Archive for the ‘Wellness’ 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.

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!

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Just no yoga on stage, please.

The Importance of Stretching by Ivo Jan van der Werff

We have to remember that as violists, we are athletes. Not perhaps always in the sense that we go running every day or go to the gym (though that is a pretty good thing to do!), but in the way that especially the fingers of our left hand have to be athletic. They have to be strong, quick, flexible and accurate. The following exercise is one that I encourage my students to do before any “real” playing. Any athlete does warm ups to literally warm up the body, help its flexibility, and, most importantly, to help prevent injury.

The notes after the exercise explain that you should never over stretch or go through the pain barrier. The idea is to stretch the fingers in the given patterns gently, without undue force.

Even if your practice time is really limited, it is still worth doing these exercises if only to help keep the left hand in good, flexible condition. If your hand lacks flexibility, then no matter how much you practice scales, etudes, etc, they will not improve as much as you might hope. Stretching in this way helps condition the fingers so they can manage the technical issues we encounter.

Stretching Exercise

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

How to Practice: Take a Break by Lynsey Anderson

Scenario 1:

Inspiration in the Practice Room

When we string players find ourselves in a practice room and “on a roll,” as the familiar phrase goes, there is satisfaction and even enjoyment from the sound that is being produced. We all know how liberating it is when that really difficult passage is finally comfortable at the proper tempo or when that solo being resurrected is not nearly as hard as it was the first time it was learned (because, often times it is). There are many factors that contribute to such productive and self-esteem building practice sessions. For example, a lot more music might be learned than is one’s usual pace and/or there might be noticeable improvement in overall technique since the instrument was first taken out of its case a couple hours ago. We musicians live for these particular practice sessions—sessions that don’t come nearly as often as we wish they would.

The Cake Analogy

Good practice sessions are relished, indulged in even. One hour, two hours . . . three hours go by, and the concentration does not falter and the stamina does not cease. The hardest thing to do in this situation, where things are feeling good mentally and physically, when you are virtually feeling unstoppable, where all hopes of having a career in music are elevated to absolute certainties, where even your passion for music itself is renewed . . . the hardest thing to do is to stop practicing. It is easy to ignore that little voice of conscience that says, “Take a break—those arms need it.” It is the same little voice that is easy to ignore when it whispers somewhere back in the remote corners of sensibility, “Don’t go back for a second piece of chocolate cake, it might add extra dimensions to your thighs.” Yeah, the voice is heard, vaguely, but the cake is there in all its glory mesmerizing you with its insatiably sweet decadence. Far too often we squelch the little voice and go for the second piece of cake . . . like we continue to practice, and practice hard, playing over and over those incredibly beautiful notes, drowning in the irresistibility of being the source of something elite or virtuosic. The consequences are not always noticeable either. If you put on an extra pound, your trousers will still fit. If you strain your tendons a tiny bit, your body will heal itself relatively quickly (especially with the aid of a little Ibuprofen).

Every once in a while, however, there are drastic consequences that are not expected, because they are not felt instantly. For example, to continue with our cake analogy, food poisoning can be contracted hours before the dreaded symptoms appear. Likewise, many performance related injuries, including more serious damage to nerves, may take hours or even days before the pain starts to push through our comfort bubbles. The only way to prevent drastic consequences from our indulgences, whether our indulgences involve caloric intake or the repeatedly successful execution of parallel 10ths with a vigorous and rapid detaché stroke, is to exercise restraint. Take a break. It is not unreasonable to take a break even as often as every hour.

The Love Cliché

Taking breaks may seem like the most “common” of common sense, so why is it that so many people still power through their physical limitations? There is always the possibility that some people simply have no regard for future ramifications, but I think this is a very small percentage of people. From my observations, musicians tend not to be naïve and, on the whole, will actually knowingly practice in a harmful way. This is especially true if the practice session seems to be breaking new ground for the foundation of perfection. The risk is huge, but the instant gratification is very powerful. Much justification for the decision to practice too hard, like, “I just want to relish the one time in my life that I can actually do this . . .” resembles the old cliché, “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all . . .” It is romantic, isn‘t it? Imagine applying that kind of hindsight to the long term about past musical endeavors: “I haven’t had feeling in my left hand for twenty years, but I remember a time when I played that G-major arpeggio in Don Juan better than the seasoned concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic! Sure, it was in a practice room where nobody heard it, but you know, it was totally worth it . . .” Of course, that last example is silly and unrealistic. Nobody would actually think in this manner . . . right?

