An Interview with Shmuel Tatz, Body Tuner

With this column Chamber Music introduces a series of short articles about the ways by which various musicians are trying to overcome the problems that came between them and their audience, ranging from the many manifestations of performance anxiety to the actual physical pathologies that can affect them with pain, debility, and even atrophy.

Here, Barry Lenson talks with Shmuel Tatz, a New York City resident who calls that he does, Body Tuning.

Mr. Tatz and pianist Vladimir Feltsman
Mr. Tatz and pianist Vladimir Feltsman

On the eighth floor of Carnegie Hall, in New York, is a studio with the sign on the door that reads, “Shmuel Tatz – Body Tuning”. I knock and enter. Inside, I sit down in a small waiting room. The walls are covered with dozens of photographs of well known performers (e.g. pianists Bella Davidovich and Vladimir Feltsman, violinist Isaac Stern, dancer Merrill Ashley) each scribbled with a few testimonial words of thanks.

After a minute or two, Mr. Tatz enters and settles comfortably into a chair across from me. unlike other practitioners of “methods” I have met, he does not seem to move according to any visible technique or system, or to sit with any artificial posture. He just seems comfortable to be in his body. He excludes energy and extraordinary limberness.

Having ascertained that Mr. Tatz is himself a music and dance lover and his wife is a classical pianist, I start our discussion in typical journalist fashion: “What physical problems do you observe most frequently in instrumentalists?” But he quickly takes the conversation into another direction entirely – a philosophical inquiry into why people seek health care, and the mistakes they make in going about it.

Mr. Tatz: Today, we have over-use syndrome, repetitive motion problems. You are telling me these problems didn’t exist fifty years ago? Of course they did- but today, we have these new names. A musician goes to an expert who says, “Aha! You have such and such a syndrome, and the correct treatment is this”.

Barry Lenson: What is wrong with that approach?

ST: Sometimes the people with the most money get the worst treatment. They ask, “Who is the top person in the field of this problem?” And they go to the person, and may be the treatment works, and may be it doesn’t. There is a Russian expression, “I don’t need a hundred rubles, I need a Hundred friends”. Friend gives you advice, referrals, and ideas- there ‘s far more value in them then in money. You have to make inquiries, find the treatment that is right for you. You have to listen to what different people are telling you, and trust you instincts. Then you must believe. Nobody can decide for you what treatment to choose. Money won’t solve the problem.

BL: So you are saying that going to specialist is not always the best solution for a particular problem?

ST: Not always, no. When you have a problem with a joint in the pinkie, let’s say, you go to a specialist an he takes a close look. [Here Mr. Tatz does an imitation of a specialist, focusing his eyes closely at his own pinkie from half an inch away.] This specialist, perhaps, does not look at the bigger picture. May be the problem lies with the shoulder, elbow; or neck.

BL: So, the problem felt in the elbow or the wrist may be caused elsewhere in the body?

ST: Absolutely. when violinist, for example, experience problems with his shoulder, I often find that those problems come from the hips. [Mr. Tatz stands and imitates first a violinist who is tight and stiff in the body and arms, and then a violinist whose relaxed arm movements seem to emanate from a low center of gravity and free hip movements.]

BL: Why are so many musicians developing physical problems today?

ST: It’s a question of talent. Sometimes someone is a wonderfully talented musician, but has no natural understanding of the body- there’s abuse, too much practicing, the body is out of tune. So the person thinks, “I’m week, I need to do more.” Within a few years, very big problems arise.

BL: In your approach, how do you diagnose where the difficulties lie?

ST: I look at two things in the movement of the joints-accessory joint movement, and intra-joint movement.

Mr. Tatz uses my left hand and demonstrates. First, he has me band my hand as far inward toward my forearm as I can, and then he bands my wrist a little further, using his own hand. That extra range of movement, he explains, is accessory movement. Then he grasps my left hand at the palm, holds my index finger in his other hand, and moves his finger around within the knuckle joint – not in bending movements, but in back and forth and sliding circular movements. This non-flexing movement with in the joint, he explains, is intra-joint movement.

ST: I look at both the quality of the motion, and he range. A problem I find in the joint may later develop in the soft tissue- muscles, tendons.

BL: What type of treatment do you give? Do you manipulate the joints, like a chiropractor?

ST: The thing that matters most is that the person understands the problem, agree with the diagnosis of how he or she has been using the body improperly. Then I need only to show what exercises to do. I don’t manipulate or exercise – you do it. If you see results and I see results, you keep doing the exercises. If not, we try something else.

BL: So it’s not a question of making dozens of appointments with you, to get checked weekly on progress, or something like that?

ST: Why do that if the results are coming? You don’t need a baby-sitter. Most musicians have discipline anyway.

BL: Could you demonstrate some of the exercise you use?

ST: Yes. First, there’s throwing the rock into the river – very important for violinists.

[He takes a playful stance and mimes the action of lobbing a small stone into the river. The movement is loose and gentle, utilizing not just his arm but his back, hips and legs.] And then, for pianists, there’s “going outside on a very cold day”, as in Russia. [Like a cold man clapping himself on the back shoulders to fight the cold, he gives himself a rapid, body-smacking hug with both arms, then repeats the action several times, alternating the positions of his arms (first left above right, then right above left). The movement is very big and energetic. I try it too. It’s fun and it loosens my back and shoulders.]

BL: What do you call what you do? Some kind of physical therapy or chiropractic?

ST: I call my system Body Tuning, just as my sign says on the door.

BL: Tell me about your training. How did you develop your approach?

ST: I was trained .in physical education and medical exercise in Lithuania, where I worked principally with athletes. Each sports team had one physical therapist on staff. My assignment wads a soccer team. Later I emigrated to Israel and studied to become registered physical therapist. I worked in hospitals and with all kinds of problems.

BL: When did you begin to work with musicians and dancers?

ST: In Jerusalem, a young pianist came to me with arm problems. She had gone to an Alexander Technique specialist who told her to stand more erectly. (He imitates someone sitting very erect). When that didn’t work, she went to Feldenkrais teacher, who told her to be more fluid and flexible. (He imitates someone making exaggeratedly round and fluid movements). Now, I’m not saying that different methods are wrong. You just have to be aware that everyone is going to tell you something different. The physical therapist will say that your muscles are week and need to be strengthened. The chiropractor will say that you have a subluxation, that you need opening up. The medical doctor will prescribe a pill, the surgeon will want to remove something. It’s a mistake to go from one religion to another. Listen first. Then decide for yourself. The thing I do differently is to lead people to understand and accept the physical things they may be doing wrong. I have experience with such things, and if the person understands the problem first and is willing to work to correct it, the situation can usually be improved. I don’t say I achieve one hundred percent success in one hundred percent of all cases, but I have seen remarkable things.

In the words of the body-tuned

From a client’s perspective, how does Shmuel Tatz works? I decided to speak with two string players who have sought his help for quite different problems. Their names are not used because one of them requested anonymity.

Client A, a violinist who plays a ballet ensembles and orchestras, had experienced tightness and pain in her upper back and shoulders for years. Previous treatments brought a little relief … and she tried nearly everything, including acupuncture, Alexander Technique, hypnosis, chiropractic, massage, relaxation techniques and a regime of physical therapy that included treatment with heat and ultrasound. She finally found her way to Mr. Tatz. “The difference is quite amazing”, she said. “He seems to have an intuitive perception of the body, to combine technique and artistry as if he were a musician himself. I do have a chronic problem, and it’s not going disappear entirely. But he has brought me more relief than I believed possible”.

Client B, a violinist, first went to Mr. Tatz with an unusual ailment – she had bent over to pick up her case, and felt sudden and intense pain in her back. Not able to take time off from her schedule in orchestras and opera orchestras, she went to the Tatz Body Tuning studio when she heard he could get her up and running again quickly. “After the first treatment, I felt dramatically better,”, she says. “The treatment is mostly hands-on. What does he do? At first, he moved my arms, leg, neck, to see how flexible they were. He can push with his fingers, sense what is inflamed, and work on it. I can’t begin to tell you what his system is, but I know I feel fantastic. I walk down the street, and I see that my shoulders, which used to be up around my ears with tension is gone, even without his having told me to drop my shoulders or anything like that.”

Chamber Music
By Barry Lenson