Meet Carol RodlandViolist Carol Rodland is a sought-after teacher and performer, who recently joined the faculty at Juilliard. Given her own history with injuries, and her thoughtful approach to teaching, she has valuable insights on how to learn to work with our bodies, rather than trying to solve technical problems through sheer force of will. In this 31-min chat, we’ll explore:
- an analogy she often uses to help students learn something new or change an old habit (2:49)
- the importance of balancing one’s “zoom lens” with the bigger picture (6:49)
- the idea of “full body resonance,” and how that can change one’s playing (10:38)
- the link between playing comfortably, staying injury-free, and playing at a higher level with more enjoyment and flow (12:13)
- a few ways you can tell if you’re listening to a violinist play the viola, or a violist who has gone fully to “the dark side” (14:25)
- a common mistake we often make when learning how to “let go” (19:25)
- the importance of appreciating individual differences, and how there’s no one “right” way to do things (20:30)
- her own difficult journey with injuries; how it happened, and how she overcame the various hurdles (21:20)
- how she got into pilates, and what she sees as being the benefits (24:30)
- her memory of the day she met Karen Tuttle, and the “ah-ha” moment she had (27:59)
Noa: I’m really curious about these YouTube videos that you put up recently, and I had a chance to look through them, the one on posture and then left hand technique, right hand, or right arm technique, and one of the things that I found most intriguing is how frequently you use analogies and images in your teaching. I mean, just as a partial list, there was something about a banana and a jump rope and holding an avocado, an inchworm, and a begging puppy dog. There was a pretty lengthy list. I stopped collecting them at some point.
Noa: I mean, but the one with the banana, which I’m not gonna do justice, but it had something to do with how you want to, dig in is not the right word, but how you want to produce sound with the right arm and kind of the shape of the banana, I think, was the essence of-
Carol: It has resonance, how to make the string ring.
Noa: Right, yeah. And I find this sort of analogy use fascinating for lots of reasons, and I’m assuming that the answer to this question is yes, but is this something very conscious and deliberate that’s a part of your teaching?
Carol: I don’t know, ’cause it’s intuitive. It evolves and I just like to help people feel things, tactile-ly, and to see them, and some people I think are really visual learners and some people are aural learners and some people have to feel it in specific ways. That’s how I imagine things. It has many layers to it.
Noa: Right. The reason why I find this really interesting is because there is such a thing known as analogy learning in the motor learning literature, and whether it’s learning how to jump rope or how to hit a topspin forehand in tennis, the use of these analogies, especially when you’re trying to learn something new, seems to be really helpful. It’s a way of executing complex motor movements and coordinating complex motor movements at a pretty early stage, at a pretty high level without having to get into all the minutae of the details, which can kind of paralyze us at that point.
Carol: Right. Another analogy that I use when I’m helping people to learn something new is that you’re like a videographer and you zoom in on something very specific in order to really see it in a very specific way, but just so that you don’t get stuck, then you have to back off and use the panoramic lens to integrate it, and as you’re changing a habit, I have people do cycle practice for short spurts throughout the day of just a few minutes of really focusing in on that micro skill with the zoom lens, and then letting it go so it can sort of filter down, and then you can integrate it over and over again throughout the day, but not make yourself completely obsessed and crazed to the point where it becomes counterproductive, ’cause I used to.
Carol: In terms of the analogies, I write a lot and I think I just like to do things colorfully. I also believe very strongly, and I know you do as well, that you have to envision something in order to make it happen. Like when you’re dealing with the whole performance success idea, I really encourage my students, and I do this for myself, you envision where you’re gonna be and what you want to be doing and you can practice in your mind that way, and I suppose the analogies, the way that I describe things, is part of that also, that if you can smell it, taste it, hear it, see it first, then you can manifest it.
Noa: Are there any favorite analogies that you keep coming back to … I mean, aside from the video one that you just mentioned, that seem to really be almost magical in how well they work for folks?
Carol: Well, I don’t know about that ’cause I really find myself in a room with someone… I’m sure … They’re definitely, I found out each time I leave a job, my students make me a present or something, and one of them from NEC was a beautiful photograph of all of them and then they all wrote what they call Rodland-isms. And what was really interesting is they all said they looked at it and they realized that they all heard different things. I found that gratifying, because I do try to really, whoever’s in front of me, what I try to communicate with what they need.
Carol: But I do find myself coming back to food analogies, a lot of it depends on what time of day the lesson is I feel. ‘Cause I think, again, that tactile thing when you’re talking … Every note has a beginning, a middle, and an end and I talk about the bread as the beginning and the end, what kind of bread or crunch you have and then what’s in the middle is where the content of the note can be, also. So I do that a lot, I do tend to find that it does have to do with whether I’m hungry or not.
Noa: Well, and that-
Carol: [crosstalk 00:04:54] those textural things and just to trigger someone’s imagination that that’s helpful.
Noa: One of the things-
Carol: I use a lot with the elements, with Earth and fire and wind and water also. I use that a lot and different ways of manifesting the kinds of speed and content that you have in a note or a sound or a phrase, and that seems to help people just to feel whether something has motion in it, whether it has mass or resistance in it, and how that works.
Noa: Could you give an example, maybe, of what you mean by that?
Carol: I’d have to get my viola out, but it’s … Whether it’s resistance in a sound that has a really focused content and concentration and mass and whether it’s really fiery on the inside, it’s like a pressure cooker that it doesn’t have … Or when water is building up to boil and you can feel the tension but the lid’s still on the pot, and then if something’s flowing with more speed in a kind of sound, it’s really about color and momentum and architecture in a phrase and within each of the small components and then how they fit into the large.
Carol: So again, that idea of when you’re really learning something that you zero in … Especially because we do, as you say, very complicated skills, but sometimes if you have a bad habit or you need to increase the skillset, you really do have to focus on minutae and I find that that’s always one of the challenges, ’cause depending on someone’s mindset or way of functioning in life, that can become an obsession at the expense of the big picture, but there is a time in life when you want to be working on your vibrato when you’re working on really developing your bow arm, where you have to do modules of just focusing on that. But you still have to live your life.
Noa: Right, or get to the end of the line, or the page.
Carol: Exactly. But I find … I introduced this when people come to play for me, to consider studying with me if they’re an undergraduate, I sort of assess and I speak with them honestly about what I see needs to happen. I tell them approximately, and of course this is all subject to we have to see in the moment how it goes, and keeping it fresh I think is important. But the basic thing is freshman and sophomore years, especially violists, because they come to the viola often from radically different backgrounds.
Carol: More people than when I was younger starting on viola, but a lot of people, like I did, started on … haven’t had a really long life as a violinist before switching, so there are different things that you need. So, I just find that we spend more time looking through the zoom lens in that first year or two just to get everything set, and then we have to keep refreshing it, but of course, the perspective changes and the needs change.
Noa: Right. So if I’m understanding correctly, just to make sure I understood, there are times where you use maybe the analogies or the bigger picture to zoom out and focus on the essence of the complete skill or the complete phrase or the gesture, perhaps, but then there are moments, I think you said, where you really have to take that microscope or the zoom lens and focus on the minutae in order to then integrate it back into the whole of the movement?
Carol: Right, but I use analogies in the minutae also, because I think it helps you really to relate, ’cause music is life, right?
Noa: Right. Well, there’s this great quote, I think contributed to Phil Jackson, the great Chicago Bulls coach, something like … Oh, crap. I’m gonna butcher this in the moment, but something like, “There’s more to basketball than basketball.” Basically that it’s oftentimes a metaphor for what happens in life and I think probably with music you could say the same thing. There’s more to music than music.
Carol: Right, and I think … I always go back to what Karen Tuttle used to say to us, and let me see if I can think of it properly. Just that she loved the viola, she loved music, but it was her way of exploring life. That just happened to be her lens. And so when you really delve into making yourself the best violist that you can be, since that’s what you chose, it really is a mirror for your life and it makes you deal with things in yourself that other people who are less self-aware don’t have to deal with.
Carol: I always thought it was so true when I think … This is why I love what you do … I have to turn my phone off, sorry. It’s dinging. ‘Cause we do it from more of a … I don’t know if it’s the new age touchy/feely way of doing it, but the truths are the same, it’s just the entry way and language with which you [inaudible 00:09:47] can be different, but it’s all … We are one. It’s all the same thing.
