Adult returner with medical issue

Edited: March 16, 2021, 3:07 AM · Good morning everyone!
(I have been lurking for so long, I want to write greetings!).

I am an adult returner at 47, never really stopped playing, but after university, the violin always had to take a backseat to job, kids, life, and the lower hanging fruit of choir singing. That’s “lower” for me - in choirs, I can function at an advanced level without much practising, but that’s not true for my violin playing.

I stopped having lessons and doing regular practice on graduating high school at probably advanced intermediate level. I had just done Bach minor and Bach double, and my teacher had assigned the Beethoven spring sonata, presumably to segue me into classical and romantic repertoire, but I couldn’t really get into it and then I graduated.

I think I did keep advancing somewhat, though not in any structured way with the university symphony orchestra, which did a lot of the standard classical and romantic symphonic repertoire, Mozart, Dvorak, Mahler etc. Looking back I think it was pretty good for a university that didn’t have a conservatory attached at the time, just a school of musicology and Music ed, so no virtuosi, but lots of competent ensemble musicians, sort of like me.

I kept making music after graduating, but it was mostly singing, with the occasional chamber music gig, Christmas at the office, friends ’ weddings, that kind of thing, putting together ad hoc ensembles, arranging, conducting etc,, and now practicing with my two older kids who learn violin.

My oldest won’t let me in the room any more when he is practicing, and is way beyond the standard baroque repertoire that I could easily play with him, but I now play a lot with middle child, who is in a Suzuki program, and about to learn the Bach Double.

During the pandemic, I’ve begun to arrange chamber music for the family, because it’s the only ensemble playing my kids are going to get for a while, and we and another Suzuki family are getting good enough that we are getting booked for church gigs where singing is still prohibited and the congregation is desperate for some variety.

My history means that I am a much better musician than I am an instrumentalist, which is a source of great frustration to me!

14 years ago, I needed cervical surgery, and the residual nerve damage means I have a constant low level cramp and pain and sensitivity issues in my left hand and forearm, which messes up my intonation and and fingering (I have a hard time stretching and placing my 4th, or conversely my 1st), also shifting and double stops. Oddly, vibrato is fine.

Reading an interview with RBP on cheap baroque bows and HIP, with lots of open strings and first position and focus on virtuosic string crossings rather than 4th fingers and complicated shiftings, I had a revelation, got myself a baroque bow and the Bach S&Ps, and am very pleased at how my Gm presto and E prelude are coming along, I do find that the cramping in me left sort of infects my body and makes me tense up all over, nor can I entirely avoid using 4th fingers! (All those a and e flats...at least they’re flat...).

I should like to get back to “competent ensemble player”, perform the Bach double with my middle child, and be able to move ahead with my middle child as she gets assigned more romantic pieces from the BB books. Her slightly more advanced friend just did the Ave Maria, so I expect that’s up next for us after the Bach double, and so nicely suited for church gigs, too!

Do any of the knowledgeable people here have tips for me how to compensate for, get around, maybe even improve my issues?

Replies (30)

Edited: March 16, 2021, 4:56 AM · "cervical surgery, and the residual nerve damage means I have a constant low level cramp and pain and sensitivity issues in my left hand and forearm,"

I assume you were prescribed physiotherapy (I once pinched my spinal cord and spent 3 months in physio for it). All I can suggest is to take physiotherapy very seriously and indulge in it constantly. Perhaps consider Menuhin's yoga credo, but not without a physiotherapist's advice.

Edited: March 16, 2021, 5:39 AM · Greetings?
Alexander Technique is a good option but expensive and perhaps complicated to get in these troubled times. AS an alternative I recommend a superb Feldenkreis instructor called Alfons. His beginners course on youtube is invaluable for violinists of any level of condition. I have repeated these lessons over and over with huge benifits.

https://youtu.be/JA2509fpoqE

Cheers,
Buri

Edited: March 16, 2021, 8:32 AM · I'm a returner too, and my kids play (violin and cello). So we have something in common, except that I'm about 10 years older than you are. My violinist daughter is in college now and she plays in the orchestra. One thing I suggest -- trying to be as respectful as possible to your sovereignty as a parent, but also based on my own experiences -- is that you consider backing away from so much involvement with your kids' musical instruction. Let them advance with their teacher and with their peers and develop their independence in practicing and performing. It would be much better for your child to perform the Bach Double with a peer than with you. I also play the piano, and for a while I was accompanying my kids' performances, but after Book 7 or so, my skill was no longer up to the task, so I hired accompanists and that was much less stressful for everyone. Currently, I take my younger daughter (cellist) to a nearby city to work with a professional accompanist for an hour every other week. That is working out very well, especially because the pianist is also an excellent cellist herself, so she knows the repertoire. While they are working, I take a nice nap in my car.

