We musicians accept that there’s a certain amount of discomfort involved in playing our instruments. Whether it’s blisters for cellists doing a lot of pizzicato, repetitive motion stress for pianists, wrist problems for flutists, shoulder and neck pain for violinists, the list goes on and on.
What we don’t quite accept is that this leads to a fair amount of injury. There’s a great deal of avoidance of the topic, as if it might be cancer or mental illness. In conservatory, getting injured is viewed as a consequence of improper technique. In the professional world, it is seen as a career-killer. This stigma on playing-related injuries is apparent in the strange and alternative ways we often deal with them. Where an injured athlete would seek a sports-medicine doctor or physical therapist, a musician will enlist the help of an acupuncturist or a Reiki practitioner.
My own journey on the violin and piano has involved a good bit of pain and injury. I ignored an injury to my right hand, practicing through the pain until I couldn’t use my hand for six months. In college my left shoulder became so inflamed that I couldn’t even touch it without searing pain. Two months after joining the opera orchestra in DC, I had to have cortisone shots in my neck and shoulder to keep playing.
I’ve had years of Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais, acupuncture, and yes, even Reiki. I’ve also endured electric shock therapy (just on my arm) and plenty of psychotherapy. For a long time I was convinced that I was doing something fundamentally wrong on the violin. I would compare myself to so-and-so, who has never been injured – what does he know that I don’t? No shoulder rest, a higher shoulder rest, wrist vibrato, arm vibrato, higher chinrest, flatter chinrest – I tried every combination possible and spent a lot of time and money in my search for the Holy Grail of injury-prevention.
my collection of chinrests and shoulder rests
The lesson I’ve learned through all this is that there are two truths that we must face.
Truth #1: it’s possible to do everything right and still get injured. Playing an instrument is athletic, and spending many hours a day doing it is tough on muscles, tendons, and ligaments.
Truth #2: what I do with my body when I’m not practicing is almost more important than what I do while practicing.
After all, I really only practice for a couple hours a day. I spend a lot more time slumped in front of the computer. Even so, I treat my body as an athlete would. The better shape my entire body is in, the better able I am to deal with the demands of playing the violin. This is working so far. Strength training keeps my shoulder girdle and back strong so things stay in the right place whether I’m playing violin or checking my email. And when something hurts, I treat it and stop using it if need be.
my pain treatment arsenal
Have I stopped searching for the Holy Grail? Of course not. Even though I’m not in pain now, I just started seeing a chiropractor three times a week. I’ve ditched my shoulder rest and am currently trying out an arsenal of chinrests loaned to me by the violin setup guru Andrew McCann, who uses a custom chinrest built for him.
Andrew's monolithic chinrest
I might get one built for myself. But I’m no longer under any illusions that a certain chinrest or shoulder rest is the key to never getting injured. While I can make playing the violin more comfortable to a point, I accept that it is inherently an awkward endeavor – the only magic fix is to quit. Link to the Original