By David Lewellen
Melissa White and Elena Urioste got through the beginnings of their professional violin careers without thinking much about their bodies. If they had performance-related pain, they ignored it as long as they could.
Then, in 2009, they separately found yoga. The two had already been friends from attending many of the same camps and conservatories, but when they compared notes about their yoga practice, they found they were discovering all kinds of benefits as violinists. Urioste, who that same year attended Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, quickly sensed that her limbs were looser, her focus in practice was greater, and her performance anxiety was reduced, meaning that her bow arm was steadier.
Eight years later, they founded Intermission, which now offers weeklong summer retreats for professional musicians, as well as one-day sessions in schools and conservatories. “It’s like yoga meets an artists’ colony,” Urioste says, with two yoga classes a day for “a community of like-minded, open-hearted, curious musicians.”
Playing any instrument takes extreme coordination of dozens of muscle groups, nerves, ligaments, and more. But many musicians, even accomplished ones, don’t think much about the role of their body in their work until a problem happens. In recent years, awareness has been growing about how various physical disciplines can help musicians not only prevent injury, but also play better and feel better.
“Yoga has affected every cell in my body and every layer in my mental and emotional self,” Urioste says. Because she thinks of everything holistically, the insights quickly became incorporated into her work as a violinist. “I always look for crossovers—in nature, in art, in literature. If a yoga teacher says, ‘Observe yourself without judgment,’ my mind is going to jump to violin performance.”
“A lot of the time, we’re not aware of what our body is doing when we’re playing an instrument,” White adds, “because we’re not aware of what our body is doing when we’re not playing an instrument.”
Urioste and White’s Intermission program recently received a $10,000 grant from the Sphinx Tank entrepreneurship competition, which they will use to help develop a mobile app to encourage wellness and mindfulness. Both violinists have long been associated with the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based group that promotes diversity in the arts.
White, who will perform at Ravinia as part of the Harlem Quartet on June 8, often starts a class with young musicians by doing a group breathing exercise, “and even in two minutes, you can feel the room change.”
The learning goes both ways. Last winter, at a preparatory arts academy, a slender female tuba player asked Urioste and White for some tips. “We told her that we’re not tuba players,” Urioste admits, knowing that those physical demands were outside their expertise, “but we still had a really interesting dialogue. She taught us so much about breathing.”
The two violinists have learned that string players, too, need to breathe with the phrase. “One breath per bow,” Urioste says. “It breathes new life into the music itself. It gives my phrases profile and variety. The difference in the sound is really noticeable.” When she works with young violinists, “I’ll notice if their breathing is shallow, or if they’re distributing their weight unevenly, or if unnecessary muscle groups are involved. Even if my eyes are closed, I can tell if someone isn’t breathing.” As a student, she was not taught about the physical aspect of playing; she learned a lot for herself after becoming a dedicated yoga practitioner.
“It’s more than just keeping our arms strong and well. It’s an entire body experience,” White says. “The position of your feet matters, whether standing or sitting. If the lower half of the body is weak, the upper half has to counterbalance.”
The mindfulness aspect of yoga also helps Urioste prevent injury. She now thinks ruefully about the months-long numbness in her right arm that she did not know how to treat in college. But about three years ago, when she felt the beginnings of something similar, she was able to neutralize it with a few hours of stretches to her neck and upper body.
“We ask a lot of our bodies,” White says, and she tries to be aware of what she’s feeling. Unlike football players, she says, “we don’t get paid millions to play just yet. And that’s even more reason to be preventative with our bodies.”
Every instrument has its own set of problems or hazards. Howard Nelson, a physical therapist and the husband of violinist Pamela Frank, urges musicians across all disciplines to be smart about their practicing—to think about how much time they spend, how often they take breaks, and what their reasons are for stopping.
Nelson, who since 2016 has been working with the piano and string artists at Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute during their summer fellowships, tells musicians to stay off their phones during a break from practicing. While playing, “players are typically leaning forward with their hands in front of them and their head down”—the same alignment that most people use on their phone. For a change of motion, he suggests getting their hands and arms over their heads, or simply taking a short walk: “It’s great for your body, but nobody does it.”
Better musicianship can also save a musician’s body. Frank points out that if instrumentalists are practicing an orchestral part and know the score thoroughly, they can spend less time on sections where their part is not the most important voice, thereby getting the same benefit from less practice time.
Nelson does not follow the specifics of yoga, Pilates, Alexander technique, or any of the other systems of movement, but the common factor is “they’re all asking people to be mindful of how they use their body.”
Urioste tried Alexander technique and decided it wasn’t for her, but she knows other musicians who love it. “The key is finding a motion practice that is safe, that strengthens your playing muscles, and keeping an open mind,” she says. “I absolutely encourage people to find what works for them.”
Another body practice that RSMI fellows now have the opportunity to try is the Feldenkrais method, taught by Hagit Vardi and her husband, Uri, a professional cellist who teaches at the University of Wisconsin. “A lot of musicians feel that the music only comes out in a certain configuration of their body,” says Uri. “That happens because they’ve never tried others. Once you challenge that, you open up a new spectrum of possibilities.”
Performers often build up bad habits and then injuries, he says, because they neglect the use of their feet, sitting bones, and lower back, which are “the places of power in the body. A lot of musicians try to get power from the arm and the neck and they hurt themselves.” Even in a sitting position, the placement of the feet is important.
But what does power mean, and how is it used? For some musicians, expressive movement is part of their persona. But Vardi says that if young musicians think they need intense body movement to play intense music, “you’re limiting yourself. You’re forcing that on your system.” Hagit adds, “It is a very complex system, and IQ is not sufficient. If you expose your system to possibilities, the most efficient one will pop up.” When they teach at Ravinia or elsewhere, “We provide more options to the student. Then it’s their decision; it’s their muscles.”
Nelson likes to record his clients playing with body motion and without, and when he plays it back for them, he’s found they almost always like the stable version best. Some audience members may like watching a musician gyrate and gesticulate, but Nelson said that plenty of subtler visual communication is possible—“but you can’t turn people into statues or robots either.”
Whatever technique people use, White says, all of them stress body alignment, “because of the way gravity works on our body and the asymmetrical way we stand or sit.” Every school of mindful motion works to bring people to be aware of a neutral posture.
For anything, certain principles apply. The natural position of the body is symmetrical in all planes—meaning that if the head is leaning forward, the neck can be strained. Everyone should keep the lower spine straight when sitting. Pianists should keep their elbows at a 90-degree angle and wrists in a line. And the correct height and position of the music stand also makes a difference, just as with, say, a computer monitor.
Any repeated movement, whether musical or athletic or thumbs typing on a phone, can bring on symptoms and pain from overuse. But, Nelson adds, there are no absolutes: “Someone can have the worst alignment and muscular use but have no symptoms, because of DNA, luck, or God knows what.”
He reminds musicians to use the least force necessary for a task. Coffee drinkers don’t hold their cup like it’s a 10-pound weight, and a musician who holds an instrument that way is asking for trouble. And after an injury happens, recovery may involve learning a new way to sit and to play. “If people can’t hold their instrument, they’ll try anything,” Nelson says. “It’s a question of belief and desire and putting in the time.” ▪
David Lewellen is a Milwaukee-based journalist who writes regularly for the Chicago Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony, and other classical websites.