The Musician’s Body – take care!

Let’s face it, playing a musical instrument is bad for your health.

A few weeks ago I attended a seminar led by Drusilla Redman, a physiotherapist who works with BAPAM and is also Student Health Adviser and Physiotherapist for Guildhall School of Music and Drama. When Drusilla asked the participants to raise their hands if they were “in pain at the moment”, everyone put their hand up. The attendees were all musicians and music teachers – a guitarist, a violinist, several pianists, a flautist and a clarinettist.

Sadly, being in pain is a common condition for many musicians: a number of my pianist friends suffer from recurrent back problems, chronic tendonitis and other RSI-type conditions. Being hunched over a piano is not good for the body – nor is holding a violin or a flute, or humping a cello – or worse, a double bass – around.

Many of us suffer from “T-shaped pain” across the base of the neck, shoulders and down the back. In my case, this is almost certainly the result of too much time spent at both computer and piano, and not enough time spent stretching between practise sessions and when I leave my desk. Muscles don’t like being kept still, but sitting playing an instrument makes us still. For those who play instruments which need to be supported or held – for example, the French horn, trombone, cello, bassoon, violin, flute – the body can suffer from being in an awkward posture or out of alignment for periods of time.

There are many other factors which contribute significantly to pain, including:

  • bad technique
  • lack of proper warm up
  • unresolved or existing traumas/injuries
  • untreated or ignored chronic conditions such as RSI and tendonitis/tenosynovitis
  • too much repetition in practising
  • bad seating
  • tension and anxiety
  • a punishing practising and/or working schedule
  • over-practising or intense practising before a performance
  • poor choice of repertoire (the pianist with tiny hands is going to really suffer in Liszt or Rachmaninoff)
  • lack of sleep
  • poor diet

Until relatively recently, musicians were expected to simply get on with it, without complaining, and without help from specialists such as Alexander Technique, Yoga and Pilates practitioners, physiotherapists, osteopaths and chiropractors, as well as mainstream medics. Little was really understood, or wished to be understood, about the strain playing an instrument can put on the body and students in conservatoire were given no support or advice on how to look after themselves. When I was studying the piano as a teenager in the 1980s, for example, my then teacher gave me no advice on hand health, avoiding injury, tension or RSI conditions, nor any help on managing nerves and performance anxiety. Today, music students and musicians in general can seek the support, advice and care of professionals to ensure that they keep themselves fit to play. But admitting one has an injury is still stigmatised: in a world where most of us our freelance, admitting we are unable to play can result in no work and therefore no money and musicians often play through pain – because they have to.

Compare this scenario to that of top sports players: no sportsman or woman would tolerate the kind of bodily travails the musician undergoes. Sportspeople, and their trainers, understand about the need to exercise and rest the muscles properly, to engage in a proper warm up regime, eat well, sleep well, and never, ever exercise – or indeed play – through pain.

Through a better understanding of the musician’s body and lifestyle, and the many parallels to be drawn from sport, the musician’s body is now treated in a similar way to the sportsperson’s: we should regard ourselves as “elite musical athletes”, and caring for our bodies in the way a sportsperson would can ensure we avoid injury and enjoy pain-free playing.

The following may seem obvious, but how many of us really, truly adopt these measures on a daily basis?

  • do a proper warm up and stretching session, preferably away from the instrument, if you are a pianist or keyboard player
  • practise in sensible increments (say, 20-30 mins per session) and take regular breaks
  • incorporate mental practise, away from your instrument
  • stretch between practise sessions
  • consider your posture (sit with knees lower than hips)
  • take regular exercise
  • take care when lifting
  • eat sensibly
  • drink plenty of water
  • don’t smoke
  • sleep well
  • enjoy a social life and do activities which are not music-related
  • think positively
  • if in pain, stop right away and seek help
  • By looking after our bodies properly, our practising and music making will be more productive and enjoyable.

Further resources:

BAPAM – specialist help support to performing artists

Yoga for pianists – warm up exercises devised by pianist and teacher Penelope Roskell

1 Comment

  1. I often suffer from migraine like symptoms when my neck goes out following too much time at a computer. My partner Michelle found this video showing a great sequence of exercises to release the tension.
    I have barely had an episode since starting to do them regularly. Highly recommended!

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