"Tuning Up" Musicians

As with all professions and hobbies, there are risks involved for incurring an injury. Musicians are no exception to the rule. Whether the musician is a professional violinist performing in a symphony orchestra or an amateur pianist in a jazz club, injuries are a reality that can create serious physical problems that may force the musician to step away from performing. According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association in June 2005, “76% of musicians experience a significant injury which requires time off.”

Musicians are frequently paralleled with high level athletes because they must also train at extreme levels, keep in tip top shape and dedicate hours and hours of daily practice to perfecting their skills. Not unlike athletes, musicians are well known for “ignoring or playing through their pain” due to the highly competitive nature of the music field industry, difficult economic times as well as the incredible demands of mastering an instrument or voice.

At Encore, Frank Hann and Chris Guempel, treat musicians of various ages. Simple recommendations such as lengthening out a cello end pin or incorporating an instrument strap may suffice to reduce symptoms, however many times this is not the case. Symptoms may be an accumulation of events that need detailed attention to regain balance in the neuro-muscular system. This can be achieved clinically through hands-on techniques, strengthening and conditioning, stretching, education on proper instrumental positioning as well as electro-therapeutic modalities.

Alex Hargreaves of Corvallis, an active violinist who has played on stages around the world, reports, “I initially went to physical therapy to address the pain and tightness in my arm and shoulders that I have been feeling off and on from playing the violin. As a musician who travels a lot, it’s important for me to know how to deal with physical problems related to playing the instrument. Through my treatment with Chris, I developed a much better understanding of why I was experiencing pain, how I could prevent more serious injuries, learned numerous stretches and exercises that keep me in shape for playing and have found that I was able to play in more relaxed ways for longer periods of time.”

Tissues in the human body have a particular tolerance level and are prone to injury if stressed exceedingly or awkwardly. Common mechanisms for musician injuries include prolonged poor sitting or standing postures, repetitive movements, inadequate rest during performance, inappropriate force and tension expenditure, prolonged long lever arm positions, change in technique, increased playing time, change of instrument as well as increased difficulty of music.

As an avid music hobbyist, Peg Urban of Corvallis was greatly looking forward to having more time to practice her saxophone when she retired. “I decided to give my colleagues a “Musical Thank You” performance before retiring. In the process of practicing, I sprained ligaments in my elbow. After months with no improvement, finding that my quality of life had transformed significantly by not being able to pursue my primary retirement activity, I proceeded with physical therapy. Frank validated my goal of playing saxophone again, healed my injury and gave me strategies to minimize the potential of re-aggravating the injury.

Looking for a few tips yourself as to what to do to prevent injuries? The following tips are simple and effective – make sure that your instrument is ideal for your body type, sit or stand properly to maximize good posture and proximal stability, perform warm up exercises, take a few minutes break every 30-45 minutes, focus on proper playing technique with minimal bodily compensation, vary the music up while practicing to reduce the amount of time for sections that are more challenging physically and most importantly, DO NOT ignore warning signs from your body that something does not feel right.

Every instrument brings the potential for bodily hazards and risks, therefore it is vital for musicians to stay “in tune” with his or her body in order to maximize the music making experience.

By Chris Guempel, PT, BM in Cello Performance