Musicians: 3 lies that you need to destroy for a healthy spine

rediscoverMusician's health, Stress reduction

What’s going on?

A musician’s working life-spans is generally much longer than the those who are involved professionally in sports or dance. For example the great 20th century pianist Arthur Rubinstein performed for nearly 9 decades. But the mental and physical demands of making music are neither simple nor few. According to research, the musculoskeletal conditions of instrumental musicians are not limited to hand injures and can effect spine as well.  The demands of rotation around an instrument are one factor that can lead to the culminated tension that can effect a musician’s body and especially the spinal column and related structures.

But rotation and resolving the puzzle of biomechanically challenging postures are part and parcel of making music.  From the guitar and drums to orchestral strings, wind instruments it is usual fair to rotate to play.  The good advice, the stretches and exercises are all necessary.  Everything from reducing unneeded stress to being on top of one’s emotional wellbeing can help improve musculoskeletal wellbeing over the expanse of a career in music.

All you need is love…

If not the prevalence (up to 80 percent of orchestral players can be effected by physical or emotional occupational related injuries), then the vast number of ailments that can potentially put an end to a musician’s career are many in number.  Below is a short list of the physical ones, but research shows that psychological issues are just as prevalent:

  • Overuse syndrome
  • Inflammatory disorders of tendons or joints
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Thoracic outlet syndrome
  • Cervical impingement

The experts agree that injuries amongst musicians are not a new predicament. Musicians love to play and as individuals who are highly motivated and goal oriented, they often take actions and form behaviours that put their art making far above their physical wellbeing. So, that love of music making can lead to joy, but it can have its draw backs too. Sometimes literally.

Say you, say me

There is no shortage of good advice from the medical community about how to prevent injury.  The top of the list goes like this:

  • Improve posture
  • Improve movement quality
  • Improve body awareness

Simple, right! In words, it is simple.  For example, here is a hint that might be given to a violinist:
“Don’t sit with a compressed posture, sit up nice and tall instead.”

Sure, but what is ‘nice and tall’?  When you are rotating to use the bow simultaneous to the rotation required to hold the violin, this isn’t such a simple advice to apply.
The visuals that surrounds us give us a vague idea of what ‘nice and tall’ is supposed to look like.  But, if you take a moment to truly examine it, you would soon realise that it is neither ‘nice’ nor ‘tall’.  But the real fact is that it becomes impossible to ‘sit nice and tall’ for the extended periods required for a professional musician to rehearse, play and practice.
What is the right posture for you? This IS the perennial problem that every instrumentalist or vocalist will have to find answers for.  The thing is that if the ‘answers’ are fixed, they will not grow throughout the expressive life-time of a musician.  Yes, that is what defines a healthy musicians life: life span, change, expansion and continuous development and evolution.

Movement mastery for musicians is a road map that gives the learner all the tools they could possibly need to form supportive movement, body awareness and dynamic posture that makes sense to both music playing and the nature of bio mechanics>

Consider that even Arthur Rubinstein didn’t feel comfortