Challenges of Retired Returnee

May 28, 2019, 12:25 AM · I love the sound of the violin. I took lessons for a year in 4th grade. Also for 2 months 10 years ago. Last October I started a 3rd time now that I am in my mid 60s and retired. My challenges have been physical. My story may help others or readers may have suggestions for me.

Ten years ago I got a 1920s student violin made in Germany that has a dark sound. Last winter I got a new Chinese violin from Stringworks, the Artist with a sweet voice. They are different but I like them both. The German is heavier with higher action. The Chinese is lighter with lower action. I use a brasilwood bow 59 grams. The German I requested lower tension strings to be softer on my fingers. The violin shop put on helicore. The Chinese violin came with proarte strings. I use hills rosin.

My problems have been pain in shoulder, golfers elbow, wrist. I was practicing 30 minutes a day. I would practice 3 days and then have to quit 3 days to rest until pain free. I did not feel I was making much progress. My goals were to play church hymns, Christmas carols, and folk tunes in a pleasing way for myself and family. My goals were modest. I have had 2 different teachers and they saw nothing wrong with my set up or how I played. I had lessons every other week. I have 3 different shoulder rests and I currently use a rolled up cloth on my shoulder. I have 2 side and 2 center mounted chinrests. I did not want to keep buying rests. I had one session with Alexander teacher who is a violin player. He advised to not use any shoulder rest or just a cloth and use flat chin rest. One teacher suggested different size violin. I rented a 3/4 and 7/8 but they felt too cramped and I went back to 4/4. I stretch before I play. I have regular music stand with light and straight back armless office chair with padded seat. My no line progressive glasses had too narrow a field of vision. I use ones with alternating bands of close and intermediate that go the width of the lenses. I use emotic plugs to protect my ears. I use compression gloves without fingers. I like them. They keep my hands warm with good circulation. I did everything I could think of to reduce irritation, fatigue, and tension.

In March I had a health scare and I stopped playing for 2 months. I had been trying out other 4/4 violins and pernambuco bow at 62 grams at a violin shop. I was playing the same Christmas song on all of them to compare. Later at home my left thumb had an involuntary tremor. I could touch the muscle at the base and feel it firing. I immediately stopped playing. The tremor lasted a few weeks then stopped. My reading suggested this is focal dystonia. However the condition is described as permanent. Could this be focal dystonia or something else?

Since the tremor went away I am cautiously starting again. I have been doing 15 minutes once a day every three days. I will only repeat a song twice slowly. I put Dr.Scholls padded moleskin on both violin necks. It is very comfortable. I read vibration can cause focal dystonia. Should I only use one violin and which one would be best for me physically to use? Have I reached the peak of what I can accomplish on the violin due to physical reasons. I do not want to have focal dystonia. My shoulder, elbow, and wrist pain all disappeared with this 2 month break. If I play longer or more frequently and the tremors return I think I will have to permanently give up the violin. Am I missing something here? If there is a way to play the violin and be healthy I would love to do so.

Replies (13)

Edited: May 28, 2019, 5:51 AM · I'll preface this with the caveat that I'm a beginner myself, and have NO medical background. I'm just trying to be helpful.

It is very easy to play the violin wrong. I have tended to play with a death grip on the fingerboard, which I'm trying to counteract. I do a lot of stretches, and use some topical lotion called Topricin to help with pain and inflammation.

The fact that your left arm is twisted up into an uncomfortable contortion doesn't help.

I am totally unaware of focal dystonia. Perhaps a medical person on here with the appropriate background could chime in. I just read that it is a type of cramping, sometimes referred to as writer's cramp.

I see that physical therapy is sometimes recommended for the condition. I would seek other input than the Alexander method source. These types of methods can have their own focus and ideologies which are not always borne out in reality. Even some chiropractors claim things they cannot actually do.

It might be good to seek out a mainstream medical professional with experience with violin players who can help you. Maybe you need to ramp into this, take it more easily. I'm the same age as you, and have some hand and arm pain, but I don't have the same conditions as you.

You might have to talk to a few people, perhaps work with a PT for a while. This might be a hunting expedition.

Is there a symphony local to you? Perhaps they have medical personnel that they call on who would be very experienced in treating conditions such as this.

Addenda: I'm reading that botulin toxin injections (similar or same as BoTox) is one form of treatment for this condition. Really, I am no medical person.

Focal dystonia treatment

However, from rereading your post, I see that the focal dystonia is a self-diagnosis. Best to seek qualified medical help on this. It could be something less scary.

May 28, 2019, 8:35 AM · I'd be surprised if it's focal dystonia. My understanding was that FD is something you get after years and years of repetitive practice. It just may be tremors from tension and short-tern overuse.

May 28, 2019, 9:04 AM · You need to head to a doctor (sports medicine doctor, or other medical professional) who can help make a proper diagnosis and treatment advice. If they are unable to help, I'd look for a licensed acupuncturist (NOT a PT who does "dry needling"/sham acupuncture).

I'm an intermediate level returner, not a teacher, but I would recommend choosing one violin, one bow, and working to find a shoulder rest(or restless) and chinrest setup that is the most comfortable for you. Having a teacher is essential in the beginning - especially when there are tension/setup issues.

If 15 minutes is so long for practicing three days in a row that you need to take a rest for three days, then fifteen minutes is too long for you right now (and you need to also address as-yet-unknown tension issues in your setup).

What if you tried for 10 minutes and 10 minutes only, playing only open strings then assess how you feel? If you feel good the next day, then play 5 minutes open strings and 5 minutes fingered notes, then reassess before playing the next day. If you still feel good, I would repeat 5 mins each open and fingered notes for several days (or weeks) until you are very very comfortable with this arrangement. Then transition to 10 mins of fingered notes (songs), then after several days/weeks start adding 2 minutes every 3 days until you reach 20 minutes. Then stay at 20 minutes for several days/weeks before adding more time to your practice.

