Archive for the ‘Wednesday’ Category

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!)

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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.

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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!

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Just no yoga on stage, please.

Learning an Orchestral Excerpt by Yvonne Smith

Orchestral excerpts are an important component of any violist’s repertoire. Often only a minute or two in length, they require hours of practice and fine-tuning. Not only is the mastery of excerpts necessary for an orchestral career in the United States, but it also opens up our ears and minds to a different level of musicianship. Intonation, rhythm, and sound are crucial in any excerpt. But how do we pay attention to all three of these and not lose our minds?


When I am learning an excerpt for the first time, I listen to a couple of recordings of the piece that the excerpt comes from. I try to listen to at least one recording before I even start working out the notes. Why? Listening to the context around the excerpt gives us hints as to what the committee may be listening for when they hear us play, such as:

• approximate tempo of the excerpt;

• mood of the piece;

• how the excerpt fits in with the music right before and right after it;

• music to be “listening for” as you play the excerpt. For example, in the famous excerpt from the first movement of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, the “quarter, eighth–eighth” rhythm of the low strings at rehearsal 15.

Before I even look at the notes, I have an idea of what I want the excerpt to sound like.

Establish a solid foundation

When an orchestra committee listens to professional auditions, they are looking for the person with whom they want to work for the next ten to thrity years, and therefore, auditioning for a professional orchestra is very different than auditioning for youth orchestra or taking a college placement orchestra audition. Aspiring orchestral musicians are often juggling preparation for multiple auditions. With ten to twenty excerpts per audition to keep at a high level, a solid foundation is key. While definitely the most time-consuming step, establishing a solid foundation means less upkeep later on.

When practicing intonation, I first make sure that I have a fingering. The fingering may change as I continue to practice, but I make sure that I know where my fingers will go. My goal in practicing intonation in a new excerpt is for ringing, open resonance of my instrument with every note. An exercise I learned from Mr. Irvine at the Aspen Music Festival and School has been particularly helpful in achieving this goal: With the metronome on quarter note = 40, I play one note of a short passage every other click, using the silent click to hear the next note in my head and move my finger there. I remove the silent click and then increase the speed by equal increments, continuing to hear the note in my head before I play it.

When practicing rhythm, I put my metronome on the smallest subdivision in the excerpt and play through the excerpt slowly. While doing this I notice the instances when I am not with the metronome and isolate those instances. Most of the time, rhythm is thrown off by a technical difficulty, such as a shift or string crossing or poor bow distribution, so it is important to me to fix those problems at a slow tempo. To work an excerpt up to tempo, I will isolate a passage and start at the tempo at which I can play everything in that passage perfectly in rhythm and in tune. After a successful play through, I will boost the tempo by four clicks. If I play the passage successfully, I will go back two clicks and play again, then up four clicks again, etc. The up four, back two approach really helps me solidify the work that I did with rhythm and intonation.

While practicing rhythm and intonation, it is always very important to me to keep listening for what kind of sound I want so that the excerpt doesn’t sound boring after all of the hard work.


When learning a new excerpt, I also think of words to describe the character of the excerpt. The more detailed the description, the more interesting the excerpt tends to be to play and listen to. Writing these on a post-it note and sticking it near the excerpt is a good way to establish character goals.

Record yourself

When learning an excerpt, it’s important to record yourself and honestly evaluate your performances. Try recording yourself playing for someone who makes you nervous, and listen to the recording several times. Once, just focus on your intonation and write both positive things and aspects to work on. The second time listen for rhythm, the third time dynamics, and the fourth time, artistry. This way you’ll be able to thoroughly evaluate your playing.

When I began really focusing on the nuts and bolts of orchestral excerpts, my ears were opened along with a new depth of sounds that I could now make and be in control of. While learning orchestral excerpts well takes a lot of energy, it is also very rewarding if done with focus and specific goals in mind.

Traveling with a Viola by Jill Valentine


Violas are “sort of” travel size. They aren’t too suspiciously large, so air travel is (usually) painless, but they’re big enough to merit a few precautions when toting them on foot and storing them. Speaking of which, Happy Holidays, because it’s the most wonderful time of the year: audition season. As in winters past, many of us will be taking auditions for schools, summer programs, and everything else in the next couple of months, and I thought it would be timely to discuss traveling with an instrument. Thank you to teachers and peers for informing and adding to my observations. Travel safely this winter, violists, and be glad you don’t play something bigger.

