As Kramer says in Seinfeld’s “The Wig Master” episode, “I don’t argue with the body, Jerry. It’s an argument you can’t win.”
Sooner or later, we all learn the truth of that statement, especially those of us who are forced to rely on little tiny muscles to do things like play the violin! In the picture above, you can see Nathan celebrating his twelfth birthday with two fingers taped together. His daily neighborhood basketball game was the culprit.
Nowadays, we’d think twice before playing that much basketball. Or a number of other activities. But we do hit the gym quite a lot. What makes an activity OK for violin playing, and what puts it out of bounds?
More than that, what can you do to prepare for your daily practicing and performing? Are there ways to play so that you stay injury-free? And what kind of music is the worst for the body?
We talk violin fitness here in episode 13, so join us for the discussion and leave your thoughts below!
Nathan Cole: Hi, and welcome back to Stand Partners for Life. I’m Nathan.
Akiko Tarumoto: I’m Akiko.
Nathan Cole: And today’s episode is going to be all about injury, well more fitness, violin fitness, staying healthy, hopefully avoiding injury! But then also what to do when you’re hurt, how to work around it, and just to talk about the reality that everybody has aches and pains and sometimes worse. So, I know at this point in the LA Phil season, basically the last few weeks, we’re sort of like a hospital ward. At this point, I feel like everybody’s one step away from falling to pieces. Do you see that in our sections?
Akiko Tarumoto: I don’t know. I haven’t talked to too many people. We’ve lost one.
Nathan Cole: Right.
Akiko Tarumoto: But, yeah, and I’m kind of hobbling along here. My-
Nathan Cole: Oh, yeah. What do you-
Akiko Tarumoto: My wrist, and you got your shoulder … Okay, so that’s three of us that we know of, so maybe you’re right.
Nathan Cole: Well, and that’s understandable. I mean we always — jokingly a lot of the time, but we compare ourselves to sports teams, especially NBA. I watch a lot of basketball, so coming into the playoffs just about everybody is beat up. In basketball it’s literally one step away from some season-ending injury. We’re not quite as bad as that, but-
Akiko Tarumoto: But our season doesn’t really end, so we can’t really afford to … We don’t have four months off to …
Nathan Cole: No, but we do — We’ve got four weeks off from the orchestra coming up, which is something.
Akiko Tarumoto: Goes fast.
Nathan Cole: It does go fast but it is a chance to rest things, which in pretty much all endeavors, rest and recovery are the real keys if you’ve got an issue going on. And as the weeks go by during the season, yeah, I mean it’s hard to find even a 48-hour period when you’re not playing, and we like to play every day to stay in shape. Those are the issues we’ll be talking about. What do you have going on right now?
Akiko Tarumoto: Well, I mentioned my wrist, so, yeah, that’s hurting me.
Nathan Cole: And my right shoulder just a few days ago started up on me.
Akiko Tarumoto: Not coincidentally, probably, we’ve been going to the gym a lot, so we’ll see how that ties in…
Nathan Cole: Yeah. Well, we’re going to talk about that because I don’t intend to stop going to the gym and I’m sure you don’t either, but we’re going to talk about how to do it smart, smartly. Before we launch into it, I wanted to thank those of you who’ve gone to iTunes and given us a nice rating, and even better, a review, just a short little written review. What that does is it helps other people find the show, and we just really appreciate it so much.
Nathan Cole: As you probably heard in some other episodes, we read those and take them to heart and try to improve Stand Partners based on your feedback. So, if you can take a moment to go to iTunes and leave that rating and/or review, it’s amazing. I don’t do it enough to the shows I listen to. I always think, “Oh, this is a great show, I’m going to leave a review,” and then I put it off. So, I’m really grateful when you’re able to do that.
Nathan Cole: Now, the other thing I wanted to mention, and so instead of demanding things of you, this is something we are giving to you, transcripts. You may have noticed if you’ve been looking at the actual episode pages on natesviolin.com, you may have noticed that starting with episode 9, which was my episode with Nate Farrington, we’ve been including written transcripts of the entire shows, so that’s for episodes 9 up till now. That’s something we’re going to continue doing for a few reasons.
Nathan Cole: First, it helps those with any kind of disability or difficulty in listening to podcasts, helps those folks enjoy the interviews and the shows. And also I don’t know about you, well, actually I do know about you, Akiko, you’re not a big audio listener, I think for a couple reasons. One, it puts you to sleep, like if you actually had to hear me talking through speakers or headphones instead of in real life, I think you would just go right to sleep, so if you actually listened to the show…
Akiko Tarumoto: We should try that when I’m having trouble sleeping.
Nathan Cole: That’s true.
Akiko Tarumoto: Just listen to our podcast.
