“I ignored all my body’s warning signals in the name of ‘dedication’ to what I was doing. I had absolutely no idea that this little problem
would in fact threaten my career.”

–Christine Harrison, violinist (The Musician’s Way, p. 238)

We may not like to admit it, but we all have physical limits. And given that music making is so physical, we musicians sometimes exceed our limits, much as dancers and athletes do.

Still, we can prevent minor hurts from escalating into dire injuries, if we’re able to recognize and respond to the body’s warning signs.

Consequences of Ignoring Symptoms
I’ve learned that many musicians don’t appreciate the symptoms of injury. They’ll notice persistent pain in the hand, ringing in the ears, cracking in the voice, or the like, and they’ll push through the problem rather than backing off and seeking aid.

Yet to disregard such warning signs is to invite serious trouble.

As an example, here’s a post that a young violinist wrote on allthingsstrings.com in 2009:

I’m a student violinist and play in my high school orchestra. I have had tendinitis in my right wrist for about a year now. I really can’t rest my wrist for any period of time right now. I have several concerts and at least two upcoming competitions. The pain comes and goes depending on how much I use my wrist, but it never goes away completely. What should I do? Heather

I hope that things turned out well for Heather. But I suspect that her formidable injury could have been averted if she had known what to do when she felt that first ache.

And what about her priorities? After a year of pain (a year!), she thought that her upcoming performances were more important than her health. It also appears that she didn’t know how to access local help.

We musicians need to be far more adept at caring for our wellbeing. All of us, students and veterans alike, should understand the causes and symptoms of injuries and be equipped to respond prudently when trouble knocks.

Plus, we must make wellness a priority because when we become unwell, our music making comes to a halt.

A 3-Step Response to Symptoms
Typical symptoms include pain, odd sensations such as tingling or numbness, fatigue, loss of control, hoarseness, and ringing or buzzing in the ears.

Such warning signs may turn up in varying levels of intensity, but when they persist, we should take three steps:

1) Stop.  2) Rest.  3) Get help.

That is, we should cease playing or singing, curtail hand, embouchure, or voice-intensive tasks, and seek help from teachers and medical experts.

Getting Help
Musical authorities can commonly be found at conservatories and university music departments. Medical help can be accessed at campus health centers, from physicians, and, in particular, from arts medicine specialists, who practice in many urban areas.

Of course, this simple-sounding recipe isn’t always easy to follow.

For instance, ensemble members might be counting on a hurting musician to perform at a high-paying show. In such a situation, a performer needing rest might see no option but to carry on.

Nevertheless, when symptoms loom, skilled helpers can aid performers to come up with various accommodations, many of which allow for degrees of practice and performance.

A violinist experiencing her first occurrence of wrist pain, let’s say, might be advised to begin treatment with a physical therapist, take lessons from an Alexander technique teacher to gain ease in her playing, and participate in portions of rehearsals and performances with a substitute covering some of her duties.

But that’s just one scenario – we don’t have room here to sort through dozens of others. What we need to remember is that symptoms call for actions, and we shouldn’t try to go it alone.

Prompt Action Brings Rapid Recovery
The good news is that when symptoms are caught early, most musicians can carry out ‘relative rest,’ make modifications to their habits, and gradually return to full-time performing without any detrimental effects.

Conversely, the longer symptoms are ignored, the more severe an injury tends to become and the more protracted the recovery period will be.

Occasionally, musicians who overlook warning signs for years learn that full recovery isn’t possible, as is the case with hearing loss, which is permanent.

*  *  *

In the past, performers and arts institutions often behaved as if musicians were indestructible. Groups would rehearse nonstop and at earsplitting sound levels; freelancers would gig incessantly and be struck down by strain and overuse.

I hope that present-day musicians will heed the lessons of the past and put health promotion front and center.

Chapters 12 & 13 of The Musician’s Way spell out comprehensive strategies whereby we can promote health, prevent injuries, and deal wisely with symptoms. 

© 2010 Gerald Klickstein

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