Days are Numbered...other instruments

Edited: July 5, 2021, 7:53 PM · I've spoken of my (very) arthritic left shoulder and fused neck here before. After all of the work I've done in the 2.5 years after returning to the violin after a 40+ year hiatus, I think my playing days are numbered. Time will tell, but no matter what I do my shoulder is becoming less and less tolerant of practicing. Just when I need to practice more...I'm currently working on the Vivaldi 3rd Mvt (Suz 4) and am finally feeling like I can start to play actual music! I know when to ignore pain when practicing and when to stop for the day - or when I can come back several hours later. There IS a difference...

I'm not giving up yet, and I see my teacher in person this week before he climbs into his RV for a month long trip (Zoom lessons will still happen). Perhaps my posture has changed, and he will tell me if it has.

So...I'm wondering. I've worked hard to learn how to actually read music rather than playing by ear - I've always been far better at playing by ear. I really hope I don't have to give up the violin! I've invested too much effort, time, and money, to easily do that. However, if my body forces that - I'm thinking about what instrument would be the most shoulder/neck friendly that uses the treble clef?

Pretty amazing how much the violin has loosened up my quite arthritic fingers :-)

Replies (41)

July 5, 2021, 7:55 PM · If you want violin tuning, there is always the mandolin. Guitar and lute are really nasty hard, but another option. Otherwise you have woodwind instruments.
July 5, 2021, 8:18 PM · Interesting story, when we moved when I was 13 and there wasn't an orchestra at school and my parents couldn't handle private violin lessons, I taught myself how to play the guitar. It just wasn't the same as the violin so it didn't last. Of course I didn't have a teacher.

I suspect it would need to be a woodwind of some type. A lute would be seriously cool though :-) my teacher tells me my hands are too small for cello and I don't think the position would be good for my shoulder.

July 5, 2021, 8:36 PM · Catherine, there's more than one way to hold a violin. You don't have to give it up. You just have to be willing to be a little unconventional.

Have you seen this?

And this!

Edited: July 5, 2021, 8:53 PM · 5 string open back banjo without a metal tone ring such as the Deering Good Time. Played two finger style (index finger and thumb and brush with the index finger nail). This opens up lots of good old music and fun open tunings. Two of my faves are The Little Rosewood Casket and the zillion variations of Angeline the Baker. The books and CDs by Wayne Erbson are user friendly and helpful. And for expanding reportoire for somebody who reads music, the book Rural Roots of Bluegrass is good.
July 5, 2021, 9:31 PM · Perhaps a fractional cello might work?
Edited: July 5, 2021, 9:54 PM · I presume you have already consulted a good physiotherapist, Catherine. . .They can make a world of difference, especially if you can find one who works with musicians. Like you, I also had a considerable hiatus which required some adjustment when I returned to playing in my 50s. There were several complex wrist, neck and shoulder issues which I was able eventually to overcome, thanks to a couple of very skilled physiotherapists.
July 6, 2021, 1:32 AM · Yes, do not quit if you really love it, unless it becomes impossible to play again. I am not planning to play the pan flute if I have a hand/wrist accident-I just expect not to have accidents or problems, and keep going on.

Best wishes, and hope you can help your pain with some help.

Edited: July 6, 2021, 1:56 AM · Arthritis will get me in the end. I began 10 years ago on guitar, which I gave up for the sociability of the uke (and the lack of need for bombproof fingernails!). But even a uke's barre work is painful for me. Violin is a good way of exercising the lefthand fingers.
July 6, 2021, 5:11 AM · Irish bouzouki uses lots of different tunings, including Gdae, as does tenor banjo.
July 6, 2021, 5:15 AM · My left shoulder has many things wrong with it that prevents it from moving in a normal fashion, and I do see folks for my shoulder/neck/elbow/hand issues but there is only so much that can be done.

I love making music - assuming what I do on the violin is actually musical :-) I do this for pleasure, sociability and to hopefully bring some small enjoyment to others. If I need to change instruments in order to do that when the time comes, I will. That may be now, or not. Time will tell.

I do have a decent alto recorder tucked away in a closet, but I prefer to stay with a stringed instrument of some kind if I do need to change.

July 6, 2021, 5:18 AM · Ron - I've not heard of that instrument, will check it out. There is also the Oud, unsure what the tuning is.
July 6, 2021, 5:36 AM · Look up Cello da Spalla?

For the violin or viola, pass a slim scarf behind the chinrest fittings, and tie it behind your neck: no raised shoulder or clamped jaw. And allow the violin to droop, even below the collarbone.

