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Suffer for your art?

 “It seems strange to me now that at that time I never thought where this pain was coming from; I just took it for granted and tried to cure it with massage and hot water bottles. I don’t know why it never occurred to me that there could be a solution for the pain.” - research student

Before the research, several students reported having had years of playing discomfort and/or pain.* Some of the students reported they had had to give up playing for a time in the past due to a playing injury. Most reported having chronic or often reoccurring pain or discomfort when playing. Complaints included headaches, jaw pain, neck pain, shoulder pain (right and left), back pain (often between the shoulder blades), and stiffness in the wrist or fingers.

*Although the participating musicians were young, violinists and violists begin playing their instruments at an early age, and the playing experience of our musicians ranged from 11 to 18 years, long enough to build up habits of playing for better or worse.

“Pain and tension is normal”
Some students reported that before the research they believed that “pain was normal” for violin and viola players, and as a result, they had not believed that it was preventable. They had not often talked about pain or discomfort with their colleagues, and only a few had discussed it with their violin or viola teacher. Tensed and stiffened muscles were also seen as the inevitable result of playing. Constant tension in the body often became the “usual state of things” and was no longer questioned.

“I thought it was normal to have so much tension in my body. If I had been playing the violin in the morning and I was riding home by train in the afternoon I would still feel it. I didn’t even relate it to the violin in my mind. Only when I discovered that it could be different did I notice that I had had all this tension in my body all this time.”- research student

Some students even viewed pain as a “good thing,” as an indication that they had “worked hard.” When this project gave them a chance to solve problems that cause pain, their attitudes to pain started to change.

“There must be something wrong with me.”
At the beginning of the research, some students expressed the idea that if you have discomfort, pain or technical frustration, it is because there is something wrong with you. When speaking of themselves they expressed concerns that their recurrent or persistent playing troubles came purely from their own shortcomings, such as “not very coordinated,” or “not talented enough.” Some thought they were “too small” or “too large” in general to play the instrument, while some felt they were “not strong enough” or “not subtle enough.” Certain body parts were also given the blame: necks were “too long,” arms were “too short.” Some even believed that they may have deformities that prevented them from playing well, such as, “weak wrists,” or “something wrong with my spine.” Often they only admitted to these feelings after the fact, when the circumstances that contributed to their troubles could be changed by practical solutions.

“I always knew that I had problems with the position of my body while playing the violin. It was the first thing teachers noticed in master classes and seminars. But unfortunately no one could tell me the source of my problems or what to do to solve them. Over the years I began to think that there must be something wrong with me, perhaps with my spine.” - research student

In the course of the research, most students reported being surprised that adjusting their equipment could improve playing comfort and technique. When asked at the beginning of the research where they had obtained their chin rest and shoulder rest, some students reported that the equipment had been on their instrument at the time of purchase. (This meant that they had not chosen the equipment themselves.) Attempts to change the equipment were often limited to changing only the shoulder rest or trying a new model chin rest recommended by a friend who often had a different build than the player. The idea of adjusting the equipment to suit the body type was unknown to them. Adjusting the equipment to position the instrument in the best position for playing had generally not been considered.

“If you are a good player you don’t have any problems.”
It was also clear that the students had not been in the habit of thinking about their bodies in relation to their instrument. They seemed to think that if they were talented enough and worked hard enough, they should not need to think much about their equipment or their body.

“I think that violinists are not aware of their body because we aren’t usually taught to be. Even if for me the result is back pain and for someone else it is arm pain, they are all coming from the same reason:  not experiencing the human body very clearly.  I think this awareness is the starting point for solving our problems. We need to improve our ability to perceive.” – research student

Working with other students and with the research team of teachers, the players changed their thinking, beginning to suspect that physical or technical difficulties are not all due to lack of talent, or physical deformity or shortcomings, but the result of ill-fitting equipment and playing habits that can be changed. They discovered that they themselves were not the problem,but perhaps there was a problem that they could solve.They re-thought larger issues (like injury and discomfort) that are often taboo in the music field, and reached the conclusion that playing comfort and good technique can go together, that musicians need not suffer for their art.

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