Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

My Story, Or How This Blog Came to Be

I don't generally write about myself on this blog, at least not in a "here's my story" sort of way, but I have been asked enough recently about how I came to be a body nerd that I think it's time to share.  For starters, I was not particularly interested in anatomy/physiology as a child, and I remember taking biology and thinking that the things related to human movement were interesting, but all of the taxonomy and cell science stuff took my attention at the time (darn AP's).  I also did not like physics, so who would've guessed that I'd spend my spare time ten years later reading about load science?  Anyway, I digress.

I went to college in 2004 (yes, I'm that old, or that young, depending on who you ask) and my first teacher was not particularly sensitive to injuries, overuse, or misuse.  I played in the Philip Glass opera Akhnaten (which is an awesome piece requiring no violins and featuring a countertenor and a contralto), and having my first bout of pain related to playing (upper right trapezius/shoulder, because I did press my sound a bit back then).  I talked to my teacher at the time, and her advice was to play through it, to practice more, and to essentially ignore it.  My 18 year old brain was not sure of many things at that time in life, but I was quite sure that this was total &*$% advice, especially since I was playing both violin and viola at the time.  I had never had a massage or acupuncture, had never done yoga or pilates or received reiki, and had no idea that there was a whole world of supportive movement and manual therapies for overuse.  I did however see older students in my studio that had pain related to playing, and I was concerned for my health and sanity, so I transferred to NEC and to study with Carol Rodland for my sophomore year of college. 

I started college with a bowhold like the one on the left.  You can get away with strange bowholds on the violin, but with viola, you often end up forcing the sound in ways that are not great.

I started college with a bowhold like the one on the left.  You can get away with strange bowholds on the violin, but with viola, you often end up forcing the sound in ways that are not great.

Studying with Carol was hard because she took pain, misuse, overuse, and abuse seriously and knew what she was talking about.  We went through a process of essentially remodeling my entire bow arm to move away from a pronated position to a more balanced bow hold, which was an excruciating and miserable process, although I learned how to stop pressing with my arm and how to curb that upper trapezius pain.  Working with Carol honed my kinesthetic awareness like nothing else could at that time, and I became more interested in technique, setup, and the mechanics of playing, although I kept that on the back burner. 

*You know you're a nerd when you have a few hours free and you sit in the library looking at back issues of strings journals to read about technique and pedagogy.  This was also while juggling a double degree in music history, so I have no idea how I had time to this.  I was perhaps not as social as some of my friends.

Meanwhile, I managed to clumsily bruise my coccyx twice (falling off of a chair, and being pushed off a piano bench) which was a particularly unpleasant process of learning that sitting and standing hurt, and that I was in fact human and susceptible to pain.  In 2007, I tried my first yoga class at the recommendation of a friend, and was hooked because it honed that kinesthetic awareness that I had been refining in my viola lessons, but applied it to larger muscle groups (hello spine! hello legs! hello hips! Nice to meet you!).  I soon ditched my regular gym membership and switched to a full time yoga person, which was great for starters and challenged me in new ways.  That following summer, I was in a dumb bike accident in which I flew over the handlebars and essentially messed up my knee.  My yoga/movement plans were screwed and I was confined to a huge knee brace for the next three months, and I could barely walk, let alone do yoga or running.  Frankly, it sucked.  Knee pain led to compensation patterns, which eventually led to hip, back, and SI joint pain because I was favoring my left side so much more, all pain that I still work with today.  I learned then that true injury is awful, and that not being able to move the way you want to is misery.

My pain was in the base of the palm at the conjunction of all of the flexor tendons.

My pain was in the base of the palm at the conjunction of all of the flexor tendons.

Fast forward 8 months to 2009, and I've started my master's degree and suddenly, with no warning, I developed numbness and tingling in my left hand.  Unlike many musicians, my tendonitis was not in my forearms, and I played with relatively minimal tension, at least according to my teachers.  I didn't have overuse warnings ahead of the injury, and suddenly I had to take time off from playing, despite all of my attempts to be more aware and practice mindfully.  I was also a pretty serious yoga person again, and I do think the wrist intensive poses and the manner in which they were taught exacerbated the tissue.  In class, if I tried to avoid certain yoga poses because they hurt my wrists, I remember some teachers giving me a hard time, saying that I wasn't meeting my edge or challenging myself, or that I would never get stronger.