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Air Travel: TSA, Airline Policies, and other Joys of Flying

Violas are just small enough to make it generally painless to smuggle them through the airport and into overhead plane storage bins (when we all know they’re much bigger than that carry-on sample size box they always have next to the gate). In writing this post, I reviewed the instrument policies of major US and international airlines. I am going on the assumption that even though the airlines all have policies regarding small instruments that are checked, nobody actually wants to check a viola. With that, here’s the condensed version:

First of all, everyone has probably heard about . . .

Section 403 of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012

This states that all airlines must allow instruments of reasonable size to be carried onboard with no fees or fuss about the dimensions. The catch you need to worry about is that this only holds true if there is space; this new law has nothing to do with the risk of getting planeside-checked if the flight is full and you get on last. So having never been asked to pay a fee for carrying my viola onboard, this law doesn’t help me much.

With that, having referred to instrument policies of major domestic (United, Southwest, US Air/American) and international airlines, our alternatives are to pay extra and board first, beg the ticket scanner to let us on with the special assistance/small children call, or hope that we will have room when we board at our assigned zone. The bigger the plane, the less likely there will be problems. When you reserve your ticket, look at what kind of plane you will be boarding, and if it’s anything smaller than a Boeing 737, save yourself the worry and pay to board early. Southwest flies almost entirely with large planes, so I have never wished I had paid the extra ten dollars. Airtran, however, uses many smaller planes. Use your discretion. 

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At least I got overhead storage. Nothing else matters.

The airport isn’t just the plane, however. Whenever you’re in a long line—at security, customs, boarding, or at Starbucks—get in the habit of taking the instrument off of your back. It won’t run away if you put it on the ground, and once you board, your back will be in the same position for much longer than it should be. Give your back a break while you still can! If you have a case with wheels, use them.

After the Plane: Traveling by Car and on Foot

We are again lucky that our instrument is small enough to avoid the many inconveniences suffered by cellists and bassists in these modes of travel. Still, some small precautions can save you a lot of time, energy and pain:

1. Don’t put your instrument in the trunk of a car if you can help it. This goes especially for shorter trips where comfort isn’t so important and you travel on city roads with frequent stops. A teacher of mine had a friend whose violin was badly damaged in the trunk because the car was rear-ended on a city street. In general, If I’m commuting somewhere close, I will keep my instrument in the back seat, on the floor between the seat in front and the back seat, or, if I’m not driving, with me in my own seat. The trunk also gets very hot, so take caution in warm climates.

2. Keeping my instrument with me also prevents me from forgetting it when I exit the car. It sounds impossible, but we can all be absent-minded (me especially).

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Yo Yo ma after getting his 2.6-million dollar cello back from a garage somewhere in Queens, having left it in the trunk of a taxi the day of the concert. If he can, my friends, so can we.

3. When you travel for an audition, expect to walk more than you think in your nice shoes (I look at you, ladies), and especially in the cold weather. Lighten the load on your back as much as you can; limit what sheet music you bring and don’t carry it in the music pocket of your case if you have one. Your back will thank you. Try to carry the case with both back straps, but if carrying it on one shoulder is more comfortable (it is for me), switch shoulders every other block.

4. Have a midsize padlock (and the key!) in your suitcase all of the time. If you have to travel alone to a new city and can’t store the viola with a friend, you may have to run the risk of hurting your back (a LOT) carrying it literally everywhere you go, in the cold. Do your research: find a hostel with bring-your-own-lock lockers for storage rather than the pay-per-lock lockers, and look for the rooms with lockers inside the room so that you have one extra obstacle between the instrument and potential thieves. Regarding locks, I say midsize because the small size padlocks will be too small for most locker locks, and the large size is an excessive giveaway that you’re hiding something worth trying to steal.

This may be mostly common sense, but we could all use a bit of reminding sometimes, and with so much traveling coming up for many of us, I hope you can go with less stress having prepared for the little things. Travel safely, and good luck on your journeys! 

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photo sources: accesbackcare.com, nytimes.com, sessionville.com

Orchestra Etiquette by Blake Turner

The orchestra, if you take the time to think about it, is one of the more complex work environments in the world. Where else do you see groups of 100 people or more, all in the same room, sitting in very close proximity to each other? With so many musicians working together for hours on end, it is crucial that symphony members be professional and follow orchestra etiquette.

2013 Autumn Shepherd School Orchestra

The Shepherd School Orchestra

What is etiquette? The Cambridge Dictionary simply defines etiquette as “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in particular social groups or social situations.”

