January 27, 2011


I'm going to breach an unspoken rule here and talk about one of the occupational hazards of being a musician, and that is pain associated with over-use syndrome. The reason musicians who suffer from this don't want to talk about it is that we don't really want word getting out that we hurt when we play. It could hurt our employment prospects. If treated carefully, it is very manageable, and it won't affect our ability to perform, but it can still be a difficult subject in a career in which the young and the restless (and the uninjured) are eager to compete.

Being a violinist, I'm most familiar with injuries associated with violin playing. In my mind, it's more common among violinists than other instrumentalists. We tend to be an uptight bunch. I used to have a theory explaining why violinists seemed most affected--and that was directly related to our close proximity to the conductor. I can speak from experience when I say that conductors seem to pick on first violinists more than any other group! It seems that the further back you are from the eyes of the conductor, the more laid-back the personality, hence, less tension. However, cellists seem (to me) more relaxed than violinists as a whole, and they're just as close to the conductor. Is it because they play lower notes? (Does a mellower instrument=a mellower player to go with it?) Or because they have big instruments behind which to hide that they don't seem as wound-up?

Truth is, it's not limited to violinists. I've spoken with horn players suffering from jaw problems, and pianists suffering from back problems, etc. I would like to discuss this issue in more detail with other musicians--find out tricks and techniques to prevent injury, and how to best heal when injured. If anyone has anything to share--helpful articles, books, or seminars addressing it, your personal experiences--I'd love to hear from you.


Judy said...

Great comments. At least musicians are talking more about it now. Back in the day, it wasn't even mentioned.

There are probably two common kinds of stress: internal and muscular. Violinists have a LOT of notes to play so we are stressed in both ways. Horn players deal with more of a muscular problem. We all love what we do so we tend to play through the pain, sometimes at risk to our careers.

Many years toward the end of my "career," I had a violin teacher address my shoulder and back pain but it was too little too late. My piano teacher's injunction to relax my shoulders was too little, too early.

Education is important. Had I known what was happening to me, I would have practiced differently, I would have performed less, and I would have had an occasional professional massage!

I think that once we have exhausted the current helps available, it is then up to the us, the musicians, not to "run faster" than we are able. Not easy to do.

Marci said...

Sorry it's been a while. As an oboist, emotional pain comes when, for one reason or another, you just can't get the tuner to agree with you during tuning - and therefore the concert master doesn't either. No one understands that one day you can be dead on with pitch for much of a rehearsal and then the weather changes or suddenly your reeds give out (or both) and your in a losing battle with the rest of the orchestra to get in tune.
As for physical pain, I hand major thumb, shoulder and back issues when I went to college. It took a while for my joints and muscles to get used to practicing so much. But my wrist and thumb seemed to always be out of correct position for a normal person or an oboist. Having long thumbs didn't help either. I had a teacher once tell me to sit up straight during a lesson. I was! He didn't realize I was a Thayne, I'm sure.
Another pain comes from playing the oboe while pregnant or recovering after child birth. It's nearly impossible, which is why I've set that part of my music aside for a while. My children are just simply more important.
One last pain - that of having someone hear me practice. As a pre-teen and early player, my brothers called me the fire truck/engine. Even now, I feel honky on many occasions and don't like to be heard until performance time.