Nathan Cole: Well, so for you, you’re a real reader and you’re a fast reader. So I know, let’s say it was some other subject and someone said, “Oh, Akiko, this is a really cool interview. Let me forward you the link. It’s a 45-minute audio thing.” You’re not going to say, “Okay, let me just block out an hour today,” because you don’t really have that unless you’re driving. And, you don’t want to fall asleep behind the wheel. So, anyway, if someone did forward that to you, you would probably only enjoy it if you could zip through it reading.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah.
Nathan Cole: And then because it’s written, it’s searchable. Let’s say you heard something on one of our episodes or you just wanted to find a particular episode and you remembered a certain topic or word or phrase. Google it and then the episode page will come up because it’s searchable. So, transcripts are something we’re really happy to finally offer in the show.
Daily activities that help or hurt
Nathan Cole: So, no more dilly-dallying. Let’s talk about getting hurt, or not getting hurt. You had thought a great way to start would be talking about daily activities. Things to do or not to do to avoid injury. Should we talk about fitness and the gym?
Akiko Tarumoto: Sure, you mean things that we do every day that can lead to injury or that we can do to avoid injury?
Nathan Cole: Yeah. Non-music-related things that just get you set up right.
Akiko Tarumoto: It’s ironic because until about two months ago I think I was maybe a little smug about the gym, and I thought — most people think, most musicians, are a little bit afraid. A lot of them are afraid of working out, lifting weights. They’re afraid that it’s going to lead to an injury or reduce their ability to play.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, I hear that a lot.
Akiko Tarumoto: And so I think I was actually having this conversation with a trainer at the gym while I was doing something with kettlebells or something. And then I think it was literally later that week I suddenly started feeling a twinge. So, yeah, my words are coming back to haunt me.
Nathan Cole: Kettlebell karma?
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah. I don’t know if it was pushups or something. I’ve got these little scrawny bony wrists, and now ever since then I’ve been kind of on-and-off in pain.
Nathan Cole: Not necessarily when you’re playing, but partly though.
Akiko Tarumoto: No, I can feel it sometimes when I’m playing. Yeah. I’m assuming it has to do with the workout, as you’ve been to some of those classes at our gym and they’re very … they’re very focused on doing a lot of reps and, yeah, kind of a military drill style and-
Nathan Cole: They’re fast moving.
Akiko Tarumoto: You feel like you can’t really say no. So there’s that, and it’s true. These exercises don’t take into consideration the fact that we do have to be mindful of little parts of our bodies.
Nathan Cole: I think what can be difficult about staying in great physical shape for the violin or just great violin shape, we rely on these tiny muscles and small body parts with a lot of repetitive motion, yet most of the time when you’re working things out at the gym, you’re doing a lot of big muscles and some of those big muscle exercises are supported by smaller ones. So, when you’re doing a bench press, you might be lifting a lot of weight, which is fine for the chest, but the last point of contact with the bar are the fingers and then right below that the wrists. So, if your wrists aren’t positioned properly for that, then-
Akiko Tarumoto: I think actually you may have seen me the day that I tweaked whatever this is because I remember it was a kettlebell — some kind of annoying one-arm kettlebell chest press, either incline or flat or something. You saw me and the trainer wasn’t really nearby while I was doing it and I had my … I wasn’t paying attention, but I was holding the kettlebell kind of with my wrist bent and that was really putting a lot of strain on the wrist. You said, “Make sure you keep your wrist straight!” but at that point I think it was too late. I had already done some damage. So, you really have to pay attention to your form obviously.
Nathan Cole: Yeah. I think in your case now it’s nothing that a couple easy days wouldn’t fix. I mean-
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah. Probably taking a few days off the online shopping wouldn’t …
Nathan Cole: Bending that wrist to type away at the sales.
Akiko Tarumoto: All that scrolling on that track pad. That’s-
Nathan Cole: That’s true. Well, you know it used to be phones, back when people used full-size phones with cords and everything, and you’d see secretaries or anybody that talked on the phone all day-
Akiko Tarumoto: With the neck?
Nathan Cole: Well, the neck could be bad, but just the way that you would hold the phone if you would bend your wrist back. Actually people got little injuries from that too. With all that said, people might wonder why ever go to the gym. If we want to be in our best shape for the violin, wouldn’t we just sacrifice the gym and doing any kind of weight stuff? I just feel better playing the violin when I’m in shape including weight and strength stuff. I mean, I used to lift more weights than I do now, and really — anybody who’s seen me, you’re not going to confuse me with a bodybuilder or anything like that, but I have gone through times when I’ve done more weights.