To my knowledge, there is no official set of rules that dictates orchestra etiquette. However, from my own experience and with some help from Joan DerHovsepian of the Houston Symphony and my colleagues at the Shepherd School, I have compiled a list of general rules.

Don’t Look Behind You

As a string player, I’m often tempted to look behind me at the wind and brass players. Sometimes a wind player will play so beautifully, I want to see who it was and acknowledge them. But I have to tell myself, don’t do it!! It is very distracting for wind and brass players when 20–30 eyes start ogling them. Be polite and look forward.

Avoid Tapping Your Feet

I sometimes catch myself tapping my feet in rehearsal, and I quickly stop when I realize what I’m doing! Even though I’d like to believe that I have impeccable rhythm (I don’t), I know how distracting it can be to other players around me when I tap my feet.

Inside Players Mark Parts

It is the responsibility of the inside player on a shared stand to mark the parts with bowings and changes during rehearsals. If you are the inside player, be proactive and alert. Once the conductor indicates something needs to be marked down, don’t wait for your partner to do it, do it yourself!


It may go without saying that orchestra players must have their parts prepared before rehearsals. You are showing respect for your colleague’s time, your audience, and yourself.

Talking During Rehearsal

Keep your conversation during rehearsals to a minimum. If you need to discuss something with your stand partner regarding the music, make it brief so that both of you can stay on track in rehearsal.  Leaving questions about notes or rhythms, etc., for orchestra breaks is preferred so as not to waste valuable time. Follow the chain of command. Consult the principal player of your section before going directly to the conductor.

Here are some professional tips from Houston Symphony Assistant Principal Violist Joan DerHovsepian:

Page Turning

“The most important responsibility an inside player has is to make a timely page turn for their partner, so the outside player can play seamlessly. Arrive for the turn early with page in hand, wait one second to make sure your partner has scanned the remaining music, and turn swiftly.  Dropping a few extra notes so this turn can be done at just the right time shows respect for your partner and is always appreciated.”

Rice Symphony Class Photo

The Houston Symphony

Staggered Bowing

“The outside player may change bow on held notes or staggered bowing passages where they are comfortable. It is the responsibility of the inside player to watch sensitively for this change and make their bow change just before or after their partner. This courtesy is easily overlooked, but I’ve always felt it creates harmony on a stand when there is this common awareness.”

Bring Your Own Pencil

“When two people share a stand, it is polite that each will bring his or her own pencil (with functioning eraser) to every rehearsal. Share music, not germs!!”

How to Deal with Performance Anxiety by Chi Lee

Performance anxiety is a problem that most musicians have to deal with. Some of us may not suffer much from it; the rest of us, including myself, struggle with it for a lifetime. There are many different ways and ideas about how to feel better while performing, so I strongly encourage you to find one that helps you the best. Luckily, I am currently taking Ms. Janet Rarick’s Body and Mind Connection class, which brings in many guest instructors who talk about various approaches to controlling performance anxiety. Now I am going to take this blog as a chance to share what I have learned from the class, and I hope some of the ways can help you to become a better performer.

The first approach that I want to share with you is the “rhythmic breathing” method introduced by Dr. Robert G. Sones. There are four steps:

1) Breathe in from the abdomen and count to four;

2) Hold it for the same count;

3) Exhale for the same count; and finally,

4) Hold your breath out for the same count.

Repeat the process. I found that this breathing exercise really helps me calm down my nerves before performing.

A second approach is the “thought,” which Dr. Sones introduced as well. “Thoughts are creative,” and “every thought you have has its root in one of two basic emotions: love or fear,” he mentioned in class. So creating an optimal thought in your head before performing is important. Dr. Sones suggests that you can focus on the last performance in which you did well before your present performance.

Third, Dr. Elizabeth Slator introduced the method of using imagery. Imagining the performance before you actually perform is a powerful mental practice of decreasing performance anxiety. Imagery practice is especially helpful as well when you are injured or have limited practice time. Reading music and imagining the act of playing helps your physical playing.

