Remember that scene in the movie ‘Whiplash’, when the Neiman practices with a bucket of ice next to him, ready to submerge his aching hands into. No pain, no gain, right?
Well, let’s chat…
We have probably all come into contact with this popular catchphrase from Jane Fonda in the 80s. “No pain, no gain!” she reminds her viewers, struggling desperately to keep going and not give in to the urges that make them want to quit their aerobics class, grab a bag of crisps and melt into the couch. It’s helpful. It keeps many of us going even to this day.
This phrase, however powerful it’s made out to be, has also become a deeply harmful phrase. It’s often misinterpreted, misrepresented, and misused to convince people that pain is normal and that you need to work harder no matter what. Taking a break, pausing to recalibrate, or even quitting is considered weakness, laziness, or ineptitude. So this phrase, intended to keep up the energy, is representative of a growing problem. Our world has become so fast-paced and competitive that we sacrifice our physical, mental, and emotional health to get ahead. And this is especially true in the musical world.
Around the same time that Jane Fonda pumped up the energy in her televised aerobics classes, a new movement was starting to develop in the musical and medical spheres. For the first time, attention was being given to musicians and other performing artists who seemed to be plagued by pain, discomfort, and other physiological and psychological problems. Problems that prevented them from being able to play and perform their instruments to their full potential.
The answer lies in the problem: creative people faced these emotional and physical stresses because of playing their instruments.
A landmark study done on orchestral musicians in 1986, revealed that 76% of orchestral musicians had experienced a playing-related disorder (pain or other symptoms that prevented them from playing their instrument at an optimal level) at some point in their career. Many subsequent follow-up studies have revealed similar statistics, in some cases pushing this number upward. Think about that, three out of four musicians will experience severe enough pain as a result of playing their instrument, preventing them from playing to the best of their abilities.
By the early 1990s, the field of performing arts medicine had taken form worldwide. Yet, despite such a helpful service, professional musicians continued to feel guilt, shame, and fear about their pain. I have heard harrowing stories of musicians sneaking into physiotherapist appointments through back entrances, playing through unimaginable physical and emotional pain, and in some cases refusing help for fear of losing work, money, or their reputation.
Here is what I personally find heartbreaking: some musicians will sustain such severe pain and injury, that they will have to completely give up playing altogether. And before you click away thinking “well I’m just an amateur musician, this won’t affect me!” consider this. A study found that the prevalence of playing-related problems in amateur musicians is as high as 67.8%.
While these statistics are scary, they also remind us how precious our bodies are, and how privileged we are to play an instrument. It is also a call to remember that there are many ways that we can help reduce the risk of pain and injury. Here are some of the top recommendations from experts:
- Take regular practice breaks – I recommend a break every 25 minutes.
- Do not over-practice – playing too many hours a day can cause harm to your body and can actually slow down the learning process.
- Warm-up and cool down physically before and after practice – this has some surprising statistics to support it!
- Work on your posture and technique to find a more balanced, free, and released way of playing the instrument. Working with a specialist can be a game-changer, not just for your health but also for your playing.
- Always, stop when you feel pain. If it goes away and doesn’t return, good! If it sticks around, get help.
Remember, there is help out there for you, no matter who you are. We have teams of trained professionals around the world, ready to help you play and practice pain-free. In the next part of this series, we will look into a step-by-step process of what to do when you have pain. For now, read about my own journey through pain. Although it was not created by my flute, I think there are some very valuable life lessons to be shared and learned.
Until next time, happy practicing!
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