Nathan Cole: First of all, I enjoy it. I think it’s relaxing and it is good for overall health, and when you do the motions properly and if you’re not really trying to break any records or anything, there are very safe ways to do it. Those are reasons to do it, but yeah, with these classes they are so fast-paced and the trainers are there to keep things moving, and they’re not … It’s not the kind of place where I really feel comfortable asking a lot of questions, right? You feel like a weak link, like you’re going to hold things back.
Akiko Tarumoto: I mean I love our gym, but-
Nathan Cole: Oh, yeah.
Akiko Tarumoto: They’re not expecting to hear a lot of, “I can’t do this.” You don’t want to stick out, you want to blend in.
Nathan Cole: Right. If someone was in there with concerns, then they definitely should speak up, and actually I should speak up when I’m not sure, because our playing the violin is important! It’s a bit more important than going to the gym. For those of you out there who are active at the gym or playing whatever kind of sports, balance what you’re doing against playing the violin. The violin has different importance to all of us. For us, we pretty much have to do it a lot, so there are things we sacrifice. I probably wouldn’t ever take up skiing at this point in my life.
Akiko Tarumoto: Well, yeah, I used to ride horses a lot when I was a teenager, and it’s always crossed my mind, “Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to get back on a horse… ‘get back on the horse’, and then I’m thinking, I couldn’t do that.” I mean a part of riding is falling, and at my age, at our age, falling off a horse can really mean broken bones.
Nathan Cole: Right. That’s the other thing. Anybody out there knows, who’s advancing in years … Well, I guess everybody is, but yeah, your body’s not the same as it was. And so for that reason too, I try to be more cautious at the gym and stay in my comfort zone unless I’m working really closely with a trainer that I trust.
Akiko Tarumoto: That being said, when I had a personal trainer back in Chicago, I did feel like she would really get me feeling kind of beat up a lot of the time, like these intense workouts. I remember one time we were playing an Elgar Symphony that night or the next day or something, and I was so sore I could barely lift my arm! And I thought, “How am I going to make it through this hour-long symphony?” And then I got there and it was like… they were totally different muscles. It didn’t matter at all. Then I realized that I felt like I was playing better. I mean not that day in particular, necessarily, but just having the muscle strength in your shoulders especially. She would often talk about protecting your rotator cuff, and she was great because she was a violinist also. She knew what to avoid and what to strengthen.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, so that’s great.
Akiko Tarumoto: It was great and I felt that it actually made me play louder, which I don’t know if that’s a good thing necessarily, but I had the heft in the right parts of my arm to really get a lot of sound out, I think, without tension. So that-
Nathan Cole: Yeah. I think that’s more it because it doesn’t take a lot of strength to get sound of a violin, but when your shoulders are strong like you’re mentioning, then-
Akiko Tarumoto: If you’re tense, you get tired obviously much more easily. And your posture is better so you’re able to get better angles on your instruments. So, I think it usually is a great thing to have that strength, but just at this particular time, at this particular moment, I did something stupid. I do think it was that kettlebell business.
Akiko Tarumoto: You just really have to, again, at our age, anybody in our profession probably has to say, go a little slowly, make sure that you’ve got your form exactly right. If you do these exercises correctly, I don’t think you’re going to get injured, but anything … especially if you start getting tired at the gym, things start sliding, you’re not paying as much attention and then that’s when you will do something that could result in injury.
Nathan Cole: Right. And as far as other daily activities to do, not to do-
Akiko Tarumoto: Well, I think a common one for people with young children, babies, they have it’s actually called mommy thumbs or something, right? Not a-
Nathan Cole: Oh, right. Right. Hooking your thumbs under the kid’s armpits to pick them up.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, which we all do. How else are you supposed to pick up your kid? Yeah. That tendon at the base of your thumb on both hands, sometimes you just end up feeling like you can’t pick anything up anymore.
Nathan Cole: I didn’t know it was called that. I think I’ve had mommy thumbs.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah. Well, I’m sure it was not named in recent years.
Nathan Cole: Yeah. Actually picking up kids, because they’re a little less predictable than the weights at the gym too, because as you know, a 20-pound kid can feel really light if they’re cooperating or they can feel like a 65-pound dumbbell that’s thrashing around.
Akiko Tarumoto: We didn’t have light children.
Nathan Cole: No. They’re pretty chunky, especially one of them, in a cute way. What about prevention? Now, stretching… I used to have a stretching routine before I played that I got from one of my teachers. I stopped doing it after a while. At first, it was probably out of laziness, but I know another reason for me was that I actually felt like I started feeling tired after doing the stretches before I played.
Akiko Tarumoto: I’ve been not good over the years. I’ve almost never stretched before I played.
Nathan Cole: Isn’t there research in a lot of sports now that shows that stretching before you work out is not always necessarily — it doesn’t promote looseness?
