Injury, like performance anxiety, is something musicians tend not to discuss. Admitting to an injury (or anxiety) can be perceived as a sign of weakness, and as most musicians are self-employed, peripatetic and freelance, without the cushion of statutory sick pay or health insurance, injury can mean loss of work, which means loss of income.
Musicians, like sportspeople, put their bodies under a great deal of stress, but unlike with sportspeople, it’s rare to see a musician stretchered off the stage. Musicians go to great lengths to make their playing appear effortless and free, which can put additional strain on one’s body. However, until fairly recently the idea that one should care for one’s body in the manner of an athlete was not discussed nor seriously considered. I think this has a lot to do with a now rather outdated view that musicians are “artists” and don’t need to concern themselves with such prosaic issues as keeping fit. After all, it’s all about the music, isn’t it?
But if you’re not fit, you can’t play and make music or make a living from making music. Musicians are prone to a range of injuries from simple aches and pains to more significant problems such as tendonitis, RSI, tenosynovitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and focal dystonia. Many of these injuries are related to posture. In fact, pianists come off relatively lightly – other musicians contort their bodies (violinists, flautists) or carry heavy instruments (French horn, tuba) which can put tremendous strain on ligaments and muscles. Injury can also be caused by bad technique (in part related to posture), insufficient warm up, too much repetition in practising, playing too loudly, suddenly increasing practise time (perhaps to prepare for a recital or audition), poor choice of repertoire. The website Musical Toronto quotes some alarming statistics: “The lifetime prevalence of injury for musicians is 84 percent, and the chance of a musician playing while injured is 50/50, which is much higher than for athletes.” Musicians are playing complex, virtuosic/technically demanding repertoire much younger (mid-teens), which also affects their health.
One’s emotional health can also impact on physical health: psychological stress caused by practising, performing, traveling, financial insecurity, competition can lead to physical problems (last year, for example, I had stress-related tendonitis, which was cured surprisingly easily by making some simple changes to my working life as a musician).
Conservatoires and music colleges are now offering courses in yoga, Pilates, Alexander technique, mindfulness and general well-being for musicians in recognition of the importance of caring for one’s body, and many musicians I know do daily yoga and other keep fit regimes which help both body and mind.
We can, of course, put in place habits which can protect our bodies from injury. I like the term “Pre-hab“, which was coined by Sir Chris Hoy, cyclist, multiple Olympic gold medal winner and a commentator on the track cycling at the Rio Olympics. For the musician, Pre-Hab should include:
- Adopt the correct posture when playing
- Do a proper warm up: this can include exercises at the piano or exercises done away from the piano (which I personally prefer)
- Don’t start your practising session with your most difficult music – work up to it
- Take regular breaks between practising (c45 mins then a 10 minute break is sensible)
- Do light stretches between practise sessions to loosen arms, shoulders and neck
- Take extra care when lifting
- Practise away from the instrument – this can include memory work, and listening and reading about the music you are working on
- Take time away from the instrument to unwind and don’t feel guilty about it – allow yourself a social life!
- Listen to your body and take seriously any pain, tension or tenderness in any part of the body
- Never play through pain and seek specialist help as soon as possible if you are in pain
- If recovering from an injury return to playing gradually and don’t practise excessively
Musicians’ Health Resources
BAPAM (British Association of Performing Arts Medicine) offers advice and help for musicians and performing artists including physiotherapy, counselling and referrals to specialist medical practitioners
The Healthy Pianist – fact sheet especially for pianists written by Penelope Roskell and Dr Hara Trouli (PDF file)
Back to School for Elite Musicians – Musical Toronto article
Recovering from Injury – article by Alicja Fiderkiewicz