July 6, 2021, 6:20 AM · Lots of ways to alter how the left shoulder works with the violin if the alternative is not playing at all (of course work with pros to try this out)... You can play restless with minimal to no shoulder pressure, supporting the violin mostly with left hand, left thumb, and balance. You can go full period style and remove the chin rest too...I understand they use bow friction to assist balance?). You can play old fiddler style with the instrument against your front (though high positions might be rough), or even in your left elbow. Oh the simplest front, you might find bringing the instrument around to the front 45 degrees helps too. I have no idea which of these if any might work for you, but if there are any you haven't tried, worth a shot.
Edited: July 6, 2021, 6:31 AM · As to advice, the only thing that occurs to me is that the right combination of shoulder rest and chin rest may offer some relief. That's probably just repeating what others have said. I should think a flute would be as bad for you as the violin.

I'd rather have a tenor banjo than a 5-string. There's tenor guitar (4 strings). You can tune it to 5ths or standard tuning. And there's always the ukulele!

Edited: July 6, 2021, 6:51 AM · Francis - The only reason I've been able to play this long is I've the perfect SR/CR combination (I've a fused neck, a very tall neck and sloping shoulders - along with everything else). I'll be talking with my teacher tomorrow - we have a very full hour scheduled but this takes precedence.

Gordon, I didn't know there WAS a tenor banjo, or a tenor guitar. Interesting! The Zither is an interesting family of instruments to me as well. I've never considered the ukulele, but right now I'm looking at all of my options - both with the violin and outside of it.

Adrian - that's an interesting idea, will look into that. It sounds like it might require an extension of my left arm to reach the lower fingerboard and that likely wouldn't be an option (I've a petite frame and yeah, my elbows have issues as well).

I really appreciate the ideas and thoughts, if there are others please keep them coming.

July 6, 2021, 6:53 AM · Give the recorder a chance, Catherine! It's what I'm doing at present as apparently I have torn the left tendons. The recorder is quite light and painless, and the alto is the one with most repertoire and lowest family/friends refusal-factor. Singing is also good for posture! Nevertheless, like you, I am missing the violin.
Edited: July 6, 2021, 7:11 AM · My two favourite tenor guitar vids: -

Lawlor's tuning is, I'm fairly sure, Bb,F,C,G, i.e. a slack version of the usual CGDA.
The other guy can't sing to save his life, but I like his demo of triads. I don't know who he is. Maybe he's famous

July 6, 2021, 7:22 AM · Very cool Gordon, thanks!

Richard - I do like the recorder - especially the Alto. It used to have quite the high profile and there is a lot of rep for it - pity in recent decades so many associate it as a children's instrument and not a "real" instrument.

July 6, 2021, 7:34 AM · Here's another vote for the recorder. There are lots of unaccompanied works - Telemann fantasias, variations by Jacob Van Eyck - as well as sonatas. If you know other recorder players, there's also a huge amount of repertoire for two or more recorders, some of which crosses over to violin (Telemann sonatas for two recorders, both canonic and non-canonic.)

Since you already play guitar, if you decide to go for a uke, may I suggeest the baritone? It's basically the top four strings of a guitar.

Edited: July 6, 2021, 7:46 AM · if you left shoulder is the problem but your right shoulder is okay then you might consider the flute too. It takes a while to "get" the embouchure but you will get more expressiveness out of it than you will the recorder.

Whatever you do that's not the violin, it will be different. Sorry for being "master of the obvious" but my point is that you should really decide whether you're married to treble clef. The cello is much less taxing on the body and it's a stringed instrument where a lot of what you've learned on the violin about intonation, tone generation, bow distribution, etc., will carry over very well. There's a huge literature for the cello including chamber stuff. I took up viola late in life (ca. age 50) already knowing both treble and bass clefs since I play the piano too. It was mildly annoying to learn a new clef (alto clef), but you'll find that your brain "locks in" to bass clef pretty quickly because you already understand the relationships between two pitches that are both between lines (a third or fifth), etc. Most of piano sight-reading relies on those relationships -- you just know what an octave looks like, you don't really think about it. I predict that by the time you've figure out the fingering on the cello to play two-octave scales in a few keys, you'll have mastered the clef.

