Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

Overuse-what is it exactly?

by Kayleigh Miller


Most musicians have experienced some degree of fatigue after a long day of playing, whether it is intensive practicing for a concert or audition, or extensive rehearsals and a long day of school.  The problem is what to do when the discomfort doesn't go away, and that is when general panic ensues.  The thoughts about "my career is over," "I'll never get into ____," "I'll fail my jury," etc. start to percolate, and stress does not help inflammation.  Here are the most basic risk factors.

Overuse causes can be fairly simple:

1. Rapid increase in practicing.  Whether it's going on a holiday before an orchestra festival, and suddenly jumping into 6 hours a day of work or taking on extra rehearsals before a concert, dramatic increase in playing one's instrument can yield immediate pain.

2. Misalignment.  This is a broad category, and alignment and biomechanics are a subject unto themselves, but can refer to one's posture, how one holds an instrument, tension release patterns, instrument setup, or even chairs, shoes, and music stand height.

While either of these two factors may not yield an immediate pain response, over time, there can be damage if left unchecked.  Here are Janet Horvath's "Danger Signals," from her book "Playing Less Hurt," which are signs of a current or future injury risk.

1. Pain and/or burning sensation

2. Fatigue or heaviness.

3. Weakness

4. Impaired dexterity

5. Tingling, numbness.

6. Clumsiness.

7. Stiffness.

8. Involuntary movement.

9. Impaired circulation.

10. Difficulty with normal daily activities.
— Horvath, Janet. Playing (less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians. 2nd ed. New York: Hal Leonard, 2010. Kindle. (loc 79- out of 5559)

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of overuse, or whether you think you may be at risk, here are some basic suggestions:

1. Take breaks while practicing. I've seen a wide variety of break time suggestions, from a few minutes every thirty minutes of work to ten-fifteen minutes every hour.  Experiment with what works best for you.

2. Warm-up before "going for the gold," so to speak.  Give your muscles a chance to acclimate before pushing them to capacity in rehearsal, personal practice, or under pressure.

3. Evaluate your setup and talk to your teacher, a movement instructor, or an injury specialist to start to look at your personal tension patterning or misalignment tendencies.

4. Start noticing your basic wellness routine: do you sleep consistently?  How's your stress management?  Nutrition? Exercise?  Stretching and strengthening? Where are you contributing to injury in other areas of your life?

While there are many different types of overuse injuries, as well as a wide range of complex contributing factors, these are some basic concepts to help you and your students.

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