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Violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch on how she overcame chronic RSI

In the second of our Health Matters interviews from 2009, the Australian violinist explains how sessions at the gym helped her overcome pain

Friday, 21 February 2014

Have you had any physical problems with playing?

I started having playing injuries in my teens. The first thing was tennis elbow in my right elbow. As the years progressed I played in more and more pain, which moved from both arms, my neck and upper back to my lower back and back again. I even used to sleep in the playing posture, with my left arm curled around my left ear and my right arm waved across my chest. Eventually the whole machinery seized up.

By 1975 the pain was constant, and sharp in both elbows and forearms, to the point that I couldn’t brush my hair. I didn’t play at all during 1976. My entire universe was based around playing the violin and it was a desperate time. In my years of study, my teacher was wonderful but he’d never experienced what I was going through and didn’t understand it. I only mentioned my troubles once or twice and he said, ‘Just take the day off’. The ethic of counting six hours as a good practice day is terrible. With good practice, students need never practise more than three hours, with short breaks and stretches.

 

How did you solve your problems?

A physiotherapist got me back on track with deep massages and exercises, working with me three times a week. After a full twelve months I began playing again with barely 30 seconds a day, and it took me five years to recover fully. Then I started to go to the gym. Lifting weights changed my life, helping me gain strength and flexibility in a careful, balanced way. You need to be taught how to do it by someone who understands the postures musicians have to hold. It was amazing to see how different my hands and arms became and how much more control I had as a player. I could play for longer without feeling tired or feeling I was on the edge of injury, as I had for many years.

In my bad year, 1976, I started swimming. I would put elasticated bandages on my forearms and use swimming gloves so I couldn’t move my fingers, in order not to aggravate the horrible things that were going on in my forearms. It’s a wonderful exercise for some injuries but if you have repetitive strain injury (RSI) in the forearms, which was my problem, it can be dangerous.

 

What exercise do you do now?

I swim a great deal – front crawl – and have done for many years since the 70s, once the forearms were better. It is a wonderful form of exercise. I go to the gym three or four times a week and on tour I carry around elastic bands so after a long day of rehearsing and playing I can take 20 minutes out. I put on the television, sit in the hotel room and do my routine, and then I’m back to square one and I don’t injure myself.

 

How else do you deal with the strains of travel?

You can do terrible damage lifting a 20kg suitcase off a moving belt. Once I got a large suitcase out of a train in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and tore my biceps tendon. My arm was literally hanging there, and I had to cancel six weeks of work because of one moment of inattention. When you’re shown how to lift weights you’re taught to focus on what you’re lifting a second or two before you lift, whereas if you’re getting a suitcase off a carousel you tend to grab and lunge. The brain hasn’t said ‘concentrate’ to the muscles and you’re in danger. Stations in Europe without escalators or lifts are terrible, and you end up lugging suitcases up flights of stairs. One simply has to be strong and attentive.

Jetlag hits me badly. People say you should stay up all day if you arrive somewhere at 6am but it doesn’t work for me. If I feel exhausted I go to bed and sleep until I wake up. I recover more quickly if I follow the instructions that my body is giving me.

 

Do you have any special eating routines around concerts?

My ideal day includes a light breakfast; morning rehearsal; huge lunch; long sleep; cup of tea and a slice of toast; and the concert. In a non-ideal day you drive 150 miles; have a rehearsal in the afternoon; there’s nowhere to eat so you scrabble for the sandwich you picked up on the motorway; then do your concert and drive 150 miles back. If I haven’t had my big lunch my concentration wanes, so a great energy boost for me is toast with peanut butter and banana.

 

Have you tried any alternative therapies?

I’ve recently taken up Feldenkrais again, which is great. It teaches your body to integrate itself, using small movements. It is skilled neurological training, and shows you that you only need what you need – you don’t need more than you need.

I spent a year and a half doing Alexander Technique, which did not help my RSI. The lessons were lovely and it helped my posture, but if you’ve got injuries and the neurological and muscular pathways are torn or broken, you need something more than awareness and relaxation.

 

How do you wind down after concerts?

I love a glass of red wine or three, and conviviality with my colleagues and friends. I don’t mind going to bed at 1am after a concert, depending on what’s happening the next day – if it’s mid-tour I won’t stay up. It can be depressing just to pack up your violin and go home without any let-down time.

 

 

This article was first published in The Strad, February 2009. For more articles on string player health and wellbeing, subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase back issues click here.

 

Photo © Elizabeth Wallfisch

 

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