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Since ergonomics has been an ongoing interest as well as a recurring topic in my blog, I asked Don Ehrlich with his ergonomic violaDon Ehrlich to write about his ergonomic viola.  I remember reading The New York Times article about him with great interest.

Thanks so much, Don!  Your first-person account adds so much to people’s knowledge on this subject.

Following is Don’s contribution:

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I am a viola player. Until I retired in December 2006, I was the Assistant Principal Viola with the San Francisco Symphony. I suspect that I have congenital weakness in both thumbs, which is probably genetic.  My sister, my son and I all have thumbs where we hyperextend.  My sister recently had surgery on her thumbs to repair some of the damage that she has incurred.  She is very happy with the outcome.  I had my first playing injury in early 1988; this was, predictably, in my left thumb, the joint closest to the wrist.  The doctor called it a subluxtion, if I remember correctly.  I was hooked up with a wonderful physical therapist who got me back playing in a month or so.  Her understanding of how the hand should work, as opposed to how my hand did work, and the exercises she gave me all helped.  It is now 20 years later, and I’m still doing those exercises.

I do believe in physical therapists.  They know different things than the doctors do, in the realm of mechanics.

Over the next six or seven years, I had a series of injuries to my left side.  Nothing major, but annoying.  One I remember was to my left shoulder.  In all instances, a little physical therapy cleared up the problem.

Then, in 1996, I got some tendinitis in my left elbow, in two different tendons.  It was only a little painful, but it did limit my ability to play long and hard (which is the definition of an orchestral job).  In looking forward, I had the feeling that this injury, left untreated, could turn me into what some might perceive as the prototypical tenured long-term orchestra player: cynical, hurt, hating music, expending as little energy as possible, just putting in my time until I could retire.  I did not want that to be my life.

I also began to feel as though my instrument was at least partly to blame.  It was a 17 inch viola and reasonably heavy.  When I was younger, I could easily handle that viola, and I loved that instrument.  But maybe it was time to find something smaller.

I began the search, a frustrating and expensive experience.  I found a couple older Italian instruments that were 16 inches and had beautiful but small sounds. I felt that in my orchestral world these instruments would not be of a net benefit to me because I’d end up working so hard to get a large sound.  Also a negative for these instruments was the price, around $150,000, the kind of money I just don’t have.

Just then I picked up a copy of Strings Magazine, the July/August, 1996, issue.  There was an article by Darol Anger about some different designs of violin family instruments.  Mostly, the unusual designs had to do with instruments for popular music.  But the last one Anger wrote about seemed to be designed for my kind of problem.  It was the Pellegrina model viola designed and built by David Rivinus.  Thus began a long and interesting journey.

I emailed Rivinus and he sent me an instrument.  I introduced the viola to the Symphony’s personnel manager before bringing it on stage.  His comment:  “If it helps, I’m all for it.”  He then introduced the viola to the rest of the orchestra.  Everyone had a smart-assed comment to make.  Isaac Stern told me I had left it out in the sun too long.

Before I got the Pell, if I would have a week or two vacation, when I’d go back to work my elbow would hurt as much after a rehearsal as it had before the vacation.  After I got the Pell, my elbow would feel better after a double rehearsal than before.  So I knew I was on to something that would be of benefit to me.

In August 1997, there appeared in the New York Times an article about my Pellegrina and me.  Wow.  Can that experience ever change your life!  If it did nothing else, it showed the music world that change is possible, that you don’t have to hurt when you play.

If I understand properly, there are three other experiments in ergonomic instruments that have been undertaken; none has caught on.  One is the flute with the bent head joint, meaning that the flutist’s head can be upright and the arms at a comfortable level at the same time.  The complaint is that it changes the tone.  But frankly, I suspect if there were an accomplished flutist who would make it his/her business to work with a flute maker it could yet be refined.  Our business is so conservative; people are reluctant to make changes.

There is also a bass clarinet with a redesigned head joint (or whatever it’s called) to take the pressure off the player’s neck.  The third is a piano keyboard that curves around at the extremities and has narrower keys.  I understand that the designers of the keyboard tried to design it so a pianist could travel with the keyboard, take out the keyboard of the piano he or she would play on, and insert the new one.

David Rivinus’ Pellegrina model viola has cleared up the playing problems on my left side.  More recently, I have had a problem with my right thumb.  Several years ago, while we were doing Beethoven’s Eroica for the Symphony’s Keeping Score project, something popped in my right thumb.  I think this again is basically because of the congenital weakness in my thumb, along with an accumulation of years of scrubbing (read: tremolo), which happens a lot in the music of Beethoven, Bruckner and others.

Again, physical therapy got me to where I could play without pain.  I need to use tape and a flexible splint, as a kind of exoskeleton that I put on and take off, for support.  And I retired from the Symphony so that I could pursue other playing opportunities.  I played a full recital 1½ weeks ago; I feel as though I’m still making progress in my ability to perform at a high level.

However, both of my thumbs are acting up just now.  I have an appointment with a hand specialist in a couple weeks; I’ll probably be following other leads as well in the next months.  I’ll just have to wait and see what the future will bring here.

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