Carol: I think one of the things with this, she would hate to call it Tuttle method, but it’s evolved that way, is we are very much involved in full body resonance with creating sound. It’s not just about contact point, but about feeling that whole resonance in your body, and that requires that you are also emotionally and psychologically and spiritually and physically open, and it’s so amazing how when people learn to let go, life changes for them in a good way, but it also just really helps their sound.
Carol: When you’re using your body mechanics in an open way where you’re not blocking yourself anywhere, it really has a huge impact on your playing. It just makes everything … It makes the music flow, but it also makes your sound much more singing and resonant. But of course, as we know, as you know as a psychologist, for many people, some of those tensions stored in the body are emotional traumas and things that need to be dealt with, and so you have to be careful as the music teacher that you don’t go there.
Noa: I noticed that in each of these videos that I watched that was another theme, the idea of, I think, trying to find biomechanically sound ways of producing sound, vibrato even, how you hold your instrument, so that you’re not achieving the same result, but in a very kind of potentially hazardous way over the longterm.
Carol: Right, because that brings up … I think we are athletes of the small muscles and it’s about having a long and healthy life, having good physical habits so that you don’t injure yourself and I think that’s really important, but again, I loved that the more comfortable you are in your body, the more soundly … sorry for the pun … you’re working biomechanically, the better you play, and I think it’s great that those things go together.
Carol: And I do think that’s, again, and I’m sure you saw this in the videos too, having been a violinist, which it’s much smaller, it doesn’t involve as much force, you can get away with more excess physical tension and bad habit. It’s still not as joyful an experience and I’ve helped some violinists also learn how to let go of some of this stuff and they liked the flow in the music making that comes from that and the ease. It really does help resonance and the sound, but with viola, if you don’t learn to do that, it can really sound disgusting. Viola’s are less forgiving, because of that whole problem of the string length and the body size actually being wrong.
Noa: So in a way, it sounds like you actually need to be even more fundamentally sound to be healthy and have a long life-
Carol: [crosstalk 00:12:45] yourself more as a violist, you can’t get away with stuff psychologically or physically.
Noa: Well, I have very little experience with viola. I think I picked up a friend’s just a few times when I was playing and it was … I was like, “Oh, it’s just a little bit bigger. The notes are probably just a little bit further apart, but I could figure out how to …” It was really, really difficult. It felt so uncomfortable and the notes were just not at all where I expected them to be, and they were in places where I wouldn’t want them to be, because I was so used to … Yeah, I mean it seems really, really difficult to make that transition.
Carol: Well, I think also if you’re smaller, as I’m sure you’ve caught in these videos, it’s a very different experience for my little pinky, my little hands versus what [Samuel 00:13:28], you saw the big, tall [inaudible 00:13:29] student, for him it’s actually much more comfortable to play the viola than it is to play the violin, ’cause his center is out. So it’s a different experience.
Carol: Honestly, it’s not as hard if you’re a larger person, and I think switch hitters can sound beautiful, but it’s not the same as going fully to the dark side. You can tell when it’s a violinist playing a viola, versus someone who’s really gone into it and made it their own thing.
Noa: What is the difference actually? I don’t know that I ever had that conversation with anybody. What do you notice?
Carol: I can probably … Well, I’d have to look for them, but you can watch some videos or listen to some people perform and you would hear it. Someone who has a really great ear, who’s a really great musician, who plays the violin beautifully is probably going to play in tune pretty quickly on the viola and they’re gonna have the fiery end of the bravado with the real speed and intensity, is gonna be compelling for a while, and then after a while, you start to want more of that dark chocolate, deeper cello overtone resonance, and that also comes from, yes, bravado amplitude, which you saw on the videos. That’s a thing … If you really want to be a violist, you have to have access to that, and then the other thing is the use of the bow arm.
Carol: ‘Cause violinists, to get more intensity often, yes, you pull into the bridge just like you do on the viola, but speed becomes much more of your tool of choice, whereas in the viola, you have to have leverage, you have to have weight, and if you were to use all of the arm weight you actually need for a really great forte, if you were to use that on the violin, it would really sound bad and that’s something that is really something you have to learn how to do if you’re gonna make the full switch.
Carol: And there are a few switch hitters who really delve into that, but it’s rare, because it’s a different skillset, but there are some who do it. Some who are aware of it.
