There’s something about moving to a new place that propels you forward a little bit. I tend to get especially excited about a change of scenery (and if I’m being honest, a change of weather since I’ve only ever lived in a cold, harsh northern tundra, putting on layer upon layer of clothing every time I had to leave my house for a gig or having to wait hours for my hands to thaw by the heater in a practice room). Ok, I’ll admit that was a little dramatic (it was one hour of thaw-time), but the long summer, fall, and spring seasons in Oklahoma do not hurt one bit. And hey, at its best, it even kind of looks like Michigan!
Photo of a beautiful bike path I found near my house. I have already geeked out about this to many of my friends and family.
This relatively big move was prompted by one major impact on my life as a musician: my never-ending struggle with the tension and soreness of left shoulder, arm and hand. As a violinist and a left-handed person, this has been a source of frustration for as long as I can remember. While here, my goal is to pinpoint my problems, hopefully get them squared away, and figure out how to best communicate these issues to other people out there who might have similar struggles.
I am a little over a month into my studies with Professor Hal Grossman at the University of Oklahoma where I hold the illustrious title of “unclassified grad student” (which basically means not a student, but I get to take lessons and access the practice rooms). As I spoke about in my previous post a few months back, Mr. Grossman specializes in “identifying and relieving unwanted tension” which is exactly what I’ve been looking for.
The first few weeks were quite difficult because I had to essentially rebuild the muscles in the third and fourth finger of my left hand. This meant playing in very short bursts and stopping immediately if it felt I was straining too much. How I played before I started working those muscles I don’t know, but whatever I was doing was putting unnecessary stress on my thumb and my upper two fingers. I also didn’t fully understand what my left thumb was for or how it should be positioned on the side of the neck. I was pressing the finger print, rather than the side of the thumb, into the neck. Pressing the side of the thumb makes it less likely to grip and enables the patch of skin that is touching the violin to stay consistently loose and in line as you move across strings and change positions.
On top of this, my wrist had a tendency to jut out which was making it harder for my fingers to reach the strings. That was especially troubling to discover because I have been telling my students not to jut their wrists out in lessons for a long time, but apparently I had not been practicing what I preached.
One of the biggest challenges I’m facing is having to practice less than usual until my hand and arm have built the new muscles and my brain has processed this new approach. I have to be careful not to fall into the old, destructive patterns that were ingrained after all my years of practice. In some ways it feels like starting all over again, though I can feel myself progressing more rapidly.
Already in the last month I have started to notice a difference in my physical well-being. It helps that I’ve also made time for myself to do a daily yoga practice (check out Yoga With Adriene for the best YouTube yoga series I have found). I have also been careful to stretch for 5-10 minutes before and after I play, something that I wasn’t always consistent about before. Did you know that muscles actually get stronger and more responsive when you stretch them before an activity like playing an instrument? I didn’t.
I have a ways to go in playing completely pain-free, but with the quick progress I’ve already made I’m hopeful that this year will prolong my future as a violinist and help me to be a more effective teacher to my future students.
More updates to come as the journey continues…
Along with many musicians, I have dealt with muscle tension as a result of my violin playing for a long time. I hope that this blog will be useful to those dealing with similar issues as I talk through my ongoing journey to play my instrument pain free.