My story. The blind spot.

20 Dec 2010

When I was nine years old I began to play the violin. I listened to Isabelle van Keulen playing from my seat in the very first row and decided on the spot that I wanted to become a violinist. I always enjoyed playing the violin and never needed any encouragement from my parents. If anything, they would say ‘Stop practising for a bit, come down and play a game for a change!’
I went to the conservatoire at the same time as beginning high school, so it was hard work. I often took the train to Utrecht for violin lessons after school, doing my homework in the train and bus. I started participating in competitions and also won prizes. I felt more and more pressure to perform well and I had the feeling that I needed to work extremely hard in order to meet all the high expectations. That way, whatever happened, at least I had done my very best! My playing did continue to improve, but at the same time I felt increasingly inhibited from a musical point of view. My nervousness and fear of making mistakes grew. After my final exams I enrolled in the conservatoire and then the problems started. I began suffering from injuries: on three occasions an inflammation of the tendons in my left wrist and also a case of tennis elbow in my right arm. In addition, I suffered from repeated attacks of the flu. Something was considerably out of balance, but what?
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Above all I considered myself dogged by bad luck. I worked incredibly hard, did my best; what more could I possibly do? During my exam year I again experienced problems with my left wrist. At this point I decided to get to the bottom of the matter. I decided that I would only start to play again once the pain had totally disappeared and I had discovered the cause of all this misery. In the end I did play my final exam and was even awarded a 9.5 with distinction. The frustrating thing was that I did in fact have talent but that I made things very difficult for myself in lots of ways. However, at the time I had not yet realised this.
In 1999 I began my quest that was to last a year and a half. I did everything to be free of the pain and to be able to play again: physiotherapy, manual therapy, Mensendieck, massage, acupuncture, cortisone injections, playing sport, resting my arm, visiting various specialists in the music clinics and undergoing MRI scans. Nothing helped, no one could pinpoint the cause of the problem, the pain did not go away and everyone offered conflicting advice. It was then that a friend of mine recommended the Alexander Technique. Without much hope I decided to try this also. I found the first lesson rather vague. What on earth was the connection between my injury and how I sat down on a chair? During the second lesson I thought: ‘Maybe this is worth trying after all.’ During the third lesson light dawned on me: ‘Aha, that’s how it works!’

It all began to become clear to me: I had developed certain unhealthy physical and mental habits of which I was totally unaware and these had a negative effect on the way I moved. I began to understand that these movement patterns were the same in everything that I did. Whether vacuuming, sitting behind a computer or playing the violin, I performed all these activities with the same unhealthy habits involving too much muscular tension in my neck, back, arms and legs. And thus feeling stressed and holding my breath.
More lessons down the track I also began to discover more about my mental habits: I was highly perfectionistic, overly self-disciplined and I had an iron will. Nothing and nobody could divert me from my purpose. Having goals is naturally fine in itself; the problem was the intensity with which I pursued my goals. I permitted myself few breaks, constantly forced myself to practise endlessly and only allowed myself to do something enjoyable after I had practised for at least four to five hours. I even sacrificed my nightly rest: I considered six hours sleep was more than enough, whereas I actually needed eight hours. While studying I was extremely hard on myself. It was never good enough; there was always room for improvement. Gradually I discovered that all this pushing and internal self-criticism led to a physical reaction: an excess of muscular tension, which negatively affected my coordination. This in turn led to ‘over-practising’ in order to compensate for my fear of not performing well enough on stage. At a certain moment my body forced me to stop; I would come down with the flu or with an injury. Finally a chance to recover!
In the end I was operated on by a plastic surgeon specialised in hand surgery, in the year 2000. The cause of my chronic pain then became apparent: my tendons were no longer able to move independently from each other, due to the forming of scar tissue. This scar tissue did not show up on scans and would never have gone away by itself. It was fantastic to finally be free of the pain in my wrist, but I also immediately understood that if I did not change my mental habits and movement patterns the problem would certainly return. I would have to break the vicious circle if I wanted to have a healthy future with my violin. The surgeon told me I could probably never play more than 1,5 hours a day after the operation, but I had just started the Alexander teacher training course and thought…. Well, let’s see about that! Two years later I graduated as an Alexander technique teacher. One year after that I got the job in the Concertgebouw Orchestra.
Ultimately studying the Alexander Technique taught me to deal with the physical and mental causes of my many injuries. What a blessing! I have now been injury-free for the past seventeen years, I play with greater musical freedom, am little troubled by performance anxiety, I practise the violin in a much more efficient and positive manner and my tone and bowing technique are much improved.
In retrospect I find it odd that, with the exception of the Alexander Technique, no doctor or health practitioner came up with the idea to take a look at how I moved while playing the violin (too tense), what I thought during playing (unhelpful thoughts), and how I felt during playing the violin (scared and uncomfortable). From the Alexander Technique perspective, it was clearly evident that I had overly tense movement patterns, didn’t know how to connect to my musical feelings while playing and that I created unnecessary stress in my body in all my activities.
I believe, and have since observed in my own Alexander Technique practice, that the cause of many people’s problems lies in their unconscious manner of performing their daily activities. This is given far less attention than it deserves. It is almost a blind spot.