Violinist Pamela Frank and physical therapist Howard Nelson are both well acquainted with pain, which they spoke about in tandem on Monday, Sept. 24, at their “Fit as a Fiddle” wellness workshop on in the lower level of The Music Complex. Monday’s discussion featured Frank’s journey through muscle injury that she corrected not through invasive surgery, but through collaboration with Nelson, who specializes in body positioning and movement to correct patients’ muscular strain.
Recalling her performance at the Library of Congress in 2012, Pamela laid bare her history with muscle pain and performance.
“It sounded good,” Frank said. “But I could not move. I couldn’t feel my whole left side” through the rush of adrenaline, and “it took me two years to recover.” Posture, flexibility and spatial awareness, Nelson said, all contribute to one’s ability to use their muscles with precision and alignment.
“If you have pain coming down out of … your neck,” he said, “it has to have an opening, and that’s the space between two vertebrae.” Pointing out the loosely rounded structure of the spine, Nelson said, “If you violate those curves excessively, repeatedly, for long periods of time, there’s a chance that your disks will be bothered.”
“If you keep your head and spine in neutral, everything else moves instead” Frank added.
When asked how to combat habits that lead to injury, Frank said, “Divorce your body from your music-making. And by that I mean your… emotions and your passion and your excitement. It’s not your body that’s making the music inside of you, it’s… the rhythm, the meter, the key.”
In her case, Frank needed to “re-learn how to walk” in order to feel the full effects of her improved posture. She raised her arms when waiting in line at the grocery store or otherwise occupied so that she could work against the shoulders’ downward slope established during long hours of violin practice.
During the course of 2012-2014, Nelson helped Frank develop her serratus anterior muscles, which bring the arms above the skull, away from their resting position. Muscles that are used more often than others move in a way that compensates those that are not used as often. Stretching the serratus reduces tension in the shoulders, Nelson said, because “a muscle will get longer if you constantly stretch it… so we develop knots in this area” to prevent overextension. These knots further contribute to muscle damage over time.
“I basically live up here” Frank said, elbows out and hands placed squarely on her head.
Kevin Hsu, 26, who is working on his second year graduate certificate, said that his “body is physically involved” when he plays the viola, and he volunteered for a demo after the discussion where the speakers illustrated how Thornton School of Music students and aspiring musicians can use the camera on their phone or computer to determine problems in positioning and corporal alignment.
Other ways to improve performance listed in the event handout included taking breaks every 20-30 minutes during practice to avoid accumulation of tension in the shoulders and other areas, keeping one’s feet on the floor when sitting and using the lightest case possible to avoid unnecessary strain when transporting instruments.
“We all power through (pain),” Pamela Frank said, asking her audience not to mistake playing through bodily discomfort for perseverance. The violinist noted that students should seek professional help before injuries progress and complications worsen. Adding to this, Howard Nelson, quoting to the words of Allan Fox, an inspirational writer and former tennis player, said, “Embrace risk as one of the exciting parts of play,” whether that means learning a new fingering or changing one’s gait. “You’ll be less prone to missing,” Nelson concluded. “And have fun.”
USC has a medical hotline for performers who are experiencing pain, and healthcare by the Center for Performing Arts Medicine at the USC Department of Orthopaedic Surgery is provided under student insurance. This service can be accessed by calling (213) 821-6950, and further injury can be prevented by communicating with teachers and staff on campus.