Noa: One of the things that I talk about with some folks is about playing with more ease and I don’t have the background in Alexander and Feldenkrais and the body awareness modalities that I know you have, but what I am curious about having watched your videos is, is how much of that is part of the daily … Because in terms of playing with more ease, it sounds like there’s kind of a mental component, but a lot of it is also learning how to paly your instrument in a way that is as easy as possible, even on a day-to-day basis, so that when you get on stage and everything tightens up, that’s not as likely to happen and you better understand how to take it down a notch or two. How do you-
Carol: I considered that, what you’re saying, is how I teach technique, so it is how I teach people how to play. I can’t separate that, it’s one thing. It’s how you … And again, some of it comes from the viola thing of you need all of your power and it needs to not be stuck anywhere, so that is how you resonate, that’s how you play. So that is how … We work on technique with that full awareness of, you call it ease, I call it technique and bio mechanics, really. It’s the full body resonance and fully body technique. How you move in the micro is always connected, obviously, to how you move in the macro.
Carol: And I do find, again as what you also said, I think is very important, that this really helps if you get on stage and you’re anxious, this is your technique, you know how to do it, and it gives a deeper kind of confidence. You know if you feel something getting tight and it’s getting in your way, you’re like, “No, I know how to do this.” And you go to that place, you get more and more control and I always say, “Knowledge is power, so the more you know, the more tools you have in your toolbox.”
Carol: And people are so often surprised, they struggled, it was painful and really making those technical changes, they were frustrated often in that first semester, and then when it comes to jury time they’re like, “Oh, wait. This isn’t as hard as I thought. In fact, it’s actually easier. I’ve ever done a jury where I wasn’t anxious, because I knew what I was doing. I knew what to do.”
Carol: And then, as we said earlier in this conversation, you do have to be careful that your focus on the minutiae doesn’t get stuck, that you can go back, but you do have to know, it’s a very powerful tool to know if something’s not working, you know exactly what’s not working and you know how to fix it. So you might have that left brain blip where you say to yourself something verbal to fix and then you go back to integrating into whether it’s your right brain or your stomach playing.
Carol: But there are times, we’re not … I always say we’re not Tibetan Buddhist monks, of course. We don’t have that concentration where we can be in that zone 100% of the time, so you need to be able to be okay, if the chatter comes, you know what to do. If the tension comes, you know what to do, and if you do that over time, if you have enough performance experience coming through, you know you won’t die if it’s off a little bit. You won’t go to that awfulizing place.
Noa: I wonder if you could provide an example of maybe a common mistake that you see or a common misconception that you see in terms of how people approach the instrument?
Carol: Sometimes, and this is one category of response to that, when people first learn how to let go, they go to wet spaghetti and it’s not about being totally relaxed, it’s about being open and balanced and putting the energy in the best place, and I think sometimes people let go and it sounds too loosey goosey, but music is intense, but there is a time, maybe, if you were really, really tense where you have to go to an extreme to come back to the middle where you have to really learn how to let go, but then you should probably not be performing for a little bit if you have to go to that place.
Carol: So I think that’s important, that you set aside a time for yourself where you can just explore and really go into the studio and figure it out. Don’t put yourself under pressure. Test it until you integrate it some more if you really need to go to that extreme. I think something else, and I’m sure you got this from the videos, that I feel really strongly about is there’s some very strong schools of thought about the one way to do it, and I am just really a non believer in that, because I think we are all so different. We’re anatomically different, we’re psychologically different, so you need to …
Carol: There are some basic principles of alignment and balance based on the human skeleton and the way the muscles work, but then that experience and … You’re always having to make compromises when you play the viola, because of all of its glorious imperfections, and everybody’s … People’s compromises are really their own business, and I like to help people find their own voices. There’s not just one way to do it.
Carol: And also, some of this comes from my own path with injury. Of course, that I had to relearn and really explore this stuff or quit, and I definitely thought about the quitting option a number of times, ’cause I really had … It’s been a difficult journey physically, but when you come out on the other side and you really love the music then you think, “Oh, but I have to.”
Noa: Right. When did this happen? When did you start experiencing pain or injury?