The last approach that I want to share with you is meditation and mindfulness practice, which was introduced by Ms. Micki Fine. She said that “mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and letting go of judgment, critical thought, and preconceived ideas.” I think part of the reason that we tend to get stressed about performances is that because we worry how other people/the audience will judge our playing. Instead, if we try to let go of that worry and enjoy the act of performing, we will notice the power of “being in the moment.” Ms. Fine also introduced the RAIN process of practicing mindfulness:

1) Recognize that emotion is present;

2) Allow the emotion to be present as best you can;

3) Investigate, bring your attention to the body, and notice where you feel the emotion in the body;

4) Non-identify; remind yourself that you are not alone in suffering . . . that suffering is part of being human.

Noticing anxiety before performing and accepting that feeling actually helps me to not tighten up my muscles while performing.

I hope the information above is helpful to you if you are suffering from performance anxiety like I do. It is a problem when performance anxiety starts bothering you and preventing you from playing your best, and now is the time to find the best way to help yourself!

Alexander Technique: Simple Exercises for a Weary Body by Rachel Li

I will begin by saying that rehearsing at The Shepherd School these past few weeks for Mozart’s ingenious opera The Marriage of Figaro has been such a thrilling experience.  However, my body is beginning to feel sore and exhausted due to the length of rehearsals and the strenuous passages in our parts.  As musicians who have to sit and hold up instruments unnaturally for roughly three hours per rehearsal, we owe it to our bodies to find ways to recover from such taxing playing.  Here are a few points and simple exercises that are based on the Alexander Technique.

General Points to Remember:

Lengthening the Spine: Imagine that a string is pulling you up from the top center of your head. Lengthening the spine does not mean trying to make your spine straight and rigid. Remember that your spine has a slight S shape.

Shoulders Out: The result is a feeling of openness in the chest. We tend to cave our shoulders in, which creates a feeling of closed tightness and tension in the shoulder/chest region.

Exercise No. 1:

Purpose: to naturally realign the back/neutralize the tension in the back muscles.

Step 1: In a standing position, bend over and let your arms hang and your head drop.  Make sure to be aware of releasing neck tension—do so by making sure your head is not rigid.

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Step 2: Once your muscles are completely relaxed, slowly return to standing position by picturing each vertebra of your spine stacking on top of each other as you VERY SLOWLY come back up. The rate of speed should be smooth, gradual, and consistent.

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Result: You will feel your shoulders naturally roll back into place, and your back will feel aligned and relieved.

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Exercise No. 2:

Purpose: to realign and rest the back, making it so that the back has perfect contact with the ground.

Step 1: Find a firm but comfortable surface to lie flat on your back and bend your knees with the soles of your feet flat on the ground. Place your hands on your lower abdomen.

Step 2: Elevate your head with a book about an inch thick (or however high so that your head is not tilting back, but rather, aligning with your spine). The book(s) should be placed underneath the bony part of the skull, not the neck.

Substitute:  A substitute for the book can also be a sock with 2 tennis balls stuffed in it. 

Step 3: Let all your head weight sink into the book and release your head/neck muscles. Think of breathing into your back and sides and letting go of all your muscles.

Many of my friends took the Alexander Technique class during my undergraduate studies at Juilliard, and they all told me how useful it was in relation to playing their instruments.  In fact, my fiancé, Alex McDonald, is in this video; he was my inspiration to write this particular post since the Alexander Technique had such a deep impact on him and his piano playing. This video displays how the Alexander Technique is helpful for musicians/singers.

The Position of the Viola in the String Quartet by James Dunham

My 2¢ on this topic:

As always, I share much in agreement with my friend and colleague Ivo:

•That we are all, to a lesser and greater degree, creatures of habit;

•That there are advantages, and therefore disadvantages, to each seating;

•That pairs are incredibly important in a quartet and that it is desirable for each pairing to be in close proximity;

•That seating is a highly subjective matter, tempered by musical reason.

I was founding violist of the Sequoia Quartet and played with that group for 15 years. I then joined the Cleveland Quartet and played with that ensemble for almost 9 years; a total of nearly a quarter century. Both groups were primarily viola outside, but interestingly, both groups moved the viola inside from time to time, mostly (as Ivo pointed out) to gain the immediate contact between the vital inner voices, especially in classical compositions. The fact that my quartets nevertheless remained viola outside had a great deal to do with our concept of keeping the bass at the center of the group; it was also our habit and comfort as a foursome. CQ cellist Paul Katz and I had (and still have) a very close relationship, but I confess, IF we had opted to retain the viola inside seating, my right knee would have had significantly fewer pokes from the cello bow!