If you want to have a special time, once or twice a week, where you play violin with your kids, then I suggest something easy that is not already part of their lessons such as reading through the Pleyel (and then Mazas) duets, or if there will be three violinists then find some easier Vivaldi or Telemann that was written for three violins (or choose from an endless selection of "Hal Leonard" type arrangements of show-tunes, etc., available online). Your kids will benefit from the sight-reading experience and you can all enjoy yourselves. Make sure it does not replace their regular practice time.

You should work with your teacher to select pieces that will be right for you under your circumstances. Maybe the Handel Sonatas would be a good place to start if you like baroque music. They are lovely and they provide some technical challenge too. Never mind they are in a "lower Suzuki book" than the Bach A Minor. The Haydn G Major violin concerto could also be a good choice for you, and perhaps the Beethoven F Major Romance, Op. 50. Also very pretty is the Romance by Shostakovich from "The Gadfly." You will see various arrangements that are buttered up with double stops, but you don't need them. At least, this violinist seemed to do okay without them:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nHxFBnCU-ZU

If your shoulder and nerve-pain issues will be with you forever, another possibility is to switch to the cello, which is intrinsically more ergonomic. Many things will be different (especially fingerings, vibrato, etc.) but you'll be able to carry over the basic concepts of tone production.

March 16, 2021, 9:28 AM · I would second both the physical therapy and the Alexander Technique suggestions (and I agree on the yoga). A good teacher would help you out, but even a good teacher is unlikely to know much about working around your condition.
March 16, 2021, 9:41 AM · I agree completely with Paul.

I am a lifelong 86 year old amateur violin, cello and viola player who started his string playing adventures at age 4.
At age 55 I suffered some herniation of 3 cervical disks that caused paralysis of parts of my left arm and hand. Fortunately my neurosurgeon wanted to wait at least 6 months before any surgery. Also fortunately, we had recently purchased a LA-Z-BOY chair for my wife's neck problem. I took over that chair and essentially lived in it for months all my sitting and all my sleeping were in that chair. Since then we have had multiple LA-Z-BOY chairs (worn out a few and upholstered others.

Obvious healing became apparent withing a few months when I was able to resume cello playing (vibrato took some WORK!). I was back playing violin in orchestra after a year although I never have regained my arm vibrato and my hand vibrato is still not where I want it to be - but at least I was able to separate the movements of my 3rd and 4th left fingers. So - I was able to play cello in weekly piano trios for another 30 years and violin and viola in various orchestras and chamber ensembles the same time. AND I PLAN TO RETURN AS SOON AS THIS PANDEMIC IS OVER.

My cello playing actually continued to improve until I was about 72 after the immediate problem resolved - I judge that by the new music I learned during those years (including cello concertos). My violin playing never got back to where it had been but at least it is functional and I have not been kicked out of any ensemble YET!

Check out LA-Z-BOY recliners - I figure I owe the last 31 years of my existence to them.

Edited: March 16, 2021, 10:17 AM · Leonore:
What a challenge !!! Great advice from all above. As a retired clinical psychologist, elderly person, and life-long amateur violinist (until I stopped playing about a year ago), I am also looking to get back to it.

For your situation, however, I have 2 suggestions:

1. - For the medical issues, I might suggest that you check with your physicians and see if they think that getting some professional clinical hypnosis may be helpful (medically and psychologically). There are physicians and psychologists who specialize in this (tell your doctors about the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis if they want to check this out and find a qualified specialist).

2. - In 1975, I got a one-page article published in The Instrumentalist. I've always been proud of that because I am not a professional musician. The idea is that if you have things to work on and are burdened by time and other priorities, it can take a toll on daily practice. You feel that unless you put in that hour (or 3) a day, you have failed. So, the idea here is to find 3 minutes a day (yes, 3 minutes) to focus 100% on one detail of playing, to play it slowly and "perfectly" with full focus on it and nothing else. You can always, of course, do more than that (and, hopefully, you will). And you can choose a different detail every day. But that 3 minutes daily chore minimum keeps you in the game on a daily basis. And you can do 3 minutes on your worst day for practicing. And watch what happens after a week or two of doing it.

I hope that helps, and that your situation gets resolved enough to get you achieving what you want to achieve.

Cordially,
Sandy

March 16, 2021, 11:30 AM · Lots of good advice. I blew out my rotator cuff last summer, probably by sleeping asymmetrically on a pillow. PT and a very good sport massage person have got rid of most of the worst effects, which included neck pain so bad I was getting splitting headaches and having to sleep much of the afternoon.

I know your situation will be different, but when you're finished asking strangers on the web, see if there are pros who have more to say. Sports medicine, musicians' medicine, and all sorts of PT can possibly help.

Edited: March 16, 2021, 11:43 AM · Thank you so much everyone for your advice!