Personally, it took me a while to work up to being able to practice for more than 30 minutes, then to break past the one hour mark into the two and three hour mark (with breaks of course). It takes time for our muscles to grow and adapt, and even with being physically fit it took time.

Edited: May 28, 2019, 1:39 PM · You are certainly very well aware and cautious of the pains and ackes that can be induced by playing the instrument. Violin playing is not very ergonomic and can put a lot of stress on your body. I strarted at 50 and have gone through most of these, back pain, shoulder pain, wrist pain, elbow pain, finger pain at different times and different forms from muscle pain to tendonitis. The remedy is rest (as you do), proper setup, proper posture, proper technique, proper physical exercise and proper routine commensurate to your age and physical condition. I find that Yoga and acquafitness help alleviating some of the possible injuries. It also sounds like a consultation with the appropriate health professional would be in order not to forget a qualified teacher. It takes a long time to redevelop the flexibility and muscle tone needed to play the violin at an advanced age but it can be done with slow careful progression, patience and persistance.
May 28, 2019, 6:21 PM · I had my annual physical today and asked my doctor about the tremor. He thought it was muscle fatigue rather then focal dystonia. He recommended being evaluated by PT and follow their muscle strengthening treatment plan. I have an appointment with the PT office he recommended tomorrow. I know muscles and tendons shorten, weaken, and get less flexible as you age. I hope PT can help. I don’t remember pain being part of my previous violin playing when I was much younger. People who have continuously played since childhood may have a hard time appreciating this challenge. I will ask PT if they have an opinion which violin I should use based on its physical set up. I don’t know if I want to return to my previous teacher. I don’t think she was that helpful with these physical problems. I think it is hard to find a good teacher. I am trying very hard not to grip the violin neck and to keep my shoulders down. I think 30 minutes per day is too much playing time. I will reduce that by half every other day and see how I feel.
May 28, 2019, 6:32 PM · sounds like you need to visit a physical therapy, my cousin had similar issue when he was playing and ignored the symptoms long enough that he ended up having surgery.
May 29, 2019, 12:21 AM · "I don’t remember pain being part of my previous violin playing when I was much younger."

Don't we all wish we had the flexibility of a 9 yr old!

May 29, 2019, 9:28 PM · PT identified some tight spots around left shoulder blade and rotator cuff. He said many times the problem is unequal muscle strength. I have some exercises for those areas. Also he gave a stretch for the forearm. He did say the left thumb was weak. He thought muscle strengthening would help with that. He was not ready to call it a nerve issue. If it was a nerve he said the problem would originate in my neck. He also said to use my lightest weight violin. I will try this PT program and hope for the best.
May 30, 2019, 9:09 AM · Muscle strengthtening and stretching may case additional tendon injury if muscle knots are not addressed first. I learned this hard way, through one year of constant pain. Find someone who knows how to do active release therapy and also deep tissue massage. An expert would also consider Graston technique. Only after muscle tension is released, stretching can take place. I would not do any strengthtening untill tendon heals completely.
May 30, 2019, 3:21 PM · Rocky I will look into your suggestions. I did not think my shoulder blade area or rotator cuff area was a problem until the PT started pushing around in that area. The wrist extension stretch for my forearm seems uncomplicated and I can see that helping my thumb which was my greater concern. It seemed to me I should review my shoulder/chin rest set up. My most recent arrangement is using a rolled up cloth rubber banded to the back of the violin and using my left hand more for support. I visited the violin shop that sold me my shoulder/chin rests and asked the lady to review my use of them. I am thinking I should go back to rests. She looked at what I had and how it was fitting and made her suggestions. She says your teacher gives the final advice on how it fits. I replied I was told everything looked fine. She then said you know not everyone can physically play the violin. I said I want to investigate what I can do before I make that decision. If I can’t I can’t but I will know I have tried everything.
Edited: May 30, 2019, 3:43 PM · Hi Judy,

Welcome back to Violin playing. I've got a decade-plus on you in age and four-plus decades of playing. That being said, I know that age brings a whole lot of maladies.

I focus a lot on bio-mechanics for myself and my students. Frankly, holding the violin under the jaw and out to the side isn't exactly a "normal" bio-mechanical position, but we can make it work.

What I captured from re-reading your post makes most of your problems based in re-training muscles to work in the standard violin position and posture. It also sounds like you are brining a bit of anxiety to each session which is normal for both the returning musician as well as after having a negative result from the previous session.

My advice is to take it slow and easy. Try calming yourself before any playing and remember this is just for fun, nothing to get upset about (easy to say but not easy to do - my problem is one of perfection and when things aren't perfect... and that builds up tension and my left hand cramps up and refuses to move). Slowly, ever so slowly, build up your playing time and be gentle with yourself.

May 30, 2019, 4:12 PM · Judy, yes, your PT seems to know the basics and more than that. If shoulder is not positioned properly, it may cause problems down the arm all the way to the lower arm and wrist.
To clarify, his advise is good, but the timing for stretching and strengthening may not be. You will most likely see improvements after shoulder is re-positioned.
May 31, 2019, 5:52 PM · "My shoulder, elbow, and wrist pain all disappeared with this 2 month break."

To me, with no claims of expertise, this sounds like physical/setup issues are causing physical problems and also potentially causing nerve problems.

A PT is not a nerve expert, and even nerve experts might have trouble putting all the problems in a dynamic system together from a brief examination.

What I do know is that playing violin is a pain in the neck/shoulder/arm/wrist/ego, hard to get right, and easy to get wrong, even if other observers can't say/see what's going wrong, because they don't have your subjective experience.

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