Edited: July 6, 2021, 8:04 AM · If you were concerned about your hand size for cello, a 3/4 size may work. To find out, you can spread your left hand fingers out. Measure the distance between the tips of yournindex finger and pinky. If it's more than 5 inches, a full size should he fine. Less than 5 inches, and you would probably he more comfortable on a smaller size.
Edited: July 6, 2021, 10:19 AM · Gordon, The tenor banjo is for an entirely different kind of music than the 5-string. The music for the open back 5-string is more like classical violin playing in that it is a solo music with variable tempo and intent. Tenor banjo is mostly for ensemble playing of dance music.
Edited: July 6, 2021, 10:55 AM · Few will ever admit this, but the standard way a violin is held is a very difficult contortion on the left arm joints. The amount of time violinists spend searching for the right chinrests and shoulder rests and the amount of threads here devoted to physical therapy indicate (to me) that it's not so easy on our bodies. How many clarinetists have to work their way through a maze of adaptive equipment in order to play without pain?

I'd suggest again that before considering switching to cello or any other instrument, take the instrument you already have and love, put it on your lap, run your fingers up and down the fingerboard and bow it like a cello. Don't worry if it sounds awful (it will, at first). Just see if your neck and shoulder hurts.

If you have no pain, then it'll only take a few weeks of practice to relearn how to play it. If you still have pain, then you saved yourself the expense of buying a cello. This is an experiment you can do right now.

If you're only playing for the fun of it, then you don't need to worry about what it looks like. You can just keep on having fun.


Edited: July 8, 2021, 2:24 PM · Cathryn, Adrian's note about a scarf brings to mind the eminent Baroque violinist Enrico Onofri in this video:

Note that he doesn't use a chinrest or shoulder rest, as they are unnecessary with his setup.

I like his flourish at the end when he takes the applause.

July 6, 2021, 12:12 PM · I am wondering about Catherine's thoughts about continuing on violin, but with an unconventional, but not unheard of, posture--as suggested by Amrita, Adrian, and Francis??
Edited: July 6, 2021, 12:20 PM · Keeping track of all the suggestions, thanks! If I'm able to stick with the violin I hope to eventually be able to join a small chamber group. Sadly, I don't think my teacher's adult ensemble will survive the pandemic- but time will tell.

If I should have to change instruments then I will give myself permission to consider all options, including clef. Hadn't considered the flute, and that may not be a viable option given my right shoulder. My first love is strings though, the entire gamut, from zither to violin!

I did shoot my teacher a note so as not to surprise him tomorrow and give him a chance to think.

July 6, 2021, 12:20 PM · I also had back problems. I now use a Happynex type sling with an extended shoulder rest. I can play without using my head.
I plan to do a video very soon.
July 6, 2021, 12:20 PM · I also had back problems. I now use a Happynex type sling with an extended shoulder rest. I can play without using my head.
I plan to do a video very soon.
Edited: July 6, 2021, 12:30 PM · My friend made me a bouzouki to my own specifications, he is very talented, he alao made an oud, I had never heard of them but I know he didnt have it tuned like a violin. Irish bouzouki is the same as gReek but tHe back is flat and it always has four courses of two stringS each, like I said lots of different ways to tune it, itWas broughtto Ireland in the sixties and adapted for session playing Both folk and trad Irish. Tenor banjo is widely used as a lead instrument in Irish traditional music, there are a short and long scale versions, there are various tuning for this instrument as well, but Gdae is popular and is the tuning that I mostly use. Maybe short scale would suit you, very pleasurable to play especially once you master the very fast triplets, take a look at gerry o connor on you tube, he is impressive
July 6, 2021, 12:26 PM · "Sadly, I don't think my teacher's adult ensemble will survive the pandemic- but time will tell."

Why don't you organize your own? Then you are not limited to including students of just one teacher.

July 6, 2021, 1:14 PM · Following with interest and compassion. My new violin has helped with neck/shoulder issues, but I am always on the brink of “this isn’t sustainable”

A string instrument that is played with completely different posture and movements: hammered dulcimer?

Edited: July 6, 2021, 2:48 PM · Ron - a bouzouki is a wonderful instrument (I'm accustomed to the Greek rather than the Irish version), I don't know which I prefer between it and an oud. I also love the Russian balalaika - it gets fast! I love the sound of the oud - those double strings produce a wonderful sound. (Balalaika) (Oud)

Paul - I don't think I'm advanced enough to pull a group together - basically I'm an "advanced beginner" - or at least that's what I consider Suzuki 4. Some day, whether it's the violin or some other instrument I would like to do just that.

Lenore - I love that the hammered dulcimer is the precursor to the piano. I also love the sound...I do wonder how heavy they are to be easily portable (easy enough to find out). I've lusted...errr...looked at the Dusty Strings website in the past and chatted about hammered dulcimers here before. As much as I like most instruments in the Zither family - I just don't care for the mountain dulcimer. Can't say why

July 6, 2021, 2:48 PM · Mando, banjo, guitar... Harpejji? I've always wanted to try a Harpejji myself.
Edited: July 6, 2021, 3:00 PM · Catherine, sorry to harp on about this, but you still have not addressed the suggestion of playing the violin in a non-conventional way as suggested (amongst others) by Amrita (see comment ~35; take a look, she provided some links).

