by Hannah Murray, November 14, 2018.
It is that time of year when many of us spend countless hours performing in less than ideal circumstances. I have spent the last several weeks performing in opera productions and am now reacquainted with the awkward, and often intensified, discomfort associated with performing below the stage.
Many of us do the happy Nutcracker dance at this time of the year and spend many hours playing Tchaikovsky’s most beloved ballet, performing in the dark, cramped pit, crouched over our music stands and trying not to poke other musicians in the face with our bows. Often, we perform this ballet several times per weekend, and in some cases multiple times in a day. If you’re a freelance musician, add to that all of the hopping around town, playing in multiple Christmas performances and productions, and preparing students for recitals and auditions. Sometimes just keeping the schedule straight feels like mental gymnastics and running from rehearsals to performances feels more like a workout than a commute!
I can only speak as an upper string player, but this environment really brings out the aches and pains! The pit presents a multitude of difficulties that are often swept under the stage. My colleagues and I often hobble out into the hallway during intermission rife with pain and discomfort from maintaining unhealthy or unnatural body positions during the performance. I will argue that there are certain restrictions in the pit that amplify and exacerbate any discomfort one may feel when performing ON the stage.
Here are some of the issues working against us:
Reduced space - sometimes if I get a little too excited in a musical figure or phrase I literally knock into my stand partner or a violist sitting next to me! My chair is definitely not where I would prefer it, but I can guarantee that I am not the only one who feels this way. The first violins are tucked up against a wall that has a drop off by their feet!
Awkward Sightlines – In some pit orchestras, the conductor is much higher in regards to the orchestra for obvious reasons: he has to see what is happening on the stage. The neck angle required to see him is significant and I have yet to find a way to position my music stand to see the notes and the maestro at the same time.
Darkness/lighting - I am getting old. The pit really highlights this. If you're a musician who has ever played the Nutcracker you know that 85% of the parts consist of terribly printed music in that very handwritten style that is super difficult to read if you add ledger lines, accidentals, dynamics, articulations, pretty much anything. I find myself sometimes squinting and leaning forward to actually see some of the notation and make sure my eyes aren't playing tricks on me. I think we end up playing it so often because most of us have it memorized by the end of the first season.
Busy schedules - Yes, sometimes we do more than one Nutcracker in a day but if you add to that the other rehearsals and performances, you better believe that we barely have time to gulp down a meal in between services.
Stress - When I'm stressed my shoulders and neck get even tighter. I don't know a single person, let alone violinist (or violist) who benefits from super tight shoulders. Our jobs already add quite a bit of neck and shoulder tension at the best of times. The holidays are stressful for everyone but the added tightness certainly does not help us do our job.
Repetition - Multiple rehearsals, multiple performances, multiple commitments every day and week of the season.
The list goes on....
The following are a few moves that I use to relieve some of the tension of playing in the orchestra pit, whether it is the Nutcracker, opera, a Broadway show or something else. I showed these to my colleagues in the Tulsa Symphony last year and the feedback was enthusiastic; they reported among feelings of immediate physical relief, enhanced concentration, and reduced feelings of stress. For those of you who are unaware, I spent months practicing, and applying yoga directly to violin playing in the name of research for my dissertation, “Using Iyengar Yoga to Enhance Violin Playing,” (you can read it here) completed in 2017. Although I technically did not address the pit orchestra environment, these are several yoga postures, or asanas, that are directly applicable and appropriate for the type of discomfort experienced in this environment.
The following are very simple moves focused on the upper body, arms, shoulders, and back. They can be done in concert clothes, and do not require much space (we did these in the backstage hallway), or many props, make minimal contact with the floor (who wants to be rolling around on the floor in their performance attire?), are accessible to most, and modifiable if necessary.
A special thanks to Ronnamarie and Phil from the Tulsa Symphony who graciously agreed to model different versions of each pose for this post.
Tadasana Paschima Namaskarasana - Mountain Pose with Reverse Prayer Hands
(for those unfamiliar with Sanskrit, Tadasana, or Mountain Pose, is simply standing up straight with weight distributed evenly across both feet. For this post, it means we are not doing any fancy leg variations).
This pose stretches the Teres Major, Subscapularis, Rhomboids, Trapezius, Teres Minor, Infraspinatus, and Deltoids.
