Learning To Let Go

Disclaimer: The nerve damage described in this story was not medically confirmed. This is a description of a first hand experience I had with extreme pain and how it influence my teaching and personal practice.

I was at a disadvantage when I began as a classical violin performance major in college. At that time, I simply hadn’t had the level of education that my classmates had started with. I’d learned a lot of bad technical habits on the violin at a young age, not having the best teachers money could buy, as many of my classmates at the University of Miami did, in fact, have.

I was about to graduate. My professor was a kind fellow and he liked me. He offered to let me visit him during a brief holiday break. He was concertmaster of the Naples Philharmonic, an incredible violinist, teacher, and all around person. I wasn’t sure why he liked me. I certainly wasn’t the star student of the school, but we got along, I valued his advice greatly, and I think he recognized and appreciated that, along with my efforts to learn.

So he offered to drive me from the university back to Naples, Florida, and have me stay at his house for a couple nights, and watch a performance of the Naples Philharmonic. I accepted, of course, and we had a pleasant and relaxed drive across the miles of flat, subtropical wilderness that is the alligator infested Everglades, and I was welcomed by his wife and family as their own at his lovely home in Naples.

It was a wonderful visit, he introduced me to his daughter, a painter, and son, a movie producer, and he took me to meet members of the philharmonic, a wonderful group of musicians.

Eventually, though, the day before we were to head back to university, he had some work to do. He needed to go to a rehearsal, and he offered to show me to his personal practice space to let me spend some time on my own and practice myself. I agreed, and he walked me to a simple modified barn room behind the house, quiet, and far enough from the house so as not to be disturbed, or to disturb anyone. He asked me if I needed anything else, said he’d be back at the end of the day, and headed off to his work.

I was inspired, of course. I had been practicing four to six hours every day in college (usually six), and I was in a space where someone I knew had learned and mastered incredible works of art. So I began to practice. I practiced all day, I barely took a break, until he came back in the evening. My hands were a little sore, but I had made progress. I thought I had done well.

We headed home the next day, as I had classes, and he had to teach. We drove back to the campus, chatting comfortably on whatever subject came to mind, from my classical violin repertoire to his side passion for jazz harmonica. It was a lovely visit.

I woke up the next morning, eager to see if my day of obsessive violin practice had made an overall impact on my playing. I biked my way to the practice rooms, set up my violin, and placed my left hand finger on a string, and nearly dropped the violin.

I leaned against the wall and moaned in pain and fear, and tried once more to place a finger on the string. I jerked my hand away as though it had been burnt. Pain shot from my fingertips up my forearm like fire. I had damaged the nerves on the ends of my fingers.

I set the violin down and simply tried to touch my fingertip against the wall of the practice room. I couldn’t do it. The pain was excruciating.

My bad technique, combined with my enthusiasm and desire to get better, had turned into a disastrous combination. I had been pressing my fingers into the strings too hard, and it damaged the nerve endings until the nerves no longer sent the correct signals, and a gentle touch was pain beyond measure.

I couldn’t play the violin.

I went home, and sat in my room, afraid. I didn’t know what to do. I had taken out, in student loans, more money than I’d ever seen, I had one year left of college, I was a senior. And I had a final performance in order to even graduate college. I began to study online about healing nerve damage and the information was terribly sparse, but what I did learn was it takes time for nerves to heal, lots of time. I began to fear that I wouldn’t graduate at all. I didn’t know exactly how life was going to work out after college, but I felt that not graduating would be a disaster. At the time, college was everything for me, grades were obsessed about, professor’s advice was written down and applied, party invitations were thought about longingly and then ignored. College was my chance, college was my attempt at a better future, I wasn’t going to get it wrong.

And I couldn’t play the violin.

I waited for a week. I didn’t play the violin. I studied my other subjects. I faked my way through orchestra classes, moving my bow in the air and hovering my fingers above the strings, tensed, hoping I wouldn’t be called upon to play anything for a demonstration of my ability. I felt like a fraud, a ghost. I wasn’t the greatest player in the orchestra, far from it, actually. But, before the injury, at least I was trying, and I knew that had to have some value. Now, I couldn’t. I couldn’t even let the fingertips of my left hand touch the violin.

A week passed, and I tried again, back in the practice rooms. And I did it. I touched a string, pain shot through my forearm, but I held contact. There was no pressure, of course, if I had pressed down I would have screamed. But I was able to make contact, and that was a victory. I tried to play a couple notes and a horrible screeching sound came out. Because, you see, if there is no pressure on a string with the left hand, then all the left hand is doing is muffling the vibration of the string, not changing notes. The string of a violin needs a certain amount of finger pressure on the string in order to vibrate freely. I couldn’t provide that. I could only place my fingers on the strings with the weight of a butterfly. It wasn’t enough. I put my violin back in the case and went home.

I tried this for several days, opening the case, putting the violin in position, trying to make a sound, and then putting it away. I couldn’t make a sound.