One way is to hold stand the violin on your knee (chinrest end down) and play it like a very short cello. I knew a cellist that played the violin in a good community orchestra like this!

Edited: July 6, 2021, 3:49 PM · Elise - I will be trying that AGAIN after tomorrow's lesson. It's a very interesting idea and it would be great if it works. My first attempt left my right hand and going numb, but I may have done something wrong (just tried it)...

I would prefer to stick with the violin and someday take on a second instrument rather than to set aside all of my work of the last 2.5 years. The violin has always been my first love.

I've a list started of the various suggestions, and I very much appreciate all of them. I'm very thankful for the support from everyone on this list.

Edited: July 6, 2021, 6:14 PM · There are many wonderful suggestions, however most would require learning a new instrument.
If you switched to mandolin, everything you know and have learned can be applicable to mandolin. Gaining added finger stretch and strength will be of assistance, should you decide to return to violin at any point.
It is a very versatile instrument, capable of lots of music, from Bach to Jazz and everything in between.
Edited: July 6, 2021, 6:35 PM · Jeff - those are good thoughts about the mandolin. Hopefully between the good tips here, and working with both teacher and physio-folks I can stay with the violin. It might not be a bad idea to have a mandolin or something similar as a second instrument with which to give my body something different to work on as a break. There is at least one local store that specializes in these and related folk instruments, so if I decide to do this I won't need to order blind from the internet.
July 6, 2021, 7:04 PM · Sorry to hear this, Catherine. All the best with your musical endeavours - I'm sure, given your passion and persistence, you'll find a solution or a different outlet.

I have to agree with Amrita (above) who talked about the unnatural contortion the violin posture is for our bodies. While many people have had success with physios and Alexander technique etc. in addressing painful postures, physical ailments in the profession are common.

After playing since I was 6 (now late 40s), and after only a couple of short hiatuses (3 years and 1), I can say that after one year not playing (and not playing golf as well it has to be said), my back, wrist and finger pains have all gone. The back issues were quite chronic, so this is leading me to wonder whether returning to the violin is worth it. It is sad, given like you I have invested a lot of my life and resources into it.

I don't regret a single moment with the violin. It has led to so many amazing experiences and wonderful music-making. But maybe, like you, I've just come to a point in the road...

I'm thinking about picking up the mouth-organ, actually (no joke), and will maybe return to fiddle (not classical) in a couple of years to see where my body is at, but at this stage, I'm too loathe to risk returning to the back issues, which prevent all kinds of other pursuits.

July 6, 2021, 7:21 PM · Piano - for much more possibilities for solo and ensemble music making. You could even progress to vicariously making violin music with another. There's nothing to lift / bear other than your own arms (but you do need to bear them). The musical development that can come from carrying two lines at once, and then maybe three, or four, is something that comes most easily with such instruments.

Unfortunately, unless you go to a similar string instrument, and even then, much of your physical learning won't be directly transferrable, but then again, so what? The physical learning is generally different, and potential easier on most instruments. Pick the instrument that you'd like to play, not something that you think is most easily transferrable.

July 7, 2021, 7:05 AM · I keep returning to that video Amrita posted with the "Impossible Duet" I've been trying as far as possible to polish a piece for my teacher later today and then I will give that position a shot.

This discussion has given me much food for consideration. I will post how the experiment with different positions goes later.

Edited: July 7, 2021, 5:23 PM · My teacher saw something today that might actually explain why my shoulder has been so very unhappy recently. He said the chest side of my violin must be at least .25 inches taller - it's at too much of an angle. He knew how hard it was for me to find something that my neck was happy with...and my shoulder was fine with it until I needed to start practicing longer. He really likes how my Wolf Forte Secondo fits otherwise - the shoulder side is fine (it's almost as low as it will go) and the chest side is literally as tall as it will go. Bill drew my attention to the fact that even with the current setup, my instrument is almost vertical.

I THINK the Wolfe Forte is tallest SR available - and I wouldn't want to change models anyway. I may need to visit a machinist. Simply using a sponge or cloth won't work as it's not the shoulder side that's the problem.

As far as replacing my instrument is concerned - I really hope that isn't necessary, but if it is it will either be a hammered dulcimer, a zither, or a mandolin. But not today, though one of those will likely be added at some point anyway :-) I am hopeful, as this makes mechanical sense.

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