Iyengar says this pose reduces depression, increases the flexibility of the upped body, arms, elbows, and wrists.
Here we have 3 hand placements depending on flexibility: Ronnamarie shows the full hand placement with palms of the hands touching (upper right), I show very little wrist flexibility but still the shoulder rotation (bottom), Phil touches just his fingertips together while still trying to pull his shoulders back. Wherever your body is, the shoulders are KEY. Work to pull them back, do not let them slump forward!
Tadasana Gomukhasana - Cow Face Arms.
This pose stretches the Teres Minor, Rhomboids, Latissimus Dorsi, Subscapularis, and Triceps.
Iyengar says this pose boosts confidence, improves breathing by opening the chest, activates the muscles of the shoulders and back, and helps relieves arthritis in the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers by stretching the arms,
Here again, we see Ronnamarie in the full expression (upper left), I use my rosin rag to get a better extension while still not being able to clasp my hands together, and Phil works on the rotation at the elbows and shoulder. This one is a killer for tight triceps and I really feel it when I'm performing regularly! In real life, I would have handed Phil a strap. He is working to push his left elbow up towards the ceiling while keeping his chest open.
Tadasana Garudhasana - Eagle Arms
This pose stretches the Trapezius, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, Teres Major, Latissimus Dorsi, and Serratus Anterior
Iyengar says this pose removes stiffness in the shoulders.
Ronnamarie again shows the final arm position in this one (top right) with a side view and frontal view (with a smile). Phil is working towards the handclasp but can feel the stretch in his back around his shoulder blades. I am showing the back engagement without the handclasp for anyone working towards that initial expression of the pose. My elbows are raised, which stretches my mid back between the shoulder blades and feels so good!
To shine some light on all of those fancy muscles listed above, please see the diagram below (a big THANK YOU to Jeff Montague for helping me create this).
Missing from this diagram are:
Deltoid - Do you see the shoulder muscle between where the Upper Trapezius and Teres Major are labeled in the diagram above? Where your arm would extend out to the side if the entire upper body was included here? Behold! The Deltoid!
Latissimus Dorsi - See that big swoopy muscle underneath the Infraspinatus in the above diagram (left side again)? That is the Latissimus Dorsi.
Triceps - Situated on the back of the arm. They work in opposition to the bicep. They are not pictured here, but you know where your arms, right?
Subscapularis - This one is tricky because it sits UNDERNEATH the shoulder blades and you can't actually see it unless you were a skeleton with an invisible ribcage. It is very important for shoulder movement and tends to get caught up in all the string player discomfort.
For How Long?
When I hold yoga poses, however simple they may seem, I don't count seconds, I count deep inhales and exhales. If you do this, you will feel your body much more intimately and most likely you will hold these poses a little longer than normal. I tend to start with 6 inhalations and exhalations, and add more if I need to, want to, have the time, feel extra tense, etc. You will also feel each pose intensify through the first several breaths followed by a magical release when you breathe into this tension. When you return to neutral you can almost feel the blood swoosh through your arms, hands, fingers, and shoulders (swoosh is definitely a correct anatomical term) as increased blood flow returns to those areas.
The goal of this post is to help you find relief at work. I am not trying to paint a bleak picture of our working environment! Some aches and pains are inevitable in this line of work and these poses simply offer some relief. The benefits of these poses are not limited to violinists and violists either; if you spend time in the car, at a desk, texting, staring at your phone (I am guilty of all of these) then you will also find these poses therapeutic.
*Disclaimer - It is best to seek help from someone with experience, a yoga teacher or physical therapist when first attempting these. They are intended to help NOT hurt. Please understand that each body is different and you should respect the limitations of your own body.
What do you do to fight off the aches and pains in the pit? Are you looking for more suggestions? Any extra thoughts? Leave a comment below.
Gray, Henry, and H. V Carter. Gray’s Anatomy. New York, N.Y.; Lewes, 2013.
Iyengar, B.K.S., Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health. Revised edition. New York, N.Y.: DK, 2014.
Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on Yoga: Yoga Dipika. Rev. ed. New York: Schocken Books, 1979.
Kaminoff, Leslie, and Amy Matthews. Yoga Anatomy. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2012.
Murray, Hannah. “Using Iyengar Yoga to Enhance Violin Playing.” University of Oklahoma, OK, 2017