I should have added I’m in Europe, not in the US.

Yes, I see a physiotherapist weekly, always have, and that weekly appointment keeps me at my tolerable, but unsatisfactory level of comfort. I have also recently had Botox injections in my head, neck and shoulders to help with migraines (stemming from the same surgery) and I hope they may have some impact on the cramping in my hand. I should be more active, I always do better when I am, do group classes, yoga or Pilates and stuff, but everything’s cancelled due to the bug.
Thank you so much for the Feldenkreis video suggestion, that could work, I’ll check it out. Also will check out what hypnosis might do for me.

I’d love to have my kids play with friends in ensembles, but again, everything’s cancelled and will remain so until after the summer. There is a recital planned in June, and middle child is supposed to play the Bach double with her best friend, but we don’t know whether it can even go ahead. We have only had two weeks of lessons back in person, and are expecting things to close down again after Easter, because the third wave is picking up speed and the vaccination campaign is stalling. A face to face lesson for myself seems like an unimaginable luxury. Maybe when All This is over. Or at least better.

Love “my sovereignty as a parent!” I will have to introduce that concept to my insurrectionist kids!

I’m afraid I can’t imagine dredging up to energy to learn the cello. Wouldn’t I need to stretch my left even more, and and establish that ear hand connection from scratch? Too daunting! I’m sure it’s different when you’ve played various instruments before, and can choose which one works best with your limitations (for me that’s voice, lol).

March 16, 2021, 11:40 AM · I remember the time when I felt my life consisted of a sofa! Immediately checked out LA-Z-BOY and they appear currently unavailable where I live. I am trying to not be on the sofa so much, and be more active. Summer helps, too.

I should like to add that as I am unable to see a teacher at the moment, I have bought all the Simon Fischer books! I hope they will help me get more confident with my intonation, and make the most of my limited practice time.

I shall aim to do at least 3 minutes a day. I confess I pick up my violin to get a break from the home office!

A Handel sonata sounds like a great intermediate goal. Is there a specific one you’d recommend?

Edited: March 16, 2021, 12:03 PM · I also recommend finding a physical therapist who specializes with musicians, and/or a chiropractor with long experience with various soft tissue release techniques.

I've had a 1-level cervical spine fusion, a right shoulder full thickness rotator cuff tear (and other tears fixed at the same time), and a very arthritic left shoulder, left elbow, and both hands/wrists.

It's something of a miracle that I can play at all (I practice 5-6 days a week) - low intermediate level. I credit my chiropractor for keeping me moving and able to play. You absolutely have to have the right person, I've had physical therapists actually make matters worse. The key is to find the right professional(s), to help you get there.

I've also considered cello, but that presents other mechanical issues for me - and it was hard enough to learn to actually read the treble clef rather than to play by ear (which I'm still prone to do to my teacher's chagrin). If I really needed to change instruments due to my physical issues it would probably have to be to a non-string instrument.

March 16, 2021, 12:17 PM · All the 6 Handel sonatas are great. I and IV (A major and D major I really liked). You can try one that looks ike it does not tax your limitations.

They are available on IMSLP.org .

March 16, 2021, 1:01 PM · I agree with Andy Victor about the A and D sonatas, they are very beautiful pieces. Look for a lovely recording by Hiro Kurosaki, in which one or two of them are accompanied by organ. Gorgeous playing. There is a church in my town that has a loft organ with a small seating area and I have always wanted to do a little recital of Handel and anything else that's playable (for me) that would work well with organ. I don't know any local organists but I would presume to start with the staff organist at that church for a recommendation!

There is a solid reason why LA-Z-BOY chairs are not available in Europe. It is because they are huge things that occupy half of the average German living room. European homes are smaller than American homes and you cannot be furnishing your dwelling with such things. There may be European recliner brands, however, that may be a little smaller, perhaps Ekornes.

March 17, 2021, 2:30 AM · Alfons is a hoot! I have done two lessons already. I love that you’re allowed to be kind to yourself, not just suffer for the good of your body. It’s bad enough having to listen to my neck creak.

He’s actually only just over an hour away from me IRL. If I notice long term improvement, I might do a a group class once they’re possible again.

March 17, 2021, 2:32 AM · I have lovely, graceful, comfy French made recliners on my little patio which help me relax like nothing else. I can’t wait for sunny weather again. With a sheep skin and a blanket, they have worked even during a sunny spell in February.
March 17, 2021, 2:36 AM · @Catherine Kostyn, I have had a level C5/C6 vertebral fusion. If there is anything specific you can tell me about that helps you with this, I would love to hear it. Most exercises and techniques focus on functional issues, but irreversible damage is harder to compensate for.
Edited: March 17, 2021, 6:38 AM · There were no negative outcomes from my C4/C5 fusion, indeed I am very thankful the fusion was done. That being said, the rest of my neck is very arthritic (but stable for now), and I've mentioned my shoulder issues.

