Stretching: Fiddle as a metaphor 4 life

I took a trip to the Chiropractor’s office last Friday. I was experiencing back problems that I was not able to remediate on my own.

When I arrived, I did the initial intake questionnaire, spoke with the doctor, and then, dressed in a flimsy gown that opened at the back, I had several X-rays taken of my back.

After the film had developed, the doctor invited me into her office to go over what she had found: Herniated disks in the lower back. Arthritis was in my future, she said. Irreversible, she said.

Then she said that I could prevent the problem from getting worse. “HOW????” My imagination had conjured nightmarish scenarios where I was prevented from ever performing on stage again, so her statement immediately got my attention.


That was her main point. I needed to stretch, constantly, my back muscles in order to alleviate the stresses that were causing the problem to get worse. She showed me a few, then she put me on the table and adjusted my spine. The relief I got from that adjustment, she assured me, was only temporary. If I wanted to remain pain free and mobile, I needed to stretch.

I have a friend online whom I mentioned my back problem to just yesterday. He was very empathetic; he had, after all, had five back surgeries for a similar problem. I almost started to panic when he told me that! Then he said something that hit me like a sledge hammer: “You need to stretch. A lot. Every day, for the rest of your life.” He went on to say that the surgeries seemed to have less effect on him than the stretching did, and he assured me that if I followed my doctor’s “orders” and stretched, I wouldn’t need surgery.

So this morning I am sitting here with a dull ache in my lower back, thinking about stretching. It is not an unfamiliar concept. But it is definitely not my favorite activity.

As a fiddler and a violinist, stretching certain areas of my body is a necessity. The muscles need to be relaxed and flexible in order to allow the fingers, hands, and arms to move quickly and efficiently. Even holding the instrument is an awkward enterprise, with the neck bent to one side. Any tension can cause real discomfort and interfere with your ability to play.

In addition to normal stretching routines to relax the muscles in neck and back, fiddlers practice scales, arpeggios, finger and bowing exercises … hopefully every day of their life. Sometimes, just as in normal stretching, there is a type of pain or discomfort involved. Your bigger muscles are tense, and they need to release. Anybody who has practiced Yoga knows the type of pain I am talking about. It is necessary, but it is fleeting. And when the muscles release, you are then able to do what you need to do without parts of your body fighting you.

As I said, it is not my favorite activity. But it is necessary.

It is also necessary in other aspects of my life. Ever feel like you are stuck in a rut? That there should be more to your life than there is currently? You can stretch yourself in more ways than just physical.

Education, formal or otherwise, is one way we can stretch our minds. Learning anything new, including a musical instrument, allows you grow in different directions. I love to read books, and find that my thought processes are more flexible the more I read.

Reaching out beyond what one knows is a form of stretching. I am relatively new to the whole internet thing, and social networking and marketing were, just a few years ago, a mysterious unknown. And yet I have my own website. My own blog. My own online business. The opportunities I have now are vast, and “stretch out” before me. The possibilities are endless, because I reached beyond what I “knew” and was familiar with and stretched out for more.

One final story. Back in 1998, I was a property owner. With my wife of the time, I owned nine rental properties. One day, my wife asked me to remove a cover from a particular property’s Swamp Cooler. (For you Californios, that’s an “air conditioner” that uses water vapor to cool the house.) Now this house had a very steep pitch to the roof, and instead of normal roof tiles, it had an aluminum treatment. The tennis shoes I was wearing were old, the soles pretty much useless for traction. I went up the ladder, stepped onto the roof, climbed up to the peak … and then my feet slid out from under me. I fell from the roof and landed on my butt and left elbow.

At first I thought I was going to get off scott free. After all, I have quite a bit of cushion on my backside. Then I was ripped with agony from my elbow. After a trip to the Urgent Care Center down the road, I found out that I had shattered the ball of one of my forearm bones. I went to the hospital the next day, and seven bone fragments were removed and the end of the bone shaved smooth.

The surgeon insisted that I have Physical Therapy, as he had bruised the nerves in my arm digging around for the final bone fragment. I would not be able to use my left arm unless I had intensive PT. I didn’t have insurance to cover that expense, and told him so. He shook his head morosely, and then suggested that I try to stretch it as much as physically possible. He didn’t hold any hope of it doing any good without a specialist helping me, but there ya go.

I had made plans to visit Nashville in a month and a half, and had in fact lined up several opportunities to perform. Now, unfortunately, it looked as if I wouldn’t be able to play for 6 to 9 months. If even then.

I won’t bore you with all the gory details, or try to impress you with tales of how, after a good deal of crying, I set out on an impossible quest. Instead, I’ll pick up the story four weeks later, when I went back to the surgeon for a follow-up visit.

“I see you went to a Physical Therapist after all,” said the good doctor, as he manipulated my arm and hand around.

“No,” says I. “Well, you must have. This is an extraordinary improvement, and one I wouldn’t expect even with physical therapy.”

“No,” I insisted, “I can’t afford physical therapy.”

“Then, how?”

“Well, I looked at my right arm, moved it around, and then forced my left arm to move that way. It hurt like hell, and I screamed and cursed a lot, but I kept at it until my left arm and hand could pretty much move like my right. And then I started all over again the next day.”

The surgeon shook his head again, and said, “Impossible. Stretching like that is too painful on your own.”

“Not when you’re motivated.”

Thank you for reading my thoughts on stretching and how it applies not only to the fiddle, but to life as well. For more blogs like this, and to learn traditional fiddle tunes the FAST, EASY, and FUN way, please visit my website:

~ Michael Kelly, fiddler, Sligo Rags (Celtic Bluegrass Fusion)

Leave a comment