Playing the Violin Through Pain, Insurrection and A Broken Neck
The day after the insurrection, the pain started.
That morning, after a day of staring at a screen while my country was attacked, I was ready to seal myself off in the studio and solve another puzzle on the violin. Then, after 20 minutes of tuning, I realized that I couldn’t turn my head.
What the hell?
I limped around like a monster for a day or two, hunched over, turning my entire torso instead of my head. One question kept running like a chyron on a cable channel: “Am I too broken? Did I wait too long to play again?”
After decades of neglect, I thought, perhaps the violin was striking back.
A few days later, the violin gave its answer. After a half hour of tuning and fighting to get the fiddle to hold the pegs in place, I looked the instrument over.
Its neck had started to break away from its body.
The local violin maker told me that, after sitting idle, the glue had started to fail. As long as the instrument sits neglected, it holds together. The minute you place it under tension, it starts to fall apart.
I’m sitting here now, writing, for the first time ever, with my screen properly propped up at eye level. Now that the violin is in the shop, safely out of reach, I have an opportunity to investigate whether my tendons are, in fact, too brittle to handle the tension.
In the old days, we never talked about the pain. Perhaps the playing didn’t hurt as much when you were working under the guidance of a master instructor, who, at the worst moments, would shout out, “Stand up! Breathe!”
The idea of introducing a petty concern like pain into the teacher’s sanctum was like summoning a malevolent spirit into a warring household.
Interestingly, I’ve discovered that, in the modern era, violin-related injuries have become a subspecialty of sports medicine.
“Aha,” I thought. “I always knew this wasn’t good for you.”
Having made that discovery, however, I wanted to play even more.
Think about it: Sports medicine.
Physical therapists, on their blogs, refer to violinists as “small-muscle athletes.”
I thought so! When I was 20, I marveled that the university would reward or punish groups of people based on the muscles they used. While the college athletes feasted — and I starved — I wondered why things had to be that way.
However, reflections on strange cultural priorities in America weren’t going to stop my neck from hurting.
At 20, I would have found it odd that, decades later, I would desperately try to find a way to play the violin again.
The violin was a job to me, along with the waitressing and the hostessing. Why should I play again if it hurts me? Why should I even bother to fix the instrument, if the neck breaks off?
“I need to learn to take my eyes off the world. I have to stand up. Breathe.”
Well, the night the neck broke, something big happened.
I had a terrible practice session that week; I tried to play a children’s song but couldn’t stop grazing the wrong string. Every tone was flat; the bow was screechy. It was so bad, I thought I had lost every scrap of ability.
Then, on a whim, I dug into the old études. I found the hand-strengthening exercises — the bars and bars of drills that I used to see in my sleep.
These are the drills that propel you from the children’s songs to the concertos.
I played the song.
I played it, and that finger — that weak fourth finger — came to life. I saw it. I felt it. I remembered. At that moment, I knew I could do it. I could play again.
I walked away from that session — a fast 45 minutes — so crippled that I couldn’t turn my head, but I didn’t want to stop.
A quick dive into the string world’s physical-therapy babble revealed two fundamental truths:
1) Screen time kills.
2) Everyone warns that everyone else gives bad advice.
When I stepped back to consider what had happened on the first day that my neck froze, I thought of the insurrection. The seat of my government had been attacked, and I could not take my eyes off that scene until every malevolent spirit had been chased out of the temple of democracy.
It hurt my neck. It hurt everyone.
If that day showed me anything, it was that I needed to learn to take my eyes off the world. I have to stand up. Breathe. And — if the physical-therapy violinists are to be believed — keep my hips, my shoulders, and my head on straight at all times.
I don’t know if I will be able to continue to play. For some players — even those who don’t take a 25-year break — entering their fourth or fifth decade means that they have to consider spinal surgery. For me, that price would be too high.
In the meantime, I’ll try the balance thing — and lay on the Icy Hot.
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