in mind that Heifetz was 73 at the time. Complete recovery is apparently possible, and medicine has made progress since...

March 4, 2007 at 08:34 PM · Greetings,

interesting you took the book as gossip. I suspect if taht had been the case many of th epeople cocnerned would have come forward and said that the incidents and style of the masterclasses was a fabrication. Just my opinion but it is probably the last and ost important book on Heifetz by someone taht really knew him that we are going to see,



March 4, 2007 at 10:23 PM · >"Of course, they're different, but i wrote only about vibrato..."

And that was what I was talking about precisely :)

March 5, 2007 at 12:44 AM · Stephen, I read the book some (long) time ago, but I remember it was quite disappointing. I learned nothing about Heifetz that I did not know from other accounts (maybe that's why other people didn't protest), and I found this book was largely about Ms Agus, and not Heifetz. It is sad she had to use his name to promote a book about her life and how she made (or didn't) peace with herself about various things. The only new information about Heifetz was written out of resentment and I found it completely irrelevant (Heifetz's quirks as an old man long after he stopped performing and even teaching). Anyway, perhaps just my opinion.

March 5, 2007 at 05:08 PM · Ultimately, Jascha Heifetz was so careful to guard his personal privacy and not to reveal his inner self, that in the final analysis we may never get an insight into the "real" Heifetz. I still believe that he sublimated his emotions and put it all into his playing. In a way, he is a tragic figure - in a public fishbowl and the object of endless curiosity and attention, and yet profoundly alone. If this is true, then his final years must have been unhappy ones indeed, which really is a shame.


March 5, 2007 at 05:20 PM · I agree with you Maria B. completely. A good book written about Heifetz is by his longtime teaching assistant Sherry Kloss.

March 6, 2007 at 06:10 PM · Heifetz was very generous in his will with long time assistants, including the two ladies who later wrote books about him.

March 30, 2007 at 08:42 PM · I have had shoulder surgery on my left shoulder after being hit by a car while riding a bicycle. My shoulder was severely dislocated, and I only found out 6 weeks later that there was rotator cuff damage--several tendon tears and torn cartilage. I did everything I could to avoid surgery, including a month in a sling and several months of PT, and then I learned that the damage was worse than I'd been told--one tendon was torn off the bone.

So I had the surgery, and it took 8 months and 2 physical therapists to regain very close to 100% of range of motion. However, in not being able to use my left arm for so long, my left shoulder was overused, and that rotator cuff is now torn. I am trying now to avoid surgery on that side, since it is a much less severe tear than the first one.

Anyway, my advice would be to talk to the radiologist (I assume you've had an MRI?) and get as much detailed info as possible from the *radiologist.* (I know at least one orthopedist who cannot read MRI's!)

And then find out who your local sports teams recommend for PT. I found a few PT's who are used to dealing with the elderly, and didn't seem to understand that violinists need MORE than usual range of motion from the shoulder, and they didn't realize how much strength we need.

If you are open to travel, I highly recommend an ortho in Pittsburgh, and I know a violinist who just raves about his ortho and PT in St. Louis. The bottom line, though, is that you need a really top-notch team--both ortho and PT. When your career is on the line, there is no margin for error.

March 30, 2007 at 09:01 PM · Because of the disconnect between medical folk and musicians, and the counterintuitive way that strength and shoulder health are related, every violinist should understand the problems their shoulders encounter. The best book I know of for that is The Athletic Musician by a physical therapist and a formerly-injured violinist.

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