Musicians' Health Collective

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

Filtering by Tag: music

"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.

Mindfulness and Music

Mindfulness is a buzzword in modern society, but what exactly does it refer to?  I love Vietnamese zen master Thich Nhat Hanh'ss definition of mindfulness, "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality."  For me, that means being aware of my body, my breath, thoughts, actions, and interactions with the world.  That may sound simple, but we live in a time of mindLESSness. 

When we walk, we are often so distracted by thoughts, feelings, the past, the future, etc., whereas we could be aware of the walk, the weather, the scene, etc.  This is very true in the practice of music, performance, and preparation!

When we walk, we are often so distracted by thoughts, feelings, the past, the future, etc., whereas we could be aware of the walk, the weather, the scene, etc.  This is very true in the practice of music, performance, and preparation!

Ex. People walk, drive, and eat while looking at their phones or tablets, ignoring people around them, other cars, the food they're eating, or where they're walking.  We go out to eat and people put their phones on the dinner table.  Our phones are also getting more and more distracting- more "updates," "reminders," "notifications," and so forth.  Our digital distractions prevent us from interacting with the world around us wholeheartedly, or at least noticing when things are happening.

Mindfulness is brain training- refining your ability to pay attention, to stay focused, alert, and adaptable, things musicians need!

Mindfulness is brain training- refining your ability to pay attention, to stay focused, alert, and adaptable, things musicians need!

Musicians are by nature, training mindfulness, attention, and mental focus when they practice their instrument, rehearse, and teach others.  When you perform a recital, play an audition, or even play in studio class, you are probably quite aware of your body, the music, the space, and your breath.  What if you could apply more of that attention on a daily basis?  We've seen musicians who have astounding attention and mental focus- conductors who conduct hefty works without a score, pianists playing challenging works without music, singers sustaining difficult operatic roles, and performances of contemporary music.  We've also experienced the opposite- when you can't focus on practicing, when you're attention is on your email inbox, your to-do's, cleaning, eating, or just about anything else. 

If you're a wind player, you're probably aware of your breath, but for the rest of us, we only notice it when we're nervous, performing, or auditioning.  Can you become more aware of your resting breath?

If you're a wind player, you're probably aware of your breath, but for the rest of us, we only notice it when we're nervous, performing, or auditioning.  Can you become more aware of your resting breath?

In yoga and many meditation disciplines, the study of mindfulness is called a practice.  The daily practice of musicians is very similar- it's an exploration of mindfulness in application to creating sound.  Mindless practice might be running through repertoire without really noticing what happened, or repeating a passage over and over again with the same objective, playing scales while watching TV or reading (something many kids, including myself did), or just being unable to focus on the task at hand. 

I'll talk a bit more about this next time, but can you "keep your attention focused on the work," whether it is practicing, orchestra rehearsal, teaching, an admin task, or listening?  How often does your mind wander while practicing?  While at rehearsal?  How can you bring your attention back?

Give Up Your All or Nothing Attitude!

Our modern society praises quantity over quality, most of the time.  Don't believe me?  Extreme fitness is actually a trend- pushing the body to get through a series of reps (no matter what), to run a certain distance, to get through a bikini boot camp, achieve a certain yoga pose, or eliminate large groups of food to lose weight, cleanse, etc.   (Multiple week Juice Fast, I'm looking at you!)  There's a sense that if we want to accomplish something in fitness-land, it has to be extreme, hard, or we shouldn't bother at all.  This does transfer into music, believe it or not. 

Some people have an all or nothing attitude in music- I have to accomplish tasks x,y, and z, and practice for K hours, no matter what, or I won't bother practicing at all.  (In yoga and fitness, that logic might be, "I need to do a full practice/workout, or I shouldn't do anything at all.")  Or something along the lines of, if I don't get through a whole list of excerpts, or whole piece, then I haven't accomplished anything at all.  Or if I don't win an audition/competition, then I failed.  We have this attitude that there is failure and perfection, and no in between space, both in the practice room, the gym, and the competitive circuit.

The truth is that small actions, small steps, or small amounts of practicing do add up, even if it doesn't look like a 1.5 hour full body workout, or long practice session.  Walking a few miles a day might not appear to be a workout to some, but it is an essential whole body movement which can yield great payoff.  Practicing in small increments when you're really focused and aware can have the same reward.  Taking auditions and competitions can be beneficial even if you don't win.*

In a masterclass a few years ago, violist Roberto Diaz said that he never practiced for large amounts of time anymore.  This wasn't because he didn't want to, but because his schedule was too busy and he had a young child, who demanded his constant attention.  He instead set a timer for 10-15 minutes when he had time, set a goal, and did his best to accomplish that task.  While you may not be strapped for time in the same way, how can you get quality movement and quality practice in your day?  How can you have a more forgiving approach towards your work, music-making, and exercise?  Maybe it means getting off the subway one stop earlier and walking for 10 minutes, or practicing technique for 10 minutes before a rehearsal.  Maybe it means taking an audition that has terrible odds, but is your dream job.  Maybe it's doing 10 minutes of yoga or meditation or lunges or squats (or whatever your thing is!) when you can.  Where is this all or nothing attitude permeating your music-making and your approach to practice and success?

Success doesn't have to be running a marathon or winning a big audition* and changes don't have to be extreme to have huge benefits in your life.

*And if you want more on this idea of redefining success, I highly recommend Carol Dweck's book, Mindset. It definitely gives a larger context to auditions, competition, and perceived failure.


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