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Budapest Quartet: viola outside

I would say that, for both of my quartets, the argument for having the “viola outside” had little to do with the viola and much to do with the cello placement. We preferred the cello centered where we thought it was best able to support the sound of the quartet from “underneath” the ensemble. We were concerned that the cello not be facing slightly to the side of the auditorium, whereas the violist (with f-holes almost facing the rear of the concert hall!) could at least turn out when necessary—and much more easily than a side-angled cellist.

The fact that both “viola in” and “viola out” versions have a long history—and that both have a long history of success(!)—tells me that, in essence, there really isn’t that much critical difference. The concept of stereophonic direction, from cello up through viola to violins, is to my mind more a matter of the visual than the aural. From 30 feet away and beyond, I’m not sure that many ears can make that aural distinction. From a distance, at least in my own experience, the sound grows from low to high, rather than right to left. Of course, if you “listen with your eyes” as well as your ears, it is a beautiful thing to “see,” but perhaps not necessarily important from a purely sonic point of view.

1113b Amadeus Quartet

Amadeus Quartet: viola inside

One important point: when I performed in my two quartets, we sat very close to each other, valuing the unity of the collective sound, only separating from each other by design and by choice (a technique I love, use, and teach!). Today, likely due to larger and larger auditoriums, more and more quartets are sitting in ever widening arcs (including standing, often quite far apart), so that the sonic separation mentioned by Ivo certainly can be very distinct. My thoughts are from the close and, to my mind, more intimate seating that we used.

Yet, believe it or not, there is even a third version of string quartet seating, used at one time in the late 1800s by no less than the famous Joachim Quartet!

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Joachim String Quartet: cello AND viola inside!

Getting Your Move on: From Bhangra to Bratsche by Teddy Schenkman

As a music performance major I love playing music, listening to music, and talking about music. But sometimes I need a break from it all, and so extra-curricular activities are essential for me. Dancing has always been a passion of mine. I never took any real classes; it was just something that I always enjoyed doing—from middle school dances, to swing dancing in gym class, or even just by myself in my room. When I came to Rice, there were all sorts of new opportunities for dance teams, and I decided to try some.

I had dabbled in swing dance and Latin dancing, so I joined the ballroom team; but on a whim I also tried out and got into an Indian-style dance team called Bhangra. Bhangra is a traditional style of Indian dance from the Punjab region of India. Originally associated with the harvest, it is now more of a fusion of traditional and Western dancing and music. The dance is characterized by lively, energetic moves.

Schenkman - Tango

Tangoing at Dances with Owls ballroom competition

The first semester of my freshmen year was a little ridiculous; between the two teams I had 8 hours of dance rehearsals a week. But I had a blast! It was always nice after a day in class and the practice room to dance for a few hours. Ballroom was always interesting because it forced me to analyze my body movements and posture. Ballroom dancing requires a relaxed but firm upper body and high right elbow to support the partner’s arm. The posture is not too dissimilar from playing a violin or viola. Keeping this upright posture actually helped me keep my viola up, which was a problem I’d had for years. Unfortunately, after my first semester last year it got to be too much, so to my regret I had to stop ballroom. But I’m still on Bhangra, and I plan to continue until I graduate. It’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about a different culture (including eating some delicious Indian food), meet some really cool people outside of music, and do some incredibly fun dancing!

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 Picture of me in a Bhangra dance competition

Know Your Limits by Bailey Firszt

As a musician who has successfully recovered from injury, I frequently get asked what to do about playing-related pain. The road to pain-free playing involves many factors—exercise, relaxed technique, smart practicing, etc.—but the first (and most important) step that I tell people is to know your limits. Know when your body is asking you to rest, and accept how much or how little you can play each day. Fighting against our own limitations is one of the quickest ways to exacerbate an injury, but conservatory students have a hard time listening to their bodies when they are pleading with them to stop!

It’s easy to feel like we’re going to let people down if we sit out of a rehearsal or come to a lesson unprepared because we had to stop practicing. But remember, you are more useful to your teachers and colleagues by preserving your health in the long-term, even if it means not playing in the short-term. Your physical health needs to be your #1 priority, no matter what other obligations you have—especially if you’re experiencing pain. Practically speaking, knowing my limits means that I try never to play more than six hours a day, as I’ve found that six is simply my body’s maximum. I try not to hit that maximum every day, because if I do I usually have to take a few days off to recover, and I would rather play a moderate amount every day than oscillate between two extremes. Playing fewer than six hours a day means that I have to supplement physical practicing with mental practicing. For example, I usually learn my orchestra music by listening to the whole movement with my part in front of me and marking just a few sections that I really need to practice; I still come to rehearsal prepared without using up my reserve of playing hours.