For me, what I've found critically important is my violin setup, position, and not practicing for large periods of time at once. Rather, several shorter sessions daily seems to be the key. No more than 40 minutes at a single time and I usually take a 5 minute break in the middle. Also tension does seem to aggravate everything but I'm sure you already know that.

March 18, 2021, 10:17 AM · Just ordered Suzuki books 6 and 7 - middle child will need them at some point anyway and I can check out the Handel sonatas. I’m good at ignoring any odd bowings and fingerings in the Suzuki editions I don’t like.

I notice no one is encouraging me to keep scratching at the Bach Presto and Prelude for my own enjoyment - do you all think it would be “sacrilegious” (spat out in imitation of TwoSet)?

March 18, 2021, 11:40 AM · I'm sort of surprised that the E major Prelude isn't causing pain for you--especially with all the 4th finger extensions and the broken chords in the middle of the second page... I was working on it for a while about a year ago and I stopped and decided to return when my hand was more flexible.

With the Presto you also have to organize your hand as if playing chords otherwise you cannot get it up to tempo.

Why not work on some of the D minor movements instead?

March 19, 2021, 12:52 AM · greetings,
i am not sure to what extent they are good or bad but the few advanced Suzuki pieces I have seen made me cringe in terms of fingerings and bowings .I think it is much better are to invest in a urtext editions of handle sonatas if you have reached this kind of level.
cheers
burp
Edited: March 19, 2021, 4:34 AM · @Jocelyn, everything is causing pain. :(

So I figured I’d start playing something I love, and that I can “hear” easily, because it helps with regaining automaticity in intonation. Having grown up steeped in Bach (not just on the violin, but also singing in a Lutheran choir, and working at a biennial Bach festival in my town), Bach sort of unfolds itself in wonderfully predictable ways for me. As I ratchet up the tempo of the arpeggi, I have noticed that my fingers start to rearrange themselves in chord positions. Whereas if I see a chord and try to play it, I immediately tense up all over and start to “crunch” them.

I looked at the D minor Allemande, too, just liked the other two better.

Edited: March 19, 2021, 2:55 AM · @Buri, there are a lot of bowings in the Suzuki Vivaldi editions I simply refuse to do. Ahistoric and amusical. It’s really my major quibble with the method, the quasi religious obstinacy in that respect (and don’t get me started on the mistranscriptions of German folk songs. Would it KILL them to correct “O come, little children”?)

Edited to say I wasn’t planning to send the thread down that rabbit hole, lol,
Is there an urtext or close-to-urtext edition you could recommend?

March 19, 2021, 3:25 AM · greetings,
sure. Henle is excellent.
cheers,
buri
March 19, 2021, 4:15 AM · Thank you.
March 28, 2021, 5:08 AM · I know! I need to switch to the Violincello da Spalla!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWRFqsxdq-4

I was looking for recordings of the cello suite Nr 6 (Suzuki violin book five) and discovered this beautiful five stringed instrument, sounding sooo much nicer than the modern cello to me. Apparently it’s the instrument Bach had in mind when he wrote Nr. 6.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wbH3JYfRjOQ

Now to find one...;)

March 28, 2021, 2:17 PM · If your fingertips are oversensitive, you might consider seeing if a trick used by musicians with fingertip cuts might work for you. Coat the fingertip with a small amount of superglue, or with liquid bandage. Make sure it has dried thoroughly. The protective layer might help reduce sensitivity.
March 28, 2021, 3:21 PM · Thanks, but it’s rather a lack of sensation I am feeling. Not having a good sense of where my thumb is in relation to my first and second finger, a lack of automaticity in intonation. As if that ear-finger connection has been cut, or rather disturbed - it’s not like I’m warbling out completely unrecognisable notes.
Surprise, more practice is helping! :)
Edited: April 13, 2021, 3:47 PM · I played with a cellist who had to relearn left-handed after a road accident. But I like the "spalla" idea!

But I imagine any re-education, of joints, muscles and nerve-endings must be very, very gradual (and very ingenious).

BTW I love your "lower hanging fruit of choir singing": I do that too, and in many ways I too am a better musician than violinist..

April 12, 2021, 2:23 PM · For the nerve pain, has your doctor put you on pregabalin?
April 12, 2021, 3:10 PM · I have cervical injuries and pinched nerves. Left hand numbness became a real issue. My solution was to learn how to play my viola vertically on my lap, like a cello. No more pain now, no more numbness. It's a steep learning curve at first but you can re-train your brain to do it.
April 15, 2021, 10:51 AM · @Aaron, I have tried neurontin, to no effect.

Though I think at this point it is muscle pain and numbness rather than nerve pain as such.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

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