Examining Video: Injuries in Musicians

Pop-up Pianos, N.Y.

A couple of weeks ago, friends started sharing a video on Facebook about injuries in musicians. In thirteen sentences the minute-long video mentions some of the issues that musicians suffer within the body and the beliefs around this.
It’s very important to address musicians’ injuries and talk about them. Then we can understand, avoid, and treat these problems efficiently, and better understand our profession.

My intention in the next five points is to think in a more detailed way about the content of this video. Since this video is in Spanish, I have translated it to English:

1) Video: “To be a musician demands great discipline that may cause injuries.”

Certainly, studying and playing music requires discipline. We need to set and follow our personal schedules to practice, have rehearsal(s), attend different classes or teaching, and do all the things we have to do in our personal lives outside the musical context. We need to become organized with our time and in the ways that we practice.

However, discipline is not the cause of developing an injury. If we like and love what we do, discipline comes to us almost as a consequence. If there is something that we want, we will try to be disciplined to achieve it.

What causes an injury is the way that we do our activities. Then the question is: are we doing them with tension or with attention?

Injuries are not natural in our profession. Sometimes injuries are related to neurological issues. Other times, injuries are related to the ways we understand and move our bodies. Sometimes when you practice, you don’t know important information related to the body and its relationship to the instrument you play, and therefore you can develop tension and pain. If you don’t take care of yourself it can become an injury. Then, in this case, injuries are the result of stress, misinformation, and indifference to our own body.

2) Video: “Some pianists develop tendonitis, saxophonists have pain in the mouth muscles, and violinists have problems in their necks.”

– Relationship between instrument and injury

Although every instrument has specific zones for developing tension in the body while playing, there is not one specific injury for the instrument that you play. Musicians can develop any injury.

When there is pain in one part of the body it usually relates to other parts. For example, everybody can experience pain in the neck (even people who don’t play an instrument), this tension could expand and also affect other parts of the body. This happens because our bones, muscles, connective tissue, etc. are all connected.

We have many layers of muscles in the neck, and the freedom of these muscles depends on their relation to other structures such as the head and the arms.

Take some minutes to google images of the “trapezius muscle”. Notice how it is a large muscle that starts from our head and goes down to the thoracic spine. Tension in this muscle can affect other structures in our bodies while playing any instrument.

As musicians, we need to understand that our music performance doesn’t depend only on one or two parts of our bodies, but in its totality. Our intention as performers should be to engage the whole body, discover balanced movements to avoid pain and enjoy the music we play.

Body Mapping lesson. Understanding the spine.

3) Video: “In the 19th century, the Schumann marriage suffered from pain in the arm muscles and fingers.”

The video tries to explain a little bit of history about injuries in musicians by referencing Clara and Robert Schumann, but I disagree with the way they do it. To say “Schumann marriage” is almost like condemning two individuals to become one entity. The personal names are erased and it is assumed that both Clara and Robert Schumann had the same injuries.

There are numerous sources that describe Robert Schumann’s issues in his right hand. His injury is attributed not to practising, but to his use of a device meant to increase agility and strength by lengthening his fingers (Jensen, 2004, p. 70). Eckart Altenmüller (2005) studied R. Schumann’s symptoms and their progress, concluding that Schumann had focal dystonia (p.7). But did Clara Schumann also have an injury? Did she have the same illnesses?

In Robert and Clara’s correspondence from February 1839, Clara writes that she has a “sharp pain” in a finger when she tries to play (Schumann, C. & Schumann, R., 1996, p. 84). Two months later, she refers to this discomfort again explaining “Unfortunately, my second finger has become so sensitive that I can hardly play for an hour without having the most dreadful pain” (Schumann, C. & Schumann, R., 1996, p. 152).

In her letters she also refers to difficult times worrying about money, deaths in the family, and her numerous performances. By December, Clara’s pain worsened and she writes:

“It’s been so desolate since you left, and not being able to play makes me quite sad. Another finger has become sore, and now I have to cope with two. I think it’s a result of the medication I have been taking for a few weeks; it would be all right if it didn’t prevent me from playing altogether.”

(Schumann, C. & Schumann, R., 1996, p. 518).

Through her words, we recognize that Clara S. had an injury, but her story is different from Robert Schumann’s. Her pain was related to constant playing, and perhaps to the stress and anxiety in her life, and her numerous musical commitments.

To fully understand the injuries of these two musicians, we would need more research. However, for now my point is that there are two musicians and their stories cannot be seen and presented as identical. Even though this is a famous and historical couple which attracts ideals of romanticism, they are two individuals that deserve the acknowledgment of their particular stories.

Doing this quick exploration about Clara Schumann fascinated me. The combination of history, stories, music, and finding about how she experienced her body had a very special impact on me.

To my surprise, in one of her letters there is an amazing passage that relates to how all in our body is connected. This excerpt reflects how our whole body influences and is affected by our playing:

“I am extremely weary today, as I had one visitor after another and packed all morning; I strained my lungs so much while playing yesterday that I am still having trouble breathing today. It is really strange that I always get hoarse and have a sore throat after playing a difficult piece. It really scares me.”

(Schumann, C. & Schumann, R., 1996, p. 457).

Although Clara plays piano, her body discomfort is not limited to the hands and fingers, but also extends to the breathing structures. Perhaps while playing difficult pieces she made an unnecessary effort in her throat. This could be an indicator of how much tension she had in her whole body.

As I mentioned before, once we tense one muscle we can affect other parts of the body.

4) Video: “If the injuries are hidden, usually they worsen. But admitting an injury might be seen as evidence of poor technique or lack of professionalism.”

– Disclosing injuries

I think that the most significant information that this video covers are the two social ideas about having an injury. Some people believe that having an injury is an indicator of poor technique or lack of professionalism.

Some of us who have had tendonitis or any other issue know that besides our own physical and emotional struggle, we need to face teachers’ and/or peers’ reactions and comments. Sometimes we think it’s easier to hide the pain or make it look insignificant, but this is a risky attitude. It make us vulnerable and we can hurt ourselves.

We need to understand that many times the principal problem is that we haven’t been educated to understand how the body works and its importance in making music. Music education needs to include the body as a key element for learning and to have a long professional career, without pain and without injuries.

5) Video: “They [injuries] are taboo in this job, which shows that in many cases there is a sacrifice behind every note.”

– Do not sacrifice

I understand the pain, anguish and uncertainty you feel when an injury is detected, but don’t sacrifice yourself. You don’t need to suffer.

If you want to play and you have pain, discomfort, or an injury, look for help. We are able to take the right steps to prevent and heal.

Works cited:

Altenmüller, E. (2005). Robert Schumann’s Focal Dystonia. In Bogousslavsky, J., & Boller, F. (Eds). Neurological disorders in famous artists (Frontiers of neurology and neuroscience; v. 19) (pp. 1-10). Basel; New York: Karger. Retrived from http://www.immm.hmtm-hannover.de/uploads/media/Altenmueller_Schumanns_Dystonia_01.pdf

Jensen, E. F. (2004). Schumann. Cary, US: Oxford University Press (US). Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com

Schumann, C., & Schumann, R. (1996). Complete Correspondence of Clara and Robert Schumann. New York, NY, USA: Peter Lang AG. Retrieved from http://www.ebrary.com