Maybe knowing your limits means that you put your instrument down every fifteen minutes, or you mental-practice more than you play, or you don’t schedule any gigs on the same day as important rehearsals. Whatever it means for you, you will be the most successful if you accept your limitations and find creative ways to work with them, not against them. Embracing our limits can restore that feeling of control over our own bodies that we so often lose when we can’t play as much as we would like. And remember that while our bodies may be limited, there is literally no limit to what our minds are capable of. There are so many ways to grow as musicians besides physically playing, so find what works for you and do it. Your body will thank you.

Get Active by Megan Wright

Get Active! by Megan Wright

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Being a freshman music major has brought about major life adjustments. Not only am I practicing and performing more than usual, I live in a completely new environment.  Factors of change include my sleep schedule, diet, new friends, having a roommate, doing all my own chores and errands. . . . This is quite a lot of change thrown at me all at once. It’s vital that I manage this new lifestyle in a healthy manner, and to do so, I need to have my one most important tool in check: the body. Physical activity is the best way to ensure the body is healthy and functioning properly. Being active relieves stress, energizes the body, boosts morale, and can also make you a better musician.

After a day in the life of a violist, the body may have a sense of being unbalanced. This, in theory, is not ideal, but every now and then we all slip up in proper posture and alignment. After a long day of practicing and rehearsals, working out balances me and brings me back to center. Working out allows me to target muscle groups not used throughout the day when I practice. It’s important that the entire body receives use, that every muscle group is consistently activated. Think about athletes. If tennis players spend all their time only working out arms to strengthen their swing, the rest of the body is left unused and off balance. As a result, his or her overall game will suffer. If we violists spend all our time using mostly the upper body in our playing and do nothing to activate other muscle groups, a serious sense of disequilibrium will occur. Ideal playing also activates the core and hips, which reallocates energy used for playing to other muscle groups besides the upper body. Working out will strengthen these other muscle groups and make your playing more powerful and wholesome.

A typical workout consists of a cardiovascular element of exercise and a strength training session. My own workout routine includes these activities:

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Adaptive Motion Trainer Machine

  • Twenty minutes of cardio on the adaptive motion trainer machine (known as AMT. The AMT and elliptical machines are easy on the joints);
  • A short five-minute high intensity interval session on a treadmill;
  • Usually a five minute cool down on the rowing machine. Rowing is a great cardio workout. It is low impact and works several major muscle groups, such as core, legs, upper back/shoulders, arms, and hips. After a long day of playing, rowing stretches and rebalances the back, shoulder, and arm muscles used when practicing;
  • Core exercises on the roman chair, hyperextension benches, and captain’s chair
  • Leg work including squats, lunges, and a few leg-weight machines;
  • Arms with free weights. A quick note on weight lifting: lift in moderation! It’s so easy to overdo it and injure yourself with weights! Moderation is key!!! This applies to all weight machines and free weights!;
  • Mat work, including planks and side planks, leg lifts, and cross body sit-ups.

Then comes the best and most important part: stretching!

A key element of musician wellness is stretching. In the past, I often found myself overstretching certain areas (and not with proper technique), particularly my forearms. Forearms and fingers are especially sensitive. Stretching slowly and with proper technique is key. If you’re short on time, one of the best stretches a violist can do is simply bending over and just hanging limply. Here is a link for more information about a variety of stretches:


Doing exercise that you find enjoyable is key to getting yourself motivated to workout. If doing a typical gym workout is not your thing, get creative! I’ve been going to a Zumba class once or twice per week this semester and have thoroughly enjoyed it! There are plenty of “fun” exercise options. Just keep in mind that activities such as basketball, volleyball, or football may not be the safest for fingers and arms. Here are a few fun, musician-friendly ways to get active:

tai chi


hula hooping

cardio kickboxing




yoga (very beneficial, just watch out for poses that put pressure on wrists)

Knowing your own body and physical limits is of the utmost importance to being a good musician. Listen to what your body is telling you when you’re playing as well as working out. If you need to stop what you’re doing, or cut back, do it. “The body is your instrument” as they say. Just as you do things such as wiping off strings after playing, and getting bow re-hairs to care for your viola and bow, keeping the body active and healthy is vital to good musicianship. The time you spend working out will be well worth it. Take good care of yourself; you only have one body.