Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

Human Body Mythbusters: Musicians' Edition

So I'm sure I've ranted before that musicians should take anatomy/physiology classes and learn a bit more about self-care, but more importantly, let's look at some of the most frequent myths I get to bust in lessons, classes, friendly conversations, and emails. 

A lovely small image from Gray's Anatomy.

A lovely small image from Gray's Anatomy.

1. Your rotator cuff is one giant muscle, and you can tear it.  Well, yes, you can, but the rotator cuff actually refers to four muscles that assist in the movement of your arm and scapula.  If someone tells me they hurt their shoulder and "tore my rotator," I always ask them which one, which they inevitably can never answer. ( At least figure out what range of motion hurts, and then remember which muscle you hurt.  "Everything hurts" is not helpful.)

2. Your core refers to your abdominals exclusively.  I despite this misunderstanding, perpetuated by the fitness realm of "burn," "shred," "melt," and "tone," your abs.  Your core, refers to the entire muscular sheathing of your viscera and spine, which includes your abdominals (6 pack, obliques, transverse), back muscles, diaphraghm, psoas, and more, depending on your definition.  Some folks define core as include hip musculature too, so that's open for debate.  Either way, your 6 pack is not your core, although it is part of it, and doing sit-ups will not invariably cure back pain although strengthening the whole core might help.

Image courtesy of radiologyinfo.org

Image courtesy of radiologyinfo.org

3.  Your fingers start at your knuckles.  Nope.  While this is not intuitive, the bones that make up your metacarpals and phalanges originate at your wrist.  Your wrist position while playing your instrument directly affects your ability to use your fingers, and when you think of fingers articulating, they begin their articulation from the wrist.  In addition, your have minimal musculature in the hand, but instead the bulk of your musculature in your forearms.

4.  Your respiratory diaphraghm cannot be stretched.  So your diaphraghm is a muscle, which means that it can be tight, loose, weak, and strong, in various degrees.  Your diaphraghm is also a muscle nestled within your rib cage which helps your lungs to inflate and deflate. In addition, the muscles around your ribs can also be tight, loose, weak, and/or strong, which also affects your respiration.  There are interesting ways to stretch your diaphraghm (for another day-ooh la la!) as well as open up the muscles on the sides of the ribs, which can help your breathe more easily and more fully (good for most musicians and people at large).  PS.  The narrator in this video has a hilarious accent.

Amazing and interesting!

Amazing and interesting!

5.  The tongue is one big muscle.  Your tongue, ladies and gentleman, is a structure composed of eight separate muscles, attaching at various bones including the hyoid bone, mandible, and styoid process.  Without dwelling on the anatomy too much, take a look at this picture and be amazed!

6.  Standing with my feet turned out is natural.  Nope.  I've had a chat about this before, especially in relation to violin pedagogy, but here are a few thoughts.  Just because everyone does something, doesn't mean it's natural.  Everyone currently sits 6-8 hours a day, but that's not biologically natural.  Just because everyone turns out their feet doesn't mean that's natural either.  The more you turn out your feet and legs, the more likely you hyperextend your knees and flatten your pelvic/low back curves.  When your feet face parallel (or close), you walk in a manner that is more biomechanically sound for feet, knees, and hips, and can help change your pain patterning.

BONUS!  (Just thought of a few more to add as of 5 PM today.)

7. Sitting, standing, and playing with poor posture won't affect my long term body health.  Nope.  I've talked about this a lot, and I'm sure it gets boring to read about, but the way you move affects your tissues!

8.  Wearing High Heels Regularly Won't Affect My Body.  This is a biggie.  If you only wear them to sit in, then sure, you might be ok.  Walking and standing in them regularly will affect your alignment, your back, your knees, and possibly cause you bunions.  Save them for super special occasions and don't regularly concertize or audition in them.

9. Many of the great players had ridiculous setups and strange posture.  They didn't hurt -why can't I play that way?  In regards to string technique, much has changed in the last fifty years.  We no longer teach to learn how to play, but we teach folks (hopefully) in a way that not only imparts knowledge of how to play an instrument, but how to play it sustainably for a long time.  I can't know if famous musicians of the twentieth century were ever in physical pain from playing.  My guess is, yes, they were in pain sometimes, and no, there weren't an abundance of tools at their disposal for improving their setup.  My friend Molly Gebrian said this quite eloquently last week: "Great players played well not because of their (idiosyncratic) technique, but in spite of it."  That means you don't necessarily want or need the setup of famous 1940's violinists.

10.  If I just take an anti-inflammatory drug, all of my wrist/arm/shoulder/back pain will go away.  So if you just treat the symptom (pain/discomfort/tingling) and don't address the cause (misalignment, tension, overuse, too much playing, poor sleeping/standing/sitting alignment, etc.) the pain will most likely be chronic.  NSAID's can be important sometimes in treating serious inflammation and wounds, but we often medicate without thinking of the obvious thing: our body has an inflammatory response to treat tissue damage for a biological reason.  

"Overuse of the muscles causes cells to break down, releasing waste products, which produces pain and inflammation.  Cleanup crews in the form of white bloods cells called macrophages carry away the cellular debris. If you take anti-inflammatory drugs at this time, the natural inflammation process is disrupted and instead of being cleansed away in the blood stream, the trash settles into scar tissue." - Dr Emil Pascarelli

Maybe reconsider the next time you reach for the Advil, and instead ask, "why do I hurt?" and "Is there any other way I can treat this right now?"


While the body is a complex and interesting structure, many of our bodily misconceptions have affected how we play and how teach.  If one of these concepts resonated with you (pun intended), think of how it can help your students and your own practice!


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