Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

Finding the Root of Injury

When we talk about musician injuries, we tend to think overuse: playing too much or misalignment, which is sometimes the case.  In Elizabeth Andrews' book, "Muscle Management for Musicians," she outlines three different categories, which I find helpful to look at and expand upon.

Yes, this is real.  It's a contrabass flute.

Yes, this is real.  It's a contrabass flute.

1.  Musician Versus Instrument: This can mean the size and shape of your particular instrument (one viola vs. another) or having to play a lot of contrabassoon/bass flute/subcontrabass sax/etc. in relation to your normal workload.  This can also be as simple as pointing out that not everyone can reach the keys on a flute (without contorting one's hand) or that a full size string bass is not for most people.

I think we can all agree that this is probably not a great way to stand normally, and could cause serious pain/damage/misuse of the spine (but it makes a very cool album cover).

I think we can all agree that this is probably not a great way to stand normally, and could cause serious pain/damage/misuse of the spine (but it makes a very cool album cover).

2. Musician Versus Environment: This is a category orchestral players are certainly aware of- chairs, stand height, conditions of the room/space/concert hall, temperature, etc.  This can also include clothing restrictions (violinists in tuxedos, high heels for performance, or simple elevating one foot to play bass or guitar) or even carrying one's instrument.

3. Musician Versus Self: In my mind this includes the other things we do that stress our arms, body, voice, etc., which includes computer use, cell phone use, driving, standing (!), sleeping, etc.

I love Elizabeth's categories, and although I've altered the descriptions a bit to be more relevant, I think they're great points.  I would however, add a fourth category.

4. Musician Versus Music: Sometimes, even against your best intentions, the repertoire that you're studying, playing in ensemble, or preparing for an audition is too much for your body.  Last week I talked about how Paganini may have been hypermobile- for some folks, the extensions and left hand demands of the caprices are too intense and not practical.  This is true for a lot of contemporary repertoire in general- as our levels of mastery and virtuosity have skyrocketed, so have the demands of our pieces, often bringing near impossible pieces into the forefront of music.  (For example, some violists find the extensions in the Schnittke concerto to be too extreme.)  That doesn't mean that those pieces don't deserve study, they just may not be the right piece for you, or for you right now, or for you with your current instrument.  Another example might be an orchestra or opera company planning to do a Ring Cycle performance, which is a huge undertaking for any instrumentalist.  The rehearsal schedule alone might be very taxing, let alone the music itself.  Even if you're doing your best to take care of yourself, the repertoire, concert schedule, rehearsal schedule, or audition list might be too much for you, either now or in general. 

If you've been injured, reflect on what it was that may have caused or exacerbated the injury- which categories were applicable?  Having an awareness of these categories can certainly prevent future injuries, especially if you know what previously caused an injury.


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