Pamela Frank: Fit As A Fiddle
The celebrated violinist Pamela Frank was at the height of her career when she suffered a life-altering injury. After nearly a decade, she’s playing again, with newfound purpose.
Pamela Frank is a celebrated violinist and professor.
Her parents were both concert pianists. Born in New York in 1967, Frank studied violin with noted violinist Shirley Givens from age 5 and graduated from Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music in 1989, four years after her first performance at Carnegie Hall. She has featured as a soloist with leading orchestras including the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Berlin Philharmonic, and played chamber music at international festivals across the world. She was recognized in 1999 with the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, but soon after her playing career was sidelined with a series of injuries.
She continued to teach as a professor of violin at the Curtis Institute, whose faculty she joined in 1996, and was able to return to performance after changing her technique. After her recovery she founded Fit as a Fiddle with her husband, physical therapist Howard Nelson, to help musicians prevent and treat injuries.
At the turn of the last century, Pamela Frank was one of the brightest stars in the classical firmament. Earning rave reviews performing with the world’s greatest orchestras and amassing a legion of loyal fans. At age 32 she became the recipient of one of classical music’s highest honors. But then, in 2001, the music stopped. After hurting her hand in a household accident, a botched acupuncture treatment made things worse.
Pamela Frank: And so, I basically looked like a stroke victim. My ulnar nerve had been injured. I couldn’t use this side for six months. I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t do it, let alone play the violin. Forget it, I couldn’t hold anything.
Sidelined from performing, Frank discovered how she could still be a musician without picking up an instrument. This revelation changed both how she thought about and taught music.
Frank: The thing that I hope to help my students the most with is how to practice less and better. People spend five, six, eight, 10 hours a day in a practice room learning notes but they’re not thinking. I’m trying to get them to think and therefore to practice what matters. Which is, ‘What are they saying?’ not, ‘How are they playing?’
But Frank missed performing. So much so that she’d often play through the pain. Until in 2012 she suffered another debilitating injury. This time to her neck.
Frank: I was in complete agony and I just thought, you know, just help me. And I will do what anybody says now.
It was then that she heard about Howard Nelson, a physical therapist known for his pragmatic approach. Helping patients change their pattern of movement and posture to promote healthy, sustainable alignment.
Frank: It was an empowering thought. It was an empowering idea, that you could actually influence how your body works and feels. And if you can harm yourself, you can also help yourself.
But at the time of their first appointment, Frank was feeling anything but empowered. Howard Nelson still remembers the day they met eight years ago.
Howard Nelson: She walks in the room and she’s got a cervical collar on and she’s cold and clammy. And is very freaked out about doing anything because the doctor had said she probably would need a surgical fusion of your neck.
But it never came to that. Nelson put her firmly on the road to recovery by altering the way she held her violin and moved her body as she played. It was a steep re-learning curve but she says she was able and willing to climb it because making music is all she’s ever known. It’s in her DNA. Her parents, Lilian Kallir and Claude Frank were both celebrated concert pianists.
Frank: Oh, I think I was spoiled, genetically. Nature and nurture, actually, because they would always just be talking about what the music means. And it wasn’t in any kind of academic, cerebral way. It was just, they were always searching for more and more content. You know, when they would just talk about music between themselves, and my father, of course, he was so reverent of the composers. He thought this was like God. I know that he felt that he was the vehicle. He was the middle man between the composer and the listener. And so he was totally selfless in that way. And I think he accomplished that goal.
Throughout her early life, Frank performed often with her dad, and later they would record together. When she got hurt, she found a silver lining in the hiatus because it gave her more time to spend with him and with her mother in their final years. But Frank too needed someone to lean on and she soon came to rely on Howard Nelson. Not only for physical therapy but more and more for friendship. Nelson, who as a teenager was a nationally ranked tennis player, spent most of his life working with athletes and had no experience with classical musicians. So Frank took him to concerts where he could analyze performers’ movements and refine his approach to her treatment. They’d debrief over dinners. For five months it was all very business-like until it became something more.
Frank: He went to visit his mother in Florida and he said something very uncharacteristic of him. He said, “I think I’m gonna miss you.” And I thought about it for a second, “Yeah, I think I’m gonna miss you too.”
While he was in Florida, serendipity brought Nelson’s feelings to the fore.
Nelson: She texted me a picture of the moon while I was looking at the moon and we both realized that we were looking at the same thing from New York and Florida. And that was sort of a big moment of connection. But when I got back to New York I said let’s meet for, let’s go out to dinner. And we went out to Pisticci in upper Manhattan and we had some food or a drink and I went over to the bench next to her and I just said, “I love you,” and I gave her a kiss at that moment on the bench at this restaurant.
Frank: The thing about Howard is that it just seemed like he was in my life all along somehow and it just took a long time to find him. There was a rightness about him, a familiarity with him almost immediately. I mean it was just a different level of comfort and trust that I had with him. And I mean, of course, I joke that you know, anybody that gets you back to playing you better marry because that’s the, you know. But that ends up sounding like it’s a gift to him. You know, to marry him, it’s not that. I mean, he gave me my life back and we happen to love each other.
Five years into their marriage, Pam and Howard are now also partners in a venture that helps others understand how it’s possible to make great music without damaging the body.
Nelson: I think working together is exponentially fantastic for me because when we look at a musician, I mean yes, the analysis is a big thing that we have in common. But you see things in people that nobody does.
AJC: How do you think you complement each other? Conversely, what are the things you think that she puts up with from you?
Frank: I think we’re perfect for each other in the sense that I’m really fast about everything. Fast thinking, fast speaking, fast-acting, I wanna get things done as quickly as possible and not necessarily to the best that they can be but just things need to be done. But I think fast and speak fast and expect speed from everybody. And you are incredibly methodical and you take your time and you think things through. You don’t do anything irrationally. And you always say speed kills.
Nelson: That’s a great answer, because, no because I need to speed up.
Frank: No you don’t.
Nelson: I think I do.
Frank: He’s just asking for compliments.
Nelson: And you need to slow down.
Frank: Yes and that is true.
AJC: Not big problems then?
Frank: No, not big problems. Are they?