The Violin Channel recently caught up with American violin virtuoso, VC Artist Stefan Jackiw.
In a VC-exclusive guest blog, Stefan talks us through his personal experience physically and mentally recovering from a potentially career limiting injury:
“A few months ago, The Violin Channel asked me if I would write about my experience being injured.
I’ve put off writing about this period in my life, both because revisiting the experience brings back stressful memories, and also because I wanted to be sure that I could tell my story in a way that could be helpful for other violinists dealing with injuries.
In September of 2012 I injured my neck through a nasty fall while running in Central Park.
This injury caused me to lose significant strength and coordination in both my hands.
In an instant, I went from performing concertos and recital programs around the world to being unable to play the violin for more than thirty minutes without dropping my bow, and being unable to get through a simple scale without losing coordination in my left hand.
I was forced to stop playing the violin altogether for six months and cancelled all my concerts for nearly a year.
Over the course of the next five years, with the help of a brilliant physical therapist, I gradually healed.
My hand strength and coordination fortunately returned, and I’ve been able to resume my life as a performing violinist.
Here are two important things I learned along the way:
1. Listen to your body.
While the proverbial straw that broke this camel’s back was a fall during a run, I now believe that years of playing the violin with an unhealthy posture took a physical toll on my body and made me much more susceptible to seriously injuring myself.
The more I think about everything leading up to this, the more convinced I am that the big culprit for me was the decision I made at 17 to begin to play without a shoulder rest.
Back then, I took a few lessons with a violin teacher who was dogmatic in his insistence that the only way to correctly play the violin was without a shoulder rest.
He pointed out, correctly, that all my violin heroes at the time – Heifetz, Milstein, Grumiaux – played without a shoulder rest.
I remember this teacher once proclaiming, ‘It’s impossible to play in tune with a shoulder rest. Period.’ I was convinced.
So, I ditched my shoulder rest. I remember having significant neck pain for the first couple of months, but I convinced myself that this was just an ‘adjustment period’ and that the discomfort was a small price to pay to be on the road to playing like Heifetz.
The initial pain eventually went away, but the physical tension brought about by this shoulder-rest-less existence persisted and was reinforced through hours of daily practice.
I wish I could go back in time to tell my 17-year-old self that this obsession with playing without a shoulder rest is nonsense at best, and dangerous at worst.
There are of course so many violinists who play brilliantly with a shoulder rest, and so many who play brilliantly without a shoulder rest. And that’s precisely the point: each of our bodies is unique and no sweeping rule can possibly yield an ideal solution for every violinist.
I knew that switching to playing without a shoulder rest was causing me some pain, but I ignored all the warning signs that my body was giving me.
I pushed through because I was convinced that this was the best way to play the violin.
Now, I play with a shoulder rest, and it has made my body so much more relaxed. And I play equally in or out of tune as I did when I played without a shoulder rest.
No one can feel what you are feeling in your body. Be open to suggestions and don’t be rigid in your beliefs, but if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it, even if the person giving you advice is your teacher.
If someone is trying to change your bow grip, left hand position, or shoulder/chin rest setup and it causes pain, don’t blindly follow their advice.
2. The stigma around injury among violinists, and in the classical music industry in general, is harmful and misguided.
The majority of musicians I’ve spoken to who have dealt with an injury have felt pressured to keep their injury a secret.
I find that it’s usually for one of two reasons. Either the injured musician fears that others will attribute their injury to ‘bad technique’ and therefore will hold them in lower esteem if word of the injury gets out, or the injured musician worries that employers – whether it’s a symphony orchestra looking to hire a soloist or a contractor looking to engage a string quartet for a wedding – will be reluctant to hire them if they learn that the musician is injured.
So, we keep quiet about the fact that we’re injured. We’re vague. We say that we have to cancel a gig because we’ve come down with a cold, rather than because we have tendonitis and might not be able to play for several weeks.
Or worse, we force ourselves to play through the pain, thereby compounding the injury.
This shame and secrecy prevents musicians from having a healthy, open dialogue about injury prevention and treatment.
So, let’s just get it out in the open: getting injured doesn’t mean that you’re not good at your instrument or that you won’t heal and be a reliable hire down the road.
As I spoke to more and more violinists, I found out that nearly all of them, at some point in their career, struggled with aches and pains and physical issues caused by playing the violin, and have a massage therapist, or physical therapist, or acupuncturist on speed dial to help them deal with the injuries.
It’s just part of the life of a violinist.
One physical therapist I worked with for a while in New York City had a ‘wall of fame’ featuring nearly every top violinist from the last half century who had come to him looking for treatment and relief.
Most of these people never spoke publicly of their problems and, even as a ‘violin insider,’ I had no idea they were dealing with bad enough pain that they sought professional help.
I was fortunate that my managers (the people whose job it is to find me concerts and help me build my career) were totally supportive of my decision to cancel a year’s worth of concerts.
They told me to take as much time as I needed and never pressured me to get back to playing concerts quickly. I feel very lucky that they are such thoughtful, empathetic people.
However, a few classical music industry insiders warned me that I should keep quiet about the fact that I was canceling all these concerts due to an injury. ‘If people find out that you’re canceling because you’re injured, they’ll be reluctant to hire you in the future, because they won’t want to take on the risk that you might cancel on them as well.’
This mindset leads to more shame and secrecy, which leads to less open discussion about injury prevention and treatment, which leads to more injury, perpetuating a sad and unhealthy cycle.
So to sum this all up: if it hurts, don’t do it. If you get injured, don’t be ashamed or secretive. Tell people, seek help, minimize your practice time, get better, and go back to playing the violin in a healthier, more relaxed and sustainable way.