As Fit as a Musician
Not many people would likely equate a musician with an athlete. Rather, when we think of a musician, we might imagine individuals of all shapes and sizes, all ages, and not necessarily in the most athletic state. One common stereotype might even include a skinny, pasty white concert pianist that stays indoors all day practicing, making sure to use his hands for nothing else but his instrument. This particular account may actually be quite accurate in some cases, but more importantly, it vividly illustrates the sharp contrast in how we perceive a practitioner of physical performance. The truth is that musicians are much more akin to athletes than we or even musicians themselves may realize.
Playing an instrument entails a great deal of physical stress. Stress that, if you are a musician, can carry on for countless hours during practice and on a regular basis. This physical strain is placed on the working and supporting muscles required to play one's instrument. Over time, the body adapts on both a musculoskeletal and neurological level that in the end can yield a high degree of proprioception, dexterity, and endurance. Although these muscles are not trained for sheer power and size as may often be the case with a typical athlete, they are trained diligently and with the goal of improving performance just as an athlete does. Unfortunately, what goes hand in hand with constant physical training and excessive use of specific muscle groups is the risk of acquiring musculoskeletal disorders. As a result, it is imperative that a musician take substantial precautions to care for their body just as an athlete would do.
Injuries in Music
Addressing musician health begins with prevention. The risk of injury as a musician can be minimized with the practice of proper care and preparation, as well as adherence to a fitting approach of certain factors associated with physical strain in musicians . Perhaps the most prominent source of musculoskeletal disorders among musicians is attributed to poor technique and posture. There exists a natural alignment for the entire body that allows for the most stress free and fluid movement. When our physical actions stray further away from this ideal position, the muscles, tissues, and joints are put in increasingly stressful placements. Continued or extensive activity within this context is where much of the damage is done.
It is important to know the proper technique of your particular instrument as well as the appropriate preventative steps to take when playing an instrument in general. And once you have attained the biomechanically favorable way of playing, you must learn to preserve it. Playing with faulty technique and posture is not always simply a matter of inexperience or ignorance of the ideals in playing music, but often can be a result of muscle fatigue. This can be a consequence of both insufficient muscular endurance or a failure to exercise the appropriate precautions while playing.
Maintaining Posture and Technique
When we play an instrument properly, we should have our weight distributed evenly, head centered above the torso, feet planted flat on the floor, seat adjusted so there is a 90 degree angle at the ankles, knees, and hips, and most of all a tall torso with the shoulders down and back(), and without slouching. Holding this position, however, can be quite taxing to say the least. Practice or performances are commonly several hours in duration, and if the postural muscles that hold this ideal position are not sufficiently trained for endurance and control, fatigue of these muscle groups will ensue. This will cause a chain reaction of compensation by muscles at different joints as the posture falls out of proper alignment, overloading different muscle groups with the weight of the body and resulting in a considerably elevated amount of stress in certain areas. Over time, this compensation can manifest itself in muscular imbalances and injuries such as tendonitis and inflammation, or even neurological impingement and loss of motor control for particular areas.
Note that fatigue applies here not only to postural muscle groups, but those active in instrument playing as well. These muscles also can become exhausted if they are under constant use and with little time to rest and recuperate and the end result is the same; compensation, malalignment and ultimately, a chance of injury.
* Common problems associated with certain instruments and types of instruments can be found in the techniques and strategies portion of this website.
How to Combat this Problem
There are various precautions that can be taken to help reduce the occurrence of injuries among musicians, some of them are more well known than others. First of all is rest. The body cannot be placed under constant tension, practicing for hours on end with few or no breaks at all to replenish energy stores. Breaks should be taken frequently when practicing; a 30 second break should be taken once every 5 minutes, and a 5 minute break filled with moving around and getting away from the instrument should take place every 30 minutes.
Warming up and cooling down are next. A warm up, even a slight transition into the practice material, can be very beneficial. An ideal warm up should include some light full body movement to loosen up the joints and prepare them with sufficient blood flow such as some neck and shoulder rolls, spinal curl-downs and deep diaphragmatic breathing. Finish the warm up be easing into the practice material with some slow scales etc.
Cooling down after practices and performances can be very helpful. It is important to give the body a chance to transition after extensive activity with some very light movements and stretches. It is also crucial because cooling down can loosen up the tissues that have become extremely tight while playing.
Stress is another important factor. Overall stress and anxiety can translate into general muscular tension, and thereby increase the amount of strain on working tissues. Studies have found that there exists a high incidence of injuries and negative physical symptoms associated with performance related anxiety in musicians. Incorporating relaxation strategies such as deep diaphragmatic breathing and yoga into one's regimen has been shown to decrease these levels of stress and the negative physical symptoms that are associated with it.
Finally is exercise. Exercise is an important tool for the health and wellness of any individual. It can decrease levels of stress, increase self confidence, and improve overall health. Exercises tailored specifically to musicians can increase the amount of control and endurance of the entire body, allowing them to maintain healthy positions for longer periods and with less effort. This can prevent muscular fatigue and imbalances from setting in, decreasing the chances for injury and possibly even improving overall sound. See a detailed exercise program for musicians in the preventative exercise portion of this site!
The Purpose of this Site
This site is dedicated to the general health and wellness of musicians, and more specifically, to the use of exercise as a means to combat the occurrence of injuries that have become so common within this group. Sources of free information on this topic are very limited, especially those that address the use of preventative exercise. The intent of this site is providing that source of free information to increase awareness, and encourage the preservation of injury-free musicians everywhere.
Main photo provided by Peter Knight. See more PK photos @ pskphoto.com