Akiko Tarumoto: It seems to go a little bit back and forth.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, there’s a pendulum, right?
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, I’m not sure.
Nathan Cole: People always say warm up. I think that’s a common thing that happens with elite athletes in any sport, but it’s not always okay, “let’s stretch the muscles, and then do the sport” or the activity.
Akiko Tarumoto: What’s the thought, is it that stretching a cold muscle is not a great idea?
Nathan Cole: Right, that’s what I often hear now, and that was my experience stretching out the arms, the hands, and the fingers before I played. What I do now is basically just get started playing, but very slowly, and in a very relaxed way. I know for example, like I’m talking about distance runners, the Kenyans, they didn’t stretch. They just went out in the morning and ran some slow miles, and then ran faster miles, and then a lot faster.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, and we’ve seen that before races.
Nathan Cole: Oh. You mean people doing all kinds of weird stretches?
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, more running a couple miles even before they do the race.
Nathan Cole: Oh, you mean in a good way? Yeah, like the good runners running?
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, I think everybody has sort of adopted that habit to look more bad-ass. You’re like, “Woo, stay out of that guy’s way!”
Nathan Cole: If you ever see me before I play, yeah, I’ll be doing the really bad-ass slow playing warmup.
Akiko Tarumoto: Well, you have your video. It proves what you’re-
Nathan Cole: Yeah, I’m not doing a set stretching routine, but I don’t know that I’ll feel that way for all time. Certainly, not just jumping into really intense playing, which is a mistake that I’ve made many times, especially actually after I’ve taken time off. And that’s the worst time to jump right into fast playing! But, after I’ve taken time off, I’m always scared that I will have lost my fast ball, so to speak, so, I may be patient for a couple minutes, but then I want to see if I can play the concertos and play the hard stuff, and try to jump right into it. And I’m always sorry.
Akiko Tarumoto: That being said, you have not … I mean, you’re pretty careful in general, but you have not had any injuries except from moving, like moving furniture.
Nathan Cole: Right. Although, I don’t know if you remember there was a playing component to that too.
Akiko Tarumoto: Right.
Nathan Cole: In my experience, most of the time, playing injuries come from a combination of the violin side and the non-violin side. I feel like you almost need a confluence of factors, because hardly anybody is going to press their fingers down too hard on the violin and have some catastrophic finger injury, but you can develop tension over time, obviously. You can get compressed nerves and that sort of thing. Then, usually what happens is that some motion or some moment in your non-violin life brings it to crisis.
Akiko Tarumoto: That sounds like something I’m headed for, but-
Nathan misses six weeks
Nathan Cole: I don’t think so, no. Like I said, just a couple easy days for you, I’m sure, which we’ll get in about a week and a half when the season is over. You won’t be playing Schumann for six hours a day. No, the injury that I had pretty clearly was right around our one year anniversary, so, a little more than 10 years ago. I had been asked to play a very brief solo program. It was at some Chicago Symphony donor’s apartment and some important people were going to be there, so, I got sort of nervous and for some reason decided that the course of action should be to play really virtuosic stuff, and really impress people.
Akiko Tarumoto: Maybe that was my idea?
Nathan Cole: I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure, and for some reason it coincided with, it was probably the very end of our season. Right, because our anniversary is in June, so it was a similar timeframe to this. The end of the season when everybody is kind of beat up and I hadn’t been doing a lot of solo practicing. I was going to be bringing back some virtuoso unaccompanied repertoire for this little thing. We were moving houses at that time. We had a lot of packing, a lot of moving of boxes, and I wanted to play Paganini first Caprice, and Paganini 24th Caprice, and some solo Bach. I remember one day in particular just deciding, “today’s the day I’m really going to figure out how to play all those high thirds and tenths,” and whatever. So, from not doing a lot of solo practicing to two hours of that. I remember after an hour or so, I realized I hadn’t taken a break, and my arm was cramping up.
Nathan Cole: I did the little apartment concert and then a couple days after that, probably in the context of also moving some boxes, yeah, my left bicep really just didn’t feel right. I went to work the next week, I remember it was Verdi’s Requiem. I did about ten minutes of rehearsal and I couldn’t vibrate at all. I just knew something was not right. I left work and I didn’t come back for six weeks, I think it was. That’s the one time I’ve really missed work for that stuff. Yeah, a combination of being a little foolish with the moving stuff, and definitely being foolish on the violin side of things.
Akiko Tarumoto: I always, since I haven’t had to miss work for an injury — and this is going to sound pretty callous to anyone who has, but it’s you kind of imagine it stinks to miss work, but you’re like you know, you’re sitting at home, you’re watching Netflix, or I guess back then not Netflix, but yeah.
Nathan Cole: They had Netflix, but it was — you’d get the DVD in the mail and then mail it back!
Akiko Tarumoto: Right. It’s like, mail? What’s that? But yes, I’d be saying, “Wow. It sounds like you might secretly be enjoying this, right?” But I know from observing you up close, obviously, that that’s not the case, and you really go through some psychological stages once you start missing work. You don’t feel great about not being there.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, it was definitely a process like you said. At first, it was awesome! No, it was, because I’d been working a lot, it was the end of the season, but actually, we were … it was the end of the regular season, but we were about to launch into the summer season there. I thought well, “I’ve been working hard, and yeah, I deserve a break. It’s too bad this happened, but now I’ll get to really rest up, and this has never happened before. So yeah, why shouldn’t I make the most of it and enjoy it?” So, sure, there was some TV and movie watching, and I’m sure some other things I’d been wanting to take care of, but right, after even just a few days… First of all, there’s some fear. I’m sure it’s all the classic stages that people go through with anything. This ended up-
Akiko Tarumoto: Doc, doc, am I going to be okay?
Nathan Cole: Well, you know, there’s some — it’s been all fun and games, but what if this is a serious thing, and it’s going to take a long, long time? What if I don’t come back the same? Then, there are just more subtle things. Once I had a prescribed course of action, which was: okay, you’ve got to rest for more than a couple days. It’s going to be weeks and you’re going to go to occupational therapy, and all this. Once I knew that it was probably going to be fine once I just gave it some time and did my homework so to speak, then it was more like: eh, these days are getting pretty long. I don’t really know what to do when I’m not at least some of the time going in and playing the violin. Plus, you were at work, and all my friends were at work. You’d come home at the end of the day and be talking with our friends. “Oh, isn’t that great, or this concert was great, or this concert was terrible,” and I wasn’t there. I’m having to hear about it all secondhand and I’m just not used to that. I’m not getting any of the jokes.
Akiko Tarumoto: Like, hahaha, let’s make sure to make Nathan feel as left out as possible.
Nathan Cole: No, you didn’t have to try. I was left out, because I wasn’t at work.
Akiko Tarumoto: Maybe you just need more friends outside of work?
Nathan Cole: Well, that is something that we sometimes talk about, isn’t it? Yeah, it was a taste of a life without the violin, and it was kind of scary, because ever since we were kids that has been such a big part of our life, and our identity. Any time — even with minor injuries now, there’s always that fear at first, like what if it’s not the same afterward? Of course, everybody eventually comes to that point in their lives where they’re not playing professionally, or they’re just not playing at all. Hopefully, everybody has got a foundation. They are a person apart from the instrument. I know we talk about that and we try to work on that. That’s not exactly injury prevention, but maybe misery prevention for that time when you can’t play the way that you want.
Akiko Tarumoto: Right, yeah, I think we all assume that everything is going to go the way we want it to. I don’t want to get too dark here.
How does technique affect violin fitness?
Nathan Cole: That’s true, you do never know about the things that you can’t control. As far as the things you can, I know one thing that we talked about before sitting down to record here is how much of this is related to your actual technique of playing. So, specifically for violin, are there ways to play that prevent injury or make it more likely that you’re going to get injured? I think it’s pretty obvious to both of us that tension, accumulated tension is maybe the broad term, the broad thing that captures all of it.
Akiko Tarumoto: Sure, I mean, I’m trying to think of situations, if there was a situation where I’m tense for a long period of time that could lead to injury. I don’t think of myself as the most relaxed player, but fortunately, I haven’t had to deal with it, yet. I don’t know. Maybe some of it is luck.
Nathan Cole: Sure.
Akiko Tarumoto: I think playing certain instruments is more conducive to injury. I’m not sure, probably statistics can bear this out, but the viola for example, it seems like an instrument where it’s obviously easier to get injured than the violin, especially depending on your physical makeup.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, you’ve got more to hold up. The stretches are bigger.
Akiko Tarumoto: The intervals are bigger, it’s a more awkward instrument. I know people who have gotten injuries just because it’s a little bit harder to play than a violin.
Nathan Cole: What are some of the things that you can do or not do on a violin and viola? One thing I think of immediately is just finger pressure, gripping, and squeezing.
Akiko Tarumoto: You mean left, or right hand, or both?
Nathan Cole: Both. I think especially the left hand. There’s a lot that goes into left hand technique, but that single biggest source of tension, I know from reading and then finally seeing it in so many students, squeezing between the thumb and finger of the left hand. That’s the most common, even from the very beginning stages. A lot of it, in the beginning, stems from not wanting to drop the instrument. It depends on how you’ve been taught to hold it or support it, but squeezing there. Then, even with very advanced and professional players, just too much finger pressure, and really banging those fingers on the fingerboard, because a lot of people were taught that you’ve got to really hammer them down to get great articulation.
Akiko Tarumoto: You must be very impressed with how my fingerboard looks.
Nathan Cole: Actually, I never noticed it, but I remember in Chicago yeah, when we’d take our instruments in to get looked out, and the guys there in the shop at Bein and Fushi would say, “Wow, Akiko must have great finger pressure!” but honestly, I never have noticed that about your playing, so I think the wood of your fingerboard was just softer or something.
Akiko Tarumoto: I don’t think so.
Nathan Cole: I don’t know, I’ve seen you play a lot, I’ve never noticed that. Then, in the right arm, yeah. Some people do squeeze the bow stick, but I think often it’s trying to press the bow down into the string to get leverage from above. You can raise your right shoulder, you can raise your right elbow.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, I’ve always been kind of a pronator with my hand, which isn’t great. You’re kind of the opposite. Your hand is very balanced on the stick. I definitely, I guess the nice way to describe it would be a Russian bow hold, but I was often talked to about it by my teacher growing up, and he told me I would get injured someday. But I haven’t.
Nathan Cole: In your face, Akiko’s teacher.
Akiko Tarumoto: Unnamed teacher. But, here I am with this wrist problem, so… he does have the last laugh.
Nathan Cole: Staying aware, I think, of your body just like you would at the gym… I think it can sometimes be harder on the instrument, because we have musical standards that we’re trying to maintain, and artistic ideas that we’re thinking of. And sometimes the physical sensations are the last things we notice. Or we’ve been taught, or we’re accustomed to thinking, that that’s just all normal, and it’s part of playing. Maybe violin just isn’t meant to be comfortable. I’ve sometimes had, in the past, a hard time distinguishing between pain or tension that might lead to an injury, and just fatigue. Because fatigue is okay. That can just mean that you’re doing the right things, but doing them too much, or for too long, or it’s just the end of a rehearsal day. That, unfortunately, just comes with experience and guidance. I think if your teacher is looking at you and saying you’re doing all the right things, but you’ve been practicing for three hours a day, and you’re only used to two hours — you may just be tired and you need to take it a little easy.
Akiko Tarumoto: Maybe that’s the secret to lack of injury for me is just not practicing that much.
Nathan Cole: I think I’ve made use of that technique, too.
Akiko Tarumoto: Hey, now, we’re still here.
What kind of music helps or hurts?
Nathan Cole: What about certain types of music, certain genres of music, or styles of playing? I know that one of our former colleagues in the Chicago Symphony had a standing policy. No John Adams. Any week that had John Adams, no! And he chose his vacation weeks just based on that, because for whatever reason, he felt like when he had played John Adams in the past, he had gotten hurt. I love John Adams’ music. But there are certain pieces, not just of his, but some minimalist-
Akiko Tarumoto: I find it less in the minimalist stuff. That certainly doesn’t help, but I’m a little bit disturbed by the new tendency for crunching, or some of the molto sul ponticello markings that we get… if I was to keep that up for long stretches of time, that’s the one thing I think might lead to problems for me.
Nathan Cole: So you’re talking about in some newer pieces of music, having the string players create distortion.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah. I’m sure there is a good way to do it that would still be possible in a relaxed way, but it’s so, so easy to play that stuff in a way that’s all tension in the shoulder, and can, you know — it’s sort of the fast track to injury.
Nathan Cole: Well, so when you mentioned that crunching thing, I think what is unnatural about that motion is that it’s supposed to sound like something’s hitting a brick wall, basically. And in athletics, you know, if you swing a tennis racquet, you swing a golf club, you don’t make contact and then freeze everything, right? There’s a follow through. And in, quote-unquote, normal violin and string playing, we’re taught there’s a follow through, there’s a finishing to every motion. We try to use circular motions whenever we can. Now not every bow stroke is like that, even in Classical or Romantic music.
Nathan Cole: But right, we’ve played some pieces that have … and some pieces, I think, use it quite well. I mean, it’s a special effect, and one that’s used at dramatic moments. And then we’ve played some other pieces where it’s just like all the time, we’re supposed to be making these ugly guttural and percussive sounds.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, and again, these all sound like judgmental words, you know, ugly. Most of the time, the stuff is marked triple forte. You’re not going to play that softly, but you can’t keep that up for ten minutes or longer. And then, much of it is having to do it in a mindful way, where you’re not going to create that kind of problem. But it is so much easier than if you’re playing legato notes, or standard technique. It is much, much easier to get injured if you’re doing that.
Nathan Cole: Right.
Akiko Tarumoto: You just have to be that much more careful.
Akiko Tarumoto: Conversely, I think the other music that makes me feel as if I might be getting injured is Baroque music. And you know so much about that, having played in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where you were playing not only Baroque music, but you were playing second violin. Second violin being the other thing I think that is not often thought of as injury inducing. But I think because you’re … you know, I’ve played a lot of Schubert symphonies, second violin, and your arm is not able to move around the range of strings from G to E. You end up a lot of the time playing on “DNA”. D and A. And your arm is in that middle position for possibly most of a symphony. Most of a 40 minute symphony, a 50 minute. Schubert Nine.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, you’re exactly right. I mean a lot of people think, I think a lot of non-string players look at a violinist and think, “Wow, that arm is really moving around, it must be so tiring for the arm, it must be — you get hurt moving the arm all around like that.” And it’s actually the opposite. The pieces that let you move all around are less tiring than the ones where you’ve got to hold that static position.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah. Yeah, I-
Nathan Cole: And what we’re playing nowadays, this Schumann festival, as well. Several weeks of everything that Schumann wrote for the orchestra. That’s pretty killer. As was the Schubert festival that we did to end last season.
Akiko Tarumoto: Right, because we also had the chamber music thrown in, both last year and this year.
Nathan Cole: By our choice.
Akiko Tarumoto: By our choice, which added to the-
Nathan Cole: Because it’s great music.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah. But Schubert Nine famously, I don’t know if it causes a lot of injuries, but you know, those triplets, on low strings.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, so composers now, if you want to have no injuries in your violin players, write a lot of singing legato lines on the A and E strings, and free bows!
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, as you say, it’s funny, because the repertoire that probably feels least like you’re causing injury to yourself is where you’re playing in a lot of positions, and it’s free. Strauss, which is ironically thought of as being so difficult, and it is, but I don’t know if it’s — part of it is that he wrote well for strings. For upper strings especially. And so you’d feel like you’re using the range of your instrument, and you’re not hanging out in one range all the time. And I think it’s the hanging out in the one range that’s the tough part.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, and I think that there’s a mental-slash-spiritual component to this too. I mean, when there’s music that I really care about … you mentioned earlier getting tense if something matters, if you’re nervous about something. Yeah, absolutely, if it’s music that I really want to come off in a certain way, and I’m really going for it, or I’m really … or maybe I’m not sure, actually, how it should sound, and that’s making me tense.
Nathan Cole: In those situations, you know, I’ve gotten close to injury playing Beethoven. You know, a Beethoven string quartet. It just matters so much to me how it sounds, and that can creep into all your motions in a subtle way.
Akiko Tarumoto: So that’s interesting. I mean, I think maybe I’ve talked about this slightly. Maybe “breakthrough” is too dramatic a word. But preparing for an audition, I’ve thought, you know, I’ll take a little video of myself playing, not just audio, but I wanna see what I’m doing. And first of all, if you’re over a certain age, put on your full face of makeup before you do it. After I watched it, I was pretty horrified.
Akiko Tarumoto: But I was amazed. I was using a lot less bow than I thought I was. And so, since that moment, I’ve been really trying to stretch out the sound. I think of it sort of like — in my playing, it’s always my unique problem in some ways. A lot of tension, a lot of compactness to my sound that isn’t always good. I mean, it’s almost never thought of as a beneficial quality. So I-
Nathan Cole: But yet it’s gotten you so far, whatever you’re describing.
The power of more bow
Akiko Tarumoto: You can always do better, obviously. So, you know, if you wanna keep growing, it’s nice to realize these things you’ve got to work on. To have a real goal. It’s almost like a piece of dough, you’re trying to … you know, you’ve got this nice dough to work with, and yet it’s real dense, and too chewy. So I’m always — always work on stretching it out. Your bow, always trying to get more length, more … even if your notes aren’t actually longer, it’s the same amount of sound, just spread out over a longer stretch of your bow.
Akiko Tarumoto: And I think it’s helped. I think that the impression has been lighter, and a little more appealing.
Nathan Cole: Well, I know, reading Simon Fischer on that subject. One of the easiest ways to … just, if you watch a video with no sound, of two different violinists, chances are, the one using more bow is the more accomplished player. I mean, it doesn’t always work that way. But in general, you know, if most people watch a video of themselves playing a certain piece, and then put on a video of Perlman, or Heifetz, or Joshua Bell, or anybody, they’re going to see the big time soloists using a lot of bow. And that’s because those folks can do that very freely while still controlling the position of the bow.
Akiko Tarumoto: And that’s because the great soloists, they don’t have that kind of restrictive tension.
Nathan Cole: Right, they’re not … that’s part of it too. They’re not asked to play triple p for a two-hour rehearsal. And you know, some of them could deal with it quite well, I’m sure, and some not. But yeah, if you’re in the orchestra life, you have to be able to do that, and figure out — whether that’s sort of resting your bow arm on your leg when you can!
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, so that ties in. I mean, our profession is one where, you know … I always say this sort of sad thing, we’re more valued for what we don’t do, sometimes. Especially as section players.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, it takes a lot of skill not to do certain things.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, and you have to be, once in a while, you’re not totally clear on what’s happening, and you have to be ready to say, the sound cuts off here. And no matter what, if something is a little ambiguous before… you’re done at this beat. And that kind of thinking makes you — eventually you feel as if you’re always prepared to stop your sound. And that thinking is basically the opposite of not only how we were trained, but how great music works, great sound works. So that’s a little bit of a paradox that we’re always having to fight against.
Akiko Tarumoto: So I think, again, the need practice when you’re not at work, because otherwise, that side starts to dominate. And the stopping the sound becomes the thing that you become used to instead of opening the sound.
Nathan Cole: Well, I mean, athletes would never dream in this day and age, and I could probably — for the last 30 years, you wouldn’t train without the help of video. I mean, everybody uses video, and we’re way behind the times in that. I remember even when I’ve taken the pricier golf lessons, and they’ve gotten me on video, and they’re able to put me on the split screen next to Tiger Woods. For one that, that makes me … you might think, oh, that would make you feel really terrible and inferior, but actually, it makes you feel like a total superstar. You’re like, “I’m on the same screen as Tiger Woods. We’re both swinging the club!”
Akiko Tarumoto: I remember my swing didn’t look that bad, and side by side it was just, like, 10% as fast. He was already done, I was just starting.
Nathan Cole: Well similarly, yeah, bow speed and swing speed with the golf club, it’s such a similar thing, right? Because those fast golf swings, they look and they feel really free and easy. They’re super fast, but they’re also just well controlled, because all the fundamentals are there. And obviously that’s what we want on the violin. That’s what everybody wants to be able to do.
Nathan Cole: But yeah, I love watching those videos, and hearing the calm instructor’s voice. “Now here, where Tiger gets just to parallel, you’re stopping well short.” Actually, I think in my case, I was going way past, because I couldn’t control it. Yeah, there were many, many differences which he marked with a little red telestrator on the video.
Akiko Tarumoto: Telestrator!
Nathan Cole: But no, if we could all have that for our bow strokes, and our general playing, we’d probably avoid more injuries.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, wouldn’t it be great if it was like an NBA team?
Nathan Cole: Oh yeah where we have like the-
Akiko Tarumoto: Where we have the-
Nathan Cole: Doctor, team trainer.
Akiko Tarumoto: Yeah, the doctor, like the injury facilities. And then the coaches for various, there’d be — you know, the bow stroke coach. There’d be the-
Nathan Cole: Yeah, but then if it really worked like the sports teams, the doctor’s main priority would be getting us back on stage. They’d just shoot us up with horse tranquilizers, and say “get back out there!”
Akiko Tarumoto: I’ll take them.
Nathan Cole: “Get back out there, we need you for the Schumann festival!”
Akiko Tarumoto: The tranqs. Gimme the tranqs.
Nathan Cole: You can rest in June.
Akiko Tarumoto: That’s right, that’s what June is for.
Nathan Cole: Well, I think we’ve haven’t exhausted the possibilities, but I’m actually feeling upbeat covering this subject, because I feel like there’s always room to grow, and the ideals that we’re after, that looseness, that fluidity. It’s good for the sound, it’s good for us. You know, everybody’s going to face setbacks, as we have. But rest and time will allow you to get that second chance.
Akiko Tarumoto: We’ve got our big break coming up, in just a week and a half, so we’re looking forward to some recharging. And I’ve got a little project for June.
Nathan Cole: Oh, what’s that?
Akiko Tarumoto: Which is to improve my fast passage confidence.
Nathan Cole: Oh, right.
Akiko Tarumoto: Next time, we can talk about how that’s going.
Nathan Cole: Yeah, because I had a few videos I was hoping to make about that. So maybe I’ll see what you think of them before I actually make them into videos.
Nathan Cole: And I’ll still be playing. I’ve got some teaching to do in Philadelphia at the David Kim Orchestral Institute. And I should be practicing for a Stravinsky concerto with the LA Phil the last day of July.
Akiko Tarumoto: Ooh, July 31st!
Nathan Cole: Yay! I had a nightmare about it already. I had one of those … I told you. One of those where the concert was upon me, and I realized that I’d decided to do it without music, and yet I couldn’t even tell you how the second or the third movement started.
Akiko Tarumoto: Probably won’t happen.
Nathan Cole: Yeah. Let’s make that not happen.
Nathan Cole: All right, thanks so much for joining us again, and we can’t wait to have you back for the next episode of Stand Partners for Life.