*Yoga has both helped me and hurt me, which is why I'm cautious in my teaching, and feel that anatomy and injury awareness is necessary for teachers of movement, fitness, yoga, and music.*  

My month or so off of playing while in my master's degree was awful, and I saw that misery of being limited from doing the things you love.  Many doctors give the general prescription of "take time off and take ibuprofen" which I found incredibly frustrating, because I thought that there could be other causations (neck? shoulder? back?).  Anyone who's been seriously injured either from music will tell you that limitation and pain can be incredibly depressing and disheartening when you've spent 15 years practicing.   TO be told by a doctor that you need to rest and take drugs is disheartening, especially when the pain doesn't go away.  Slowly, we began to rework my playing, starting with timers and I alternated heat and cold packs and took pain killers, and that was that.  My experience with overuse did prevent me from taking orchestra too seriously as a career option at that time (or summer festival option), because I knew that the requirements were extreme: many hours of playing, minimal breaks, and an expectation that because you are young, you can't get injured.  (I generally object to rehearsing more than 5-6 hours a day because I know so many other people who have been injured.)  In the end, I stopped doing yoga for almost 9 months after my injury, and did attend regular classes for almost a year.

Fast forward another year or two, and I'm taking my first yoga teacher training at South Boston Yoga, and my teachers are terrific about modifying the practice for limiting wrist mobility and strength.  I start studying anatomy for the first time since high school, and I loved it.  I remember babysitting a kid while coloring an anatomy coloring book, and the 7 year old asking me why I would study for fun.  After that, I taught a variety of yoga classes in multiple states  (MA, NV, CA, and for colleagues at festivals and in Canada) a, and I saw that yoga teachers and students needed some more embodied anatomy.  Folks didn't know where things in their body were, and they accepted pain as a condition of aging or playing an instrument.  (I was also diagnosed with my pituitary tumor around this time, but that's another story for another day). 

Bones are awesome.  Isn't it amazing that your hands can make music and write and type?  I think anatomy doesn't have to be boring but can be a way to connect with yourself in a profound way.

Bones are awesome.  Isn't it amazing that your hands can make music and write and type?  I think anatomy doesn't have to be boring but can be a way to connect with yourself in a profound way.

In the years since my first training, I've seen how little knowledge there is in the music community about the body and tissues and muscles and everything in between.  In the athletic and training space, there is an interest in understanding pain, soft tissue mechanics, anatomy, conditioning, etc, but somehow, that depth of knowledge hasn't always made it to music-land.   *We are small muscle athletes, people!*

I've seen musician colleagues overuse, misuse, and abuse their arms, neck, and shoulders because they have to for school, to freelance, etc., and I've known so many people to play music with pain.  I've seen how a lifetime of pain results in costly painful surgeries, and how people retire early because of herniated discs, neck issues, jaw issues, and nerve compression.  This simply will not do!  There are many people working to improve the health of musicians, but the resources are not always readily available, and musicians often don't seek them out.

Fast forward to the last year or so, in which I decided I wanted to learn more about A&P, and help people be more pain-free in their bodies.  I took some amazing trainings in Yoga Tune Up® with Trina Altman, Sarah Court, and Jill Miller, and I learned more about therapy ball work, which I had been doing for years with lacrosse balls.  I carried my anatomy books on planes, trains, subways, and to coffee shops, and just started immersing myself in learning for learning's sake.  I started my blog this year after winning the job in San Antonio, because I had the time to build a website and start sharing the things I've learned and continue to learn with other people.  When people started asking me about their injuries, tweaks, pains, and how to sit better, I knew it was time to share what I know and what I continue to learn.   And so it continues!  I certainly don't know everything about the body (not even close!), but my idea of a nice morning does include reading books about movement, mechanics, muscles, and music.  I am a body nerd by day, and a musician by night (depending on the rehearsal/concert schedule), and I wouldn't have it any other way.  I've now broken an ankle, jacked up a knee, messed up a hip, had back pain, jaw pain, shoulder pain, bruised my coccyx, had tendonitis (and a non cancerous brain tumor) and in the meantime, tried acupuncture and a huge array of manual therapies (craniosacral therapy, rolfing, NKT, reiki, and more).  My goal in this work and the website is to share body knowledge to musicians, and to tell people that you don't have to play, sit, walk, sing, and be in pain all of the time.  You are how you move, and self-knowledge is the first step to empowerment.  

And as always, thanks for reading.