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Playing with Pain

Question

Let me tell you a little about myself. I am a 33 year old biology Post Doc. I am playing the cello for just a hobby. I started learning it 14 years ago when I was much younger and full of power. Recently I suddenly noticed I am not young any more. I think the young age helped me to play the cello in a maybe violent way. Now I get tired in this way of playing. My both arms and wrists hurt pretty easily. I am wondering there should be easier way, because Casals could play the cello in such an old age. So I agree with the opinion "maybe we are making it more difficult than is necessary". I think your article will help me developing an easy way.

I understand that you reached a conclusion that both right and left arms should be moderately raised in order to make smooth changes. I have a question. Even though it is sometimes convenient to do that when making big shifts, or changing strings heavily, I think some music does not need this. Do you do the same thing in a passage like sul C or when only first to forth positions are needed? Are you saying that this position of the arms should be kept as an standard position? This is not a criticism. I am purely wondering I am getting your point.

Thanks for your help.

Answer

If you are in pain when you play, then there is something VERY wrong. Assuming that you are healthy, you should not be experiencing pain. 33 years old is not old at all, so don't blame it on your age. You need to figure out what's going on as soon as possible. You could cause yourself permanent injury!

I highly recommend you buy the book, "New Directions in Cello Playing," by Victor Sazer, which I described in the last newsletter. This book helps you analyze your posture and arm positions to discover points of tension in your body. One interesting thing he says is "Many cellists believe that pain cannot be avoided. Finding no physical relief from their performance-related pain, they are convinced that their art requires the sacrifice of their bodies. There are also many who believe that what is good for the body and the physical requirements of playing the cello represent an unresolvable dichotomy." Don't fall into this trap too!

Are you practicing regularly? If not, your cello muscles may not be in shape and may tire quickly. In this case you need to slowly build up your endurance over days and weeks. So don't sit down and practice for 4 hours after not having played for 3 months. Take a lot of breaks.

I would also recommend you play for a good cello teacher. Perhaps you need some help with your posture and arm positions that can be quickly diagnosed. It's always nice to have an objective observer.

And then you can always go to a doctor who specializes in musician's physical problems. They can sometimes be found at sports medicine clinics. I can relate to you saying that you used to play the cello in a "violent way." When I was younger, I also was known for "passionate" playing. I emulated (and exaggerated) Casals and the earthy style that I often heard or thought I heard in his records. But I also played with much tension and discomfort like you. This did me more harm than good in the long run.

I took to heart something Casals once said, "Break your cello! It is better to have character in what you play than to have a beautiful sound." (from Casals and the Art of Interpretation, by David Blum, pg. 13) However, this quote is perhaps more dangerous than helpful to a young cellist who hasn't learned much technique yet. I used it as an excuse to downplay the technical aspects of being a musician. I held myself back technically due what I now consider to be artistic arrogance.

Because of my attitude, I tended to thrash the cello. The sound was ugly and my technique was sloppy. It has taken me years to undo my old habits, which is still an ongoing process. Learn from my mistakes!

As for your question about playing with elevated arms... Yes, I advocate playing with elevated arms as a standard position. I state many reasons in my article in the Strad. If you watch any good cellist, you will notice this. Remember that "elevated" means raised to a natural level, not some extreme level. Per Claude Kenneson, in A Cellist's Guide to the New Approach, "When the bow arm is suspended the entire right-arm unit will feel weightless, and this is an ideal sensation for the cellist to deal with when making music. Once the arm is suspended, consider the mobility of these three major check points: the shoulder joint, the elbow, and the wrist...The movement of these checkpoints will display their free action and will dispel any TENSION."

The left arm should also be elevated at all times. You gain much freedom and facility with a higher arm. In addition the reasons stated in my Strad article, a higher arm prevents your wrist from being excessively bent, which can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, something I went through years ago before I discovered the errors of my ways. My arm was immobilized for weeks.

You bring up an example of playing on the C string. You ask if you need to have an elevated arm when you are playing on this string only. When you are playing on the C string, you especially need a high arm. This is so you can reach the string, which is way over on the right side of the fingerboard as you play.

I hope this has helped. Good luck!

Copy of a Letter to Victor Sazer

Dear Mr. Sazer,

It was a great pleasure to recommend your book. I have received several e-mails from people who have ordered it. I hope that this represents but a small sample of those who have actually sent their checks.

I have another thought about why cellists endure the pain in addition to the martyr syndrome (ie. we artists must suffer for Art). I have been chewing on the notion that Pablo Casals may be responsible for excessively tense playing in some cellists. He is quoted in Casals and the Art of Interpretation as having said, "Break your cello! It is better to have character in what you play than to have a beautiful sound." He also introduced the notion of percussive fingers for cellists. If you listen to some of his later recordings, he seems at times to have followed his own advice a little too well. For those of us who tried to play like him, this may have done us long-term physical harm.

Cello teachers understandably reward "musicality" or playing with Life. Unfortunately, some teachers do not make sure that the Life is achieved in a healthy manner. I have a slightly messed up shoulder to prove it.

Tim Janof

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ICS Staff
Tim Janof, ICS Director
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