Carol: When I was 18, actually, when I went to college. I had been in Julliard pre-college as a violist, but I had also … I was a switch hitter and I was also playing the piano, and I guess at about, I guess this was my third or fourth year, when I hit 10th grade, I really … Since I was taking all these AP classes and stuff, I had to make a choice, so I started focusing more on viola and already then, I was always having a backache or a neck ache or something, but I thought that was normal, I thought that’s what you were supposed to have.
Carol: And then by the time I hit college, and of course you play many more hours when you go to college, then I really started having trouble. So I took a year … I met Karen Tuttle the summer after my freshman year and I met this amazing Feldenkrais healer all within a week. I had really sort of just said, “I’m either going to quit, or I gotta get some help,” and then in the same week, they appeared in my life, essentially. It was a long struggle. I went back to school that fall, but they were both in New York, so I started working with Karen Tuttle and with this wonderful woman, [inaudible 00:22:12].
Carol: It was starting to get better, but I still wasn’t sure that it was gonna be good enough, so I took a year off after my sophomore year in college and I really took the time to practice when I felt good, to rest when it wasn’t, and I just spent that year building it up, and I really was trying to decide if I was gonna go to Swarthmore or Yale and be an English major while still playing, studying viola with Karen Tuttle. I wasn’t going to give that up, but those two schools, I was gonna be able to work that out.
Carol: And then, Juilliard started the Columbia program and it was also a financial question, and some family stuff. My dad got really sick. So I ended up going back to Juilliard, but taking some classes at Columbia, because part of my problem was I was also bored. And I just needed more, so I did the cross-registering thing, and honestly, I probably would’ve done the double degree if it had existed when I started. But it was a great compromise for me.
Carol: And then I sort of came out on the other side, realized that if I really learned how to do this well, would be okay, but then I also knew, given my physical issues, if you’ll call them that, I was always going to have to have an awareness of this and it was going to affect my career path, but I already knew that I loved teaching, because I had done some Suzuki training, I had always taught students, even starting in high school, and I loved that.
Carol: I knew I wanted to apply it, but I thought, probably a full-time orchestra job is not gonna be my path. Chamber music and solo playing and teaching where you can regulate it a little bit more, and that was definitely determined by these things that I had. And then more injuries happened. I was in a cab accident and crashed my head, messed up my neck in graduate school, so I had to … I learned more about what to do. That’s when I got into Pilates.
Noa: Oh, interesting.
Carol: And that’s been so helpful for how you rebuild strength with this sense of awareness. I find that incredibly … That was really helpful to me. And I still do it every day. I have a reformer in my apartment.
Noa: Oh, wow.
Carol: Yeah. ‘Cause, again, I think it’s important that you build strength, but as musicians with the way we use our bodies, we can’t overdevelop muscles like weight lifters can, and Pilates helps you lengthen and strengthen without over taxing. So, anyway. That’s how all that happened, and it’s ongoing. There’s just always stuff and you learn how to manage it.
Noa: So I’ve recently been to physical therapy and one of the things that I found fascinating about physical therapy is that for the first, I don’t know, at least for me it was first couple months, it’s like, “Well, this sucks. Nothing’s happening. These exercises seem silly.” And then one day, suddenly, it’s like, “Oh, wait. Things are better.” And so I wondered if with injuries, that’s kind of how it is. You just don’t know how things are going to look when you get there, or even if you can get there.
Noa: And sometimes if it’s really extended, we have periods, you can start having doubts and fears and concerns and it’s like, “Is this ever going to change or get better?” I mean, is that kind of how injuries go? Or was that your experience with injuries?
Carol: Oh, yeah. And then you think, “This is just never, ever gonna work,” and then you wake up one morning and you realize, “Oh, but it’s actually working.” But it’s not linear. It’s not like you’re gonna go from here to here exactly in that straight lien. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. I think sometimes … I don’t know if you’ve noticed this with whatever the physical therapy is, when you’ve had treatment on something to open up fascia, which we need to do, and to get things realigned, the body just reacts with pain.
Carol: But then, if you can just sort of be with that and not fight it, then you realize it’s adjusting itself. I think people have very different pain thresholds, too, but I think there isn’t a healing timetable. The most recent injury was two years ago in Rochester, I was getting something off of a shelf right before one of my [inaudible 00:26:08] concerts and the builders, who had fixed my deck, had piled some stuff behind, which I didn’t see and didn’t know it was there, it all came and it tore my right thumb-
Noa: Oh, wow.
