Fiddling with injuries

by adminKFS on · 6 comments

For the past 3 years, I’ve been dealing with chronic neck and shoulder pain. It started very soon after I enrolled at Berklee. At first it was tolerable. I sought help in physical therapy but after working with two different physical therapists my improvement was minimal. This past summer, after teaching at four week-long camps, I knew I was in trouble when I could not raise my right arm above my head. I finally made a point to ensure I was getting the proper help. I saw a shoulder specialist who referred me to a great physical therapist. I also found a great massage therapist. As of yet, I do not have the problem officially diagnosed as anything in particular, other than chronic muscle tightness and pain. But I do feel I am headed in the right direction.

I’m certain that just because I started to show symptoms at Berklee, the problem did not begin there. One of my private lesson instructors discovered that I had a habit of squeezing the fiddle tightly between my right shoulder (I play left handed) and my neck. I played for twenty years like this so it was no surprise that I was extremely tense in these areas. It took the change of playing from 1-2 hours a day before going to school at Berklee, to playing 6-7 hours a day to notice what this bad habit could do to my body. I wondered why I played like this. Another instructor noticed that my shoulder rest was not contacting correctly to my body so that I had a gap between the shoulder rest and my collar bone. I compensated by squeezing tightly for all of those years.

In addition to this bad habit, I did not take part in any other activities that counteracted playing the violin: no sports, almost no stretching or anything of the sort. I’ve come to the conclusion that the pain in my neck and shoulders is not going to be an easy or quick fix, but rather a lifestyle change.

I am relearning how to play without squeezing. Not easy. But I finally found a left handed shoulder rest and that has helped. When I play, I make sure to take breaks and stretch. I’m also increasing my physical activity and I devote much more of my day stretching and staying active.

Everyone’s body type is different and not everyone experiences injuries despite years of playing and bad habits. The first step to preventing injuries is being aware of your body. If you experience pain, where is it occurring? Are you playing with unnecessary tension? It is very valuable to have a teacher watch you play to look for any inefficiencies. Does the pain occur after a certain amount of time when playing? Taking breaks is always a great idea and be aware of your body’s limits.

For beginners, awareness is especially important. The violin is such an awkward instrument to play, and not being comfortable leads to unnecessary stress on the body.

I’m definitely not an expert on musicians’ injuries, but I am speaking from my own experience. Being aware and getting help as soon as possible is key to preventing chronic injuries. Also, take preventative measures before you experience pain. As musicians, we need to think of ourselves as athletes. Any serious athlete will warm up and cool down as part of their routine. As musicians, our bodies need the same thing.

Here are some resources on the web about common musicians’ injuries:

Also check out this book:
The Athletic Musician: A Guide to Playing without Pain by Barbara Paul and Christine Harrison, The Scarecrow Press Inc, 1999


April 21, 2011 at 7:32 am, Kira McLaughlin said...

Thanks Kimberley…very useful information and not frequently addressed. As a beginner, I have often found myself playing with more tension than necessary. Self imposed I guess as I try to keep command over all. Wish there was a checklist of simple do’s and don’ts to follow.

April 21, 2011 at 9:00 am, Kimberley Fraser said...

Hi Kira,
Yes, at the beginning stage, it is easy to have unecessary tension. Really examine to see where you might feel tension. You shouldn’t have to squeeze anything. This is common in the neck and shoulders but also in the fingering hand. This is where a good private instructor becomes important. A teacher can see where a student might have inefficiencies while playing and can address tension issues.

April 25, 2011 at 5:50 pm, Shona McMillan said...

Hi Kimberley, I was interested to read your Blog. Some years ago I had a number of problems with pain, at one point I was even diagnosed with a slipped disc but actually the problems were caused by my posture when playing the violin. Finally, playing in front of a fiddler who specialised in the Alexander Technique he told me to relax, play – and then removed the fiddle from under my chin. I was shocked to see that one shoulder was amazingly high compared to the other… A new shoulder rest and a new chin rest sorted the problem. In addition to exercise such as swimming (strengthening all muscles) and walking, (relaxing my spine). These days I do not play very regularly (sometimes two or three times a month instead of every day). Therefore, when I do get the urge to ‘play for hours’ it can ache a bit afterwards (hardly surprisingly) but I do try to stretch before and after I play and whilst playing I REALLY make an effort NOT to slouch but sit with my back well supported, feet firmly on the floor, upper body not hunched in. It took me a long time to correctly diagnose what was at the root of my problems but once I did – life has just got better and better. Your music is wonderful Kimberley so I wish you much success in dealing with the aches and pains that can come along but with some thought and the right attention, can be minimised. Pleased to hear your pain is not as bad as it was. Wishing you goodluck and saying well done on addressing this problem in your blog.

    May 5, 2011 at 2:59 pm, Kimberley Fraser said...

    Thanks for your thoughts, Shona! Being caught up in the music we are playing, it’s so difficult to be aware of how we are playing in terms of our posture.

April 30, 2011 at 10:53 am, Bink Williams said...

Thanks for bringing up this topic and glad to hear that you’re finding some answers. It seems that most of the folks that I work with as a neuromuscular therapist have tried to build up from the bottom, that is the shoulder rest instead of the chin rest. I have recently started using the SAS chin rest with the regular height Comfort shoulder rest. Seems to be the perfect combo for me. Love the website. Thanks.

May 5, 2011 at 3:00 pm, Kimberley Fraser said...

Great to hear from you Bink. Thanks for your comment. The chin rest is something I need to look into. Difficult to find them for lefties!

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