Presumably, however, the love and lost philosophy is true, but, dare it be said, only if the love was perfect. Love is never perfect, though . . . and neither is Don Juan. It is worth bearing in mind that twenty years of depriving oneself of making Don Juan better (or that beloved concerto, or whatever else) because of an injury sustained from over-indulgence in a practice room is an utter shame. “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” is a saying for people who live in denial. The saying exists for those who are clinging to a love that was seemingly perfect (because they have “forgotten” the imperfectness of it) in order to make the present agony bearable. You do what you have to do, though, and surely there is nothing wrong with a sense of gratitude (the saying does embody that virtue when looked upon in that light), as long as the gratitude does not lead to complacency, for love can always grow stronger—just like one’s playing can always get better. Take breaks. Take breaks so that you may never have to be left wondering what your full potential could have been if you had taken better care of yourself.

Scenario 2:

Frustration in the Practice Room

So, if your practicing is too good to be true . . . you’re probably right. Okay, that point has been driven home already, but what about the other 95 (or more) percent of the time when practicing reveals just how bad a string player actually is? Certainly we would not be tempted to over indulge in a practice session that sounds like a moose in heat, right? Does this mean that string players are less likely to suffer performance related injuries when they sound bad? On the contrary, it is very stressful for any musician to maintain that they sound bad. In fact, it is generally the number one motivator to keep practicing at dangerous lengths. Now imagine the stress of sounding bad coupled with the stress of a performance deadline; “Oh yeah, there’s an orchestra audition tomorrow that includes a certain excerpt that I forgot to practice . . . Oh yeah, my recital is in three days, I guess I better start trying to play the Bach Chaconne all the way through . . . Oh yeah, my playing test on Friday includes melodic minor thirds in every minor key—I only know thirds in major keys.” Practice, practice, practice . . . too little time, too near of deadlines, and the body gets sacrificed.

Listen, take a break because this is how injuries happen. And when injuries do happen, it is this kind of stress that makes them worse to the point of jeopardizing a musician’s career: for string players, if the whole upper half of the body is tingling while jabs of knife-like pain accompany every bow change, or if the throbbing in the neck and shoulders intensifies with every measure of Bruckner tremolos, Mahler crescendo, or Schostakovich ostinatti . . . or if you are oozing on your chinrest . . . then, it is time to cancel that upcoming performance. Take a break. Take a break to prevent dramatic performance-canceling situations. If breaks are ignored, however, and an injury does start to plague your life, then stop playing altogether and be patient while the body recovers (because it should recover if you let it).


Whether a practice session is encouraging or discouraging, we should always be mindful of taking breaks, because injuries can happen under both circumstances. In fact, it should be noted that the really encouraging practice sessions are probably more dangerous. Think about it; if you’re at the summit of Mount Everest, you are more likely to be enjoying the scenery than worrying about losing your footing and falling down a very, very long way. Not thinking about it, though, doesn’t make the danger any less real. Whereas, in a horrible practice session, you already feel gross and incapable, and chances are that you are at least more aware of every little ache and pain, because it’s just one more thing on top of everything else that is causing your world to collapse around you in shambles (it is only fitting that a musician should express herself in writing so dramatically; we are an emotional bunch after all). Remember the “love and lost” discussion from earlier on? Well, if the extremes of life must be experienced (because, let’s face it, some people will take plenty of breaks and abide by every recommendation and still end up with an injury), wouldn’t it be preferable to lose first and then find love? Who is to say that it couldn’t happen in that order? Okay, so there are those who might have been a little over confident, overzealous, over indulgent or just plain ignorant in their practicing and have suffered the consequences. If mistakes can be learned from, though (where taking a break finally proves itself worthy), and if patience and determination can be acquired, than a musician’s career can conclude triumphantly (Beethoven’s 5th comes to mind as a good analogy: anxious beginning, happy ending).

Through the good and the bad, always hang on to a bit of perspective. Try not to lose your head when the pressures of conservatory life start to weigh down on you. Likewise, don’t allow yourself to be completely carried away by the current of inspiration that tends to appear in a practice room at the most unlikely of times. Take breaks even when they feel unnecessary. For so many of us, we only think about our health when we do not have it anymore. It is vitally important, though, for musicians to think about their health all of the time. If an injury does occur, be patient and let the body heal—even if it takes longer than you think, you have time to wait. The idea, though, is that injuries are prevented, and for most performance related injuries that happen to most people, prevention is obtained by something so common-sensical, so over talked about, and so irritatingly easy as . . . taking breaks.

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.

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