Carol: … and ligament in my thumb, the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. Of course, it’s also psychologically painful, ’cause I knew I had just screwed up life for a long time, and I was in this cast for three months-
Carol: … and so I couldn’t even … Because it had to, the ligament had to be sewn together. Anyway, and that’s just taken a long time, so I’ve learned more about the minutiae of the right thumb, ’cause that’s gone through, but it’s taken almost two years. It’s better, it’s much better, but it didn’t get better fast, and it’s not 100% normal, but it’s functionally fine now. But that took a long time, and i still have to be careful. If I have to play a lot, I don’t write, ’cause holding a pen or pencil is hard.
Carol: There are things like slicing vegetables and things, like my cooking has gone way down because if I want to play the viola, I need the thumb time for the viola, not for cooking and writing. So I use my iPad more.
Noa: Do you remember one of the things that kind of blew your mind as far as, “Oh, this is how I should be holding the instrument or playing the instrument.” What were some of the things that changed for you when you went from functionally playing fine the way you were, but then realizing, “Oh, this is causing pain and injury, and I need to …” Do you remember what some of those adjustments were that really changed?
Carol: Well, I just remember the day I actually met Karen Tuttle and played for her. She put her hand on my head, ’cause we learned this on the violin and she went, and then she took her hand to my thumb and she went, and she said, “Sweetheart, just do that and you’ll be fine.” And of course it was a much longer process with that, because we learned how to associate musical tension with physical tension, which is, again, what I teach people not to do now, but that was a real immediate revelation of, “Oh, it doesn’t have to be like that? I thought it did. I thought that’s how you did it.”
Noa: So just to-
Carol: I thought you had to twist and look down your fingerboard.
Noa: So just to clarify, because people are going to be seeing you, am I understanding correctly, basically, Karen Tuttle asked you to stand up straight, comfortably like a normal person, and then kind of stick the viola into that position?
Carol: Yes, cuddle it. She always said cuddle it to you and balance it on your body, don’t hold the viola.
Noa: Okay, right.
Carol: I thought, “Oh, but I thought I had to twist my neck and raise my shoulder without a shoulder rest and hold it with my hand.” And it was like, “Oh. I don’t have to do that,” and “Wow, does that feel better.” And “Wow, can I move faster.”
Noa: It was actually functionally more effective too, it seems like?
Carol: Immediately. Immediately. Basically had to keep your head screwed on straight. And it helps a lot of things.
Noa: Well, honestly, this is something that I’ve learned too recently, that I’ve not been standing or sitting or looking at my phone in the most effective way, because I’ve been … I think they call it nerd neck or text neck nowadays, where our phones are in front of us, so our heads are kind of hanging down and our necks are supporting the weight of our head. And so we’re actually creating problems for ourselves.
Carol: I’m really glad you bring that up, because … Well, my niece gets really sick of me yelling at her about that. She’s a violinist and I say, “You are headed for trouble if you don’t stop looking at your phone like this, ’cause you’re fossilized in this position, and then you’re trying to play.” But I noticed that a lot more students, especially violinists and violists, because of that habitual hunching, it’s like the muscles tighten that way and you have to … It’s a problem. It’s more extreme than ever. So, I’m having to really harp on people about …
Noa: And the problem is, I think anyway, I don’t think this is a problem for me when I was younger, because I didn’t have a phone, or at least my phone only made phone calls back then, and now, part of it’s too, I think as you get older, because my son’s 12, he could probably do this for another decade and not have problems or he’d be two decades-
Carol: But he’s gonna have problems after that.
Noa: Right, and so one of the problems I think is that you just don’t have problems for such a long time, or like you’re describing when a student goes from high school into college and suddenly there’s more rehearsals and just more playing, you’re doing the same thing, but doing more of it, so it actually starts becoming a problem because of the volume increasing.
Carol: Exactly, and then you add text neck to that.
Carol: Bad news!
Noa: Right. All right. Well, thank you Carol for taking time out to chat a little bit about this.
You probably heard me reference Carol’s YouTube videos a couple times during our conversation. For specific, actionable insights on how exactly to play with more ease (for violists, certainly, but for violinists and other string players perhaps as well – and even non-string players, when it comes to posture), click the links below: