Surviving Orchestra Concerts by Bailey Firszt

In my fourteen-year career as a violist, I have played few orchestra concerts during which I wasn’t in pain for some portion of the performance. Perhaps you’ll recognize this scenario: you’re about thirty seconds into the slow movement of a symphony when you start to feel pain creeping into your upper back. Another minute goes by, and your right arm is getting tight too. By the end of the movement it’s all you can do to keep playing, and you’re desperate to reach a few measures of rest so that you can put down your viola. If this description sounds a little too familiar, perhaps the following tips will be helpful to you. In the three years that I’ve spent recovering from my playing injury, I’ve developed some tricks for alleviating pain during a performance that have significantly improved my orchestra experience:

If your back hurts . . . First, try to breathe deeply. This will allow oxygen to reach the stressed muscles and release some of the tension you’re holding in your back. Keep in mind that back pain can often be attributed to a lack of support—instead of supporting with our abdominal muscles, we put all the stress on our back to hold us upright. It’s easy to get stuck in this position, especially during a slow, quiet movement. To fix this, I sit with my back all the way against the back of the chair to lessen some of the work of maintaining good posture. Then, I use my abdominal muscles to support my back—think about sucking in your stomach (to put it another way, imagine bringing your bellybutton to your spine), and then only do about 10% of this muscle contraction. It’s a very small adjustment, and if you find it difficult to remain in this position, then you’re probably contracting too much. But just this small amount of support from other core muscles will make a huge difference. In fact, try to get in this habit whenever you’re playing, and you’ll find that your posture will improve after just that small change. However, don’t force your back to be straight, as this will just bother it more. Use the chair to support from behind and your abdominals to support from the front. (I should add that sitting all the way back in your chair might not be ideal for shorter violists. However, players of any size can benefit from supporting with their core!)

0205a bellybutton image

Don’t let this happen to you.

You can also help support your back with your feet and legs. I find that crossing my ankles and putting them slightly to the left of my body helps push my back up against the chair and support me. Ivo, who is almost a foot taller than I am, likes to put his feet under the chair rather than flat in front of him. It all depends on your makeup, but our resident orchestral expert, Joan DerHovsepian, recommends thinking about always keeping your hips above your knees no matter what your height.

The suggestions above take the approach of LESS movement—staying in one, stabilized position that doesn’t require much work to stay supported. But you can also try the opposite approach, which is to be in a constant state of (even the slightest) motion. Experiment with both ways and find what works best for you!

If your neck hurts . . . I don’t know of any perfect fix, but there are a few small tricks I use to release tension. First, I lift my head slightly off the chin rest whenever possible to release tension from clamping my head too tightly to the chin rest. You can do this motion while playing, during passages with open strings or tremolo. During rests, I put my viola down and let my head drop forward slightly to stretch out the back of my neck. You can also roll your head and your shoulders in this position as well as with your head up.

If your left arm hurts . . . This one is tough, because you can’t always stop to shake or stretch out your left hand. If there are no rests in sight, I keep my eye out for spots with open strings where I can literally open up my hand, even if only for a second. During shifts, I concentrate on releasing my hand as I go. (This is something we should always be doing anyways during shifts!) When you do have rests, you can shake your hand slightly, open and close your fingers, or roll your wrist to stretch it. But I find that the most helpful strategy is simply to rest it on my leg or let it hang down by my side.

If your right arm hurts . . . This is a perfect time to remember to support with your core. Joan talks about using your abdominal muscles to give strength to your arms so that they don’t have to do as much work. During loud passages, focus on relaxing into the string, letting the natural weight of your arm drop into the bow to make sound rather than tensing your muscles to press into the string. If you keep your core tight and your arm loose, you can maximize your sound with as little effort as possible.

0205b Schubert maybe to replace

The second-to-last page (mm. 973–1080) of Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C Major, “The Great.” Cruel and unusual punishment.

For those horrible pages made up entirely of tremolo, it can be difficult to release tension that has built up in your arm. Joan recommends varying the type of muscles that you’re using; switch between your big arm muscles and your wrist and fingers when either muscle group is tired, maintaining the same speed and intensity of tremolo.

Try these strategies during your next orchestra concert, and ask your teachers and colleagues until you find what helps you. Your body will thank you!

0205c yoga image

Just no yoga on stage, please.

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