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Rehabilitation: Surviving the Heavier Side of the Equation

Jennifer Steinfeldt Warren • String Section • June 15, 2020

As effects of the ongoing pandemic (shelter-in-place orders, social distancing, general isolation) have been felt around the world, it has snagged us all in some way. No one is exempt from major changes in play. Music especially relies upon togetherness to exist – not only to make music, but to keep the musician in a healthy place, and to help us feel positive and play well.

Throughout life, we spend considerable time figuring out where our safeties and supports are, when to call on them, and how to appropriately use them (such as a crisis of faith regarding our music). In this, we use our supports to minimize the length of recovery and devastation to our confidence that made it necessary. We need the stability of others. When we can depend on them being there, we experience less anxiety with what might happen or be happening.

Coping and COVID-19

Our coping abilities determine not only how we fall, but also why we get back up! That which tears us down is a part of life. As years pass, one develops experience with the “post-performance precipice” (awfulness). But we move on, and we learn to understand and recognize the tools and seek support for a healthy rebound.

The current environment does not allow these networks of support that we depend upon. Coping will have less in common with our established system of support and self-management than ever before. We are distanced and isolated; we scramble to redefine our whole system of professional health and mental health. We are searching for positive ways to handle the uncertainty and fears that are a natural part of a career and life in an environment that is not natural, familiar, or predictable.

What This Means to the Orchestral Musician

There are some behaviors that occur when you start to experience the result of a technical problem (such as a really tight left hand, forced vibrato, neck or jaw pain, excessive upper arm tension).

Our response is usually aimed at destroying these sensations immediately. We are well-aware nothing like that happens immediately, but it’s still the natural response. The panic-induced gestures result in excessive effort (less is usually better with the right and left hand) and caused by fear of inadequacy that hits quite hard when you begin to experience indications of a deterioration of your playing.

Symptoms of things we do not desire to identify with and yet cannot deny are happening. Because we are teachers, it takes very little in the way of clues to alert us to the understanding that something is not right. And that is very, very scary. That fear is amplified right now. Previously, we had ways of managing this, especially if noticed before too much changed in our technique. Those things are not here for us now. We must consider this carefully and individually, provide ourselves with alternative resources to build a safety net, and have a plan of support to treat our playing and emotional health as illness.

Usually when we start to recognize that our playing needs attention, there are several actions to take in which our playing can naturally find its way back to baseline health as we increase the degree in which we musically engage.

The road back to having a healthy technique is to have a healthy schedule of playing, and to calm oneself. For example, when vibrato is not happening naturally as it usually does, instead of breaking down the vibrato issue, build a (stable) bow stroke, and get the body to feel the looseness that happens when you are at your most comfortable.

Focus on letting your body just be. Be ¨lazy.¨ Keep the left hand from trying. Let it avoid vibrato and just let yourself be ok with the time it takes to unclench when you are playing and to get the scales loosen.

There isn’t anything you can do for the left hand that you don’t already have the skill and ability to do. Integrate later. All will come back if the muscles aren’t compromised and blocking the movements they know. That is why it feels so uncomfortable. It is important to know your skills are not gone. You don’t have to get them back. You are not incompetent. Stress can take away so much from us. But when we beat the stress, and feel easy, your playing will be easy.

Although not a part of your technique per se, as a part of the musician, I want to note that I also feel there is a time and place to not be loose, but rather to be as tense, brittle, pent-up, and graceless as the music behind the music. Music is full of all those things we are trying to fix, as well as those that we love, so let a little of that be felt and be in your playing. Then, let it go of it. The difference of what that feels like is the best guide I have ever thought effective. Do it wrong. Feel wrong. Do it right. Feel the difference so you can feel how to get there again and again.

What This Means For The Educator

I have a most amazing student with a disability of blindness. She plays viola in the school orchestra; it is a very large part of her life. She needs it. She memorizes her music complete with bowings and fingerings. When she comes up against something particularly challenging her response is to work harder. And harder still. Try harder. Do more.

It is a good way to persevere, but we have been struggling to know how she is going to manage and what will be expected of her. The reality is, there is nothing for her to prepare for now in her school orchestra, so she can’t just work harder.

My point is that we need to prepare ourselves and each other with a structured emergency plan to use when we need it. Probably it is needed yesterday. But having an organized and trusted journey to keep us within the normal ups and downs of life and musicianship will be essential to having that feeling that it will be ok. There is a way to get back in shape and back into the roles we feel most successful in. And we need to get a plan of action going for students so they don’t give up. If they can see a way back, they are more likely to have reason to keep on keeping on.

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