Members of the Hot Club of Philadelphia are, from left, Barry Wahrhaftig, Phyllis Chapell, Jim Stager, Dan Pearce and Joseph Arnold [holding hat]. —-Photo by Howard Pitkow

By Len Lear

Some readers will no doubt recognize Mt. Airy resident Joseph Arnold, 32, as the violinist of the Hot Club of Philadelphia, an acoustic ensemble that plays “Gypsy Jazz” frequently at area venues. Arnold also teaches improvisation, jazz and pop — not so common among violin teachers — but what really sets him apart is that Arnold incorporates his Alexander Technique training into lessons to “help my students play with less muscular tension.” Arnold has even taught a class called “No More Back Pain” for Mt. Airy Learning Tree.

For those not familiar with the Alexander Technique, it is a method of mind-body coordination and pain relief. In fact, the main reason moved from Pittsburgh to Philly seven years ago was to be close to the Philadelphia School for the Alexander Technique, a teacher-training program run by Martha Hansen Fertman.

Arnold came to the Alexander Technique because of his own struggles with chronic pain. As a young violinist in a conservatory, he developed chronic pain in his arms and back that almost ended his career in music.

After finding little relief with traditional therapies and pain-relief techniques, Arnold says that the Alexander Technique taught him a whole new way of using his body while playing violin. “I used to play violin by grabbing it tightly with my neck and squeezing my bow with a death grip. Now, I’ve learned to play freely and with utter ease and no more pain.” He now has a career as a professional violinist, violin teacher and Alexander Technique teacher.

Arnold also cites a study published in the British Medical Journal which showed that lessons in the Alexander Technique were shown to reduce chronic back pain by an average of 86%, even a year after treatment had ended. (BMJ 2008;337:a884)

“This study reflects what happened for one of my students, Chris. Chris came to me with stabbing pain in his side and signs of repetitive strain injuries in his arms. I taught him to become aware of his body in a new way so that he could begin to notice and release his habits of using excess muscular tension in his daily activities. Within several weeks, his pain levels were dramatically reduced, and now, a couple years later, Chris is basically pain-free.”

Arnold grew up studying classical and fiddle music and graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 2006 with a BA in Jazz Studies. He has experience playing with many different kinds of groups, including orchestras, small string ensembles, indie rock bands, jazz bands, blues bands, pop bands, a tango band, country and folk bands, as well as a far-out space rock improvisation group.

“I’ve been playing violin since I was 5 years old,” he told us, “and have been learning it wherever I’ve been since then … For as long as I can remember I loved playing music, whether at concerts or for the plumber who came to fix the sink. Practicing every day is really, really hard for most kids, so unless they have both the desire to play and the unwavering support of their parents, both of which I was lucky enough to have, then they’re unlikely to follow through.” (Neither of Arnold’s parents is a professional musician. His father manages software engineering departments, and his mother is a technical writer and editor.)

The Mt. Airy professional violinist has performed in many venues over the years — in churches, concert halls, bars, restaurants, backyards, campgrounds, festivals, beaches, at bonfires, weddings, etc. He has been on national tours with Anna Vogelzang, a singer-songwriter from Wisconsin. Locally he has played with the Hot Club at the Mermaid Inn, Paris Bistro and Andrea Clearfield’s Salon in Center City.

Arnold said he plays the violin “to find deep peace and awakeness in every moment of my life. Is this an achievement or non-achievement? I suppose you’d have to ask the Buddha.”

When asked about the essence of the Alexander Technique, Arnold replied, “Some say that the difference between suffering and pain is that pain is inevitable and suffering is a choice. When I’m feeling blue, I can make myself feel a whole lot worse by making the choice to follow negative thought patterns. On the other hand, when I realize I’m doing this, I can then make the choice to pay attention to something else. This is the essence of the Alexander Technique.”

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