But I noticed something interesting. Because it was impossible for me to put pressure on the strings of the violin, my hand was completely relaxed. It was placed, almost limply, in position, on the fingerboard of the violin. My form was perfect, and my fingers, though useless, could move faster than they’d ever moved across the fingerboard.

And I was healing, just slightly.

So I made a decision. I decided I would get better, not just from my injury, but I would become a better player.

I began to practice again, for hours, and hours. But this time I took breaks, I would set timers and stop for a short break every five minutes, longer breaks every fifteen, and go outside every half hour. I dove into my musical repertoire and I began playing my music with my fingers just barely touching the strings. I sounded horrible. And I’m not saying this out of humility. I’m saying this is where I began to learn humility.

The sound was just as scratchy as the first note, and it remained that way for weeks. I sounded like a child who had never played before, who  had picked up a violin, and decided to torture his family with it. Except, for me, it was my chance at a better life, my survival, and it was the thing that made me different from the world. And it felt like it was gone. My classmates walked through the halls of the practice rooms by my door and my face burned in embarrassment. I was better than this, my inner critic said. I longed to press my fingers harder into the strings, and I could now, I’d learned to endure the pain. I could have just started slamming my fingers down (it hurt anyways, no matter how lightly I played) and save my ego. I would have been happy to damage myself to save my ego. When you’re a young adult, trying to build a life, and it isn’t working, one’s ego becomes very delicate and it’s easy to make mistakes driven by the wrong desires.

But somehow, I decided on the course I did and stuck with it. I had finally integrated the concept that the more relaxed the human body is, the more capable it is of motion. So, not pressing my left hand fingers into the strings made me capable of moving at incredible speeds. Speeds I’d never achieved before. So I decided to keep practicing with a soft touch as my fingers slowly healed. And, as they healed, to begin pressing my fingers incrementally down on the strings to find out what the minimum pressure needed for a good sound really was.

So I scraped and scratched my way through hours and hours of practice time. I dealt with my personal humiliation. I realized it didn’t matter what I sounded like. I realized that it mattered if I learned what I wanted to learn. It mattered if I grew as a person. My professor, though sympathetic and supportive, had never dealt with an injury such as mine, or the related problems. Because, often, when a teacher learns good technique as a student at a young age, certain aspects of that technique become so ingrained the teacher doesn’t realize they need to be taught. Also, he had a responsibility to push me to learn my material in order to graduate. I was on my own and I persevered stubbornly, still embarrassed, still ashamed I wasn’t “good” like the other magically “gifted” students, still in pain, every day.

And it began to work. I worked on runs, portions of music that are often just scales placed in the context of the compositions, a bunch of fast notes ascending or descending. They’re simple, but were often a struggle to me, as I didn’t have the basic body mechanics down like many of the students at my age already did. The runs began to get faster. I did them over and over again, my left hand fingers barely touching the strings, my right hand pressing the bow into the string as confidently as I could, trying to get a sound, any sound but a scratch, out of the violin. I scratched. It sounded terrible, but my fingers moved faster, and faster, and faster. I was actually playing runs the way they were intended, with a constant flow from low to high, with the smoothness of a slide or glissando but with the precision of piano keys.

I began to work on my vibrato. I realized, without flexing any of the muscles in my hand, I could move my forearm back and forth much more freely, which is where most vibrato should come from, a flexing of the biceps and triceps moving the forearm back and forth. But when too many muscles are tense, the biceps and triceps will begin to jerk erratically, and the loss of control will tempt the violinist to use a smaller muscle group to move only the wrist or fingers. With my hand completely relaxed, I didn’t have that problem. I worked for hours on bowing long, slow notes, with one finger down, developing my vibrato not with a beautiful tone, but a horrendous scraping sound, as I refrained from pressing my finger fully down onto the string.

My posture began to improve. Flexing any muscle consistently will drive you to concentrate on it, and then begin to move towards it. Before the nerves were damaged in my fingertips, I would lean forward, putting all of my concentration on the difficulties a passage would present to my left hand. Now, there was a certain lightness to my left hand. I would try leaning backwards, amusing myself with strange positions, playing fast runs while doing a back bend. Occasionally, when the pain wasn’t too bad, I felt almost cool, like a rock star playing a solo.

And finally, I decided it was time to begin adding pressure. I was constantly testing my fingers, tapping them lightly against my leg during lectures on the effects of the french revolution on music and art, each tap a jolt of horrible pain, a piece of information to be reprocessed, a lesson. So I dove into the practice rooms yet again, and began to play the same passage over and over again. I would play the same passage, at the time, because doing something familiar held the lowest risk of overextending myself and pressing too hard, causing myself more damage. Now, I know, using a short, familiar passage, is the best way to develop any physical technique, as it allows the mind to concentrate on the body, instead of the notation.

I added pressure, and I began to get a hint of a sound, a note that wasn’t a scratch. It was working. I played the passage, over and over. I tested myself, to see if I could retain my newfound speed while adding pressure.

At first, I could not. I became immensely frustrated and anxious, again fearing I would have to give up and go home, failing college and retaining a debt I had no idea how to pay off. This was not a good time for me. My business partner, who had encouraged me to sign on to the pricey tuition of a school that was out of my league, had left. His dad had come to my apartment and taken the computer back my partner had given me, as my partner had stolen it from his dad to give to me without my knowledge. The girl I had known since I was a child had sent me a wedding invitation, which was kind of her, but the day I opened it my mouth turned dry and my hands went numb, because I realized I wanted my name at the top of the invitation. I was completely in love with my childhood friend, committed without conscious thought, with every fiber of my being, to this young woman. And I had never told her. Because I had never known. How can one identify love if one has never experienced it? It was a tragedy of ignorance and lack of self awareness. And I felt it as much as anyone in that position would. So the slightest deviation from success in my academic and musical life would send me into a spiral of fear, panic, and depression. As the rest of my life was already chaos.

But slowly, it began to work. I realized, there are different ways to visualize the pressure of a finger onto a string. I was squeezing. I was pinching the string and fingerboard between my thumb and my fingers. I realized that if I pulled my fingers downwards using the force of my arm, I would use far less finger and hand tension in order to get the same amount of pressure onto the string. This, of course, required me to reassess how I held the violin with my head. And I then spent hours practicing without my left hand thumb touching the neck of the violin at all in order to ensure I wasn’t pinching even a little bit. This, of course, made me sound out of tune and horrible once again. But the new habit was eventually established. To this day, I can’t encourage this practice enough on almost any instrument. Learning to pull with the arm instead of squeeze with the fingers was a huge step and all of my student derive great benefit from becoming independent of the need for a thumb as anything but a frame of reference for good pitch (as that is the thumb’s true purpose).

As I developed the ability to pull downwards on the strings and not squeeze the neck of the violin, I began to retain the speed I had developed. I got faster. I became more confident. At this point I knew I was on to something, my speed was at the level of a professional violinist for the first time in my life. It was scratchy, but my fingers were becoming more and more capable. I started to notice little things. I started to develop an awareness of the string that was beautiful. I felt like I watch touching the string, enjoying the contact, and not simply trying to push it onto the fingerboard. It became a dance over the fingerboard, instead of on it.

I added a little more pressure to the strings with my left hand. My senior recital was only a week away at this point, and I had barely learned all of my repertoire. But it was working. I polished the pieces as best as I could over the next week, my left hand still so low on strength that I had to caution myself hourly not to overextend it.

The day of the recital came. My family came to town, of course. Which is a kind thing to do. But fear of a more public failure didn’t really make things better. I was young, I was afraid, and college felt like a big responsibility.

I walked to the back entrance of the concert hall and was greeted by my friend Jackson Alexander Parodi, who was working as a staff member of the concert hall that night, a pleasant relief. There were few people more friendly, or enthusiastic than he was in college, and it made the whole experience a little bit easier. We chatted for a bit about how the recital was going to go. I met with my accompanist. We waited for the audience to settle into there seats, I walked onstage. And I played my music.

I don’t remember much, frankly. I remember seeing how the paper looked under the concert lights, noticing, once again, that it was a pretty hall, and that I liked being there. Being afraid that I would get an ‘F.’ And realizing that I had finished the recital.

It wasn’t great. I’m not going to pretend it was the best recital ever played. It wasn’t.

But I did it, and I moved on.

I graduated.

I spent some time numbly fishing with my brother in the keys, as a graduation gift from him.

I went back home and hibernated for a week or two.

I moved to Austin as planned, and got a job in a shop, building things with my hands for the construction industry. I spent my free time sitting on a couch and staring at the wall.

It was dirty, and white, and very calming.

And eventually, I picked up my violin again. And I played whatever I wanted to play.

And I set it back down, and went outside. I went swimming, picked up new hobbies. I learned acro yoga. I went for walks in the woods. I started meditating, eating better, and trying to take care of myself.

In time, I regained my emotional strength and began to play the violin again regularly, and I became the performer that I am today, and a teacher, and a lover of music. I learned that the struggles I had with music gave me an empathy that is a priceless element to a teacher. I learned that the pain I felt taught me lessons about technique that I would have never learned without it, and that I can pass those lessons on to others in simple language with ease, and spare them that same struggle.

 

The truth though, is I simply experienced something that gave me the ability to relate to other’s difficulties more quickly. It was a painful process for me, but it gave me the chance to share the understanding with others so they don’t have to experience the same struggle. I learned to relax, to let go of my need to grip onto something to succeed, and to embrace the body’s natural ability to flow.

Once the body is aware of itself, an intention is set, and a patient but excited energy is applied to learning an ability, incredible things happen.

And that is the process that I now teach myself, and others, to the best of my ability.

@joshterryplays

I teach violin in the North Austin area. I am a performing and recording musician with a passion for combining electronic and acoustic elements of the classical and contemporary worlds into a modern loop show. I call it folk synthpop and I think it sounds nice and it makes me smile and it’s fun and stuff you should come see it 🙂

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