Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

"If It Hurts While You're Playing, You're Doing It Wrong" and other Confusing Proclamations

I should know better than to read snarky comments on blogs, but sometimes, I just can't resist and read them anyways.  One I read last week was in response to an innocuous interview with an Alexander Technique teacher, and the comment was "If someone hurts while playing their instrument, they're doing it wrong."  This comment had nothing to do with the AT teacher, or her thoughts on pain while playing, but was just a knee-jerk reaction on the part of someone.  I see this idea in so many different disciplines- music, yoga culture, athletics, and more, but it is incredibly short-sighted in light of the many different factors that affect injury.  If someone has pain while walking, running, and completing everyday activities, do we initially assume they're doing everything "wrong?"  Probably not, although there are factors in all of those activities that increase and decrease healthfulness.  What if a professional athlete injures himself (or herself)?  Is the assumption that their form in their sport is "wrong?"  The action of making music and studying music for twenty plus years is a complex process, involving many areas of fine motor control, skill acquisition, coordination, proprioception, and more.  To tell someone after studying for many years that they're doing it incorrectly is essentially are placing a value judgment on someone's health and abilities in music, despite the many different variables that affect injury and tissue damage.

Here's a truth: There are certain aspects of our technique, setup, practice habits, and day to day self-care that can affect our long term health, mobility, and endurance. 

Here's another:  If someone is injured, it's not necessarily their "fault" or because their setup is dubious.  That's not to say that we can't all expand our proprioception, refine our technique, or learn new ways of working around tension and compensation patterns, but that there are also other factors at play in injury management.

One of my movement teachers, biomechanist Katy Bowman, talks about frequency, duration, intensity, and other variables that affect the loads placed on a body.  In terms of music study, factors might be

-size of instrument relative to the person

-frequency of rehearsals/personal practice compared to frequency of breaks

-duration of rehearsals/personal practice

-intensity level of rehearsal/personal practice

-height of chair/stand

-difficulty level of music

-an individual's other non-mudivsl activities (computer, driving, lifting, etc.)

-an individual's self-care practices (massage, strengthening, etc.)

-an individual's tissue elasticity, strength, hypermobility, arthritis, etc.

-an individual's age and gender

-an individual's relationship to pain

And so forth.  Some of these factors include things that we can control, but many of these are beyond our control.  Anyone who's played in an ensemble will tell you that there are many factors you can't control- someone else leads the rehearsal, decides on the schedule, repertoire, repetitions needed, etc.  I've had to play all of Schubert 9 in a dress rehearsal and play it in a concert a few hours later, which was true physical torture.  But I can't control the duration, intensity, repertoire, and rehearsal schedule in that situation.    So what can we do?  We can do our best to identify the factors that we have personal control over: self-care, chair heights (if there are options), our personal practice schedule, our all over health, and our non-musical activities.  We can seek help when we see patterns of dysfunction or pain in our bodies.  We can take breaks when appropriate.  We can work with movement professionals to find new ways of playing our instrument or setting up our instrument.  But if someone is injured, we can't assume it's their fault or that they are fundamentally doing things wrong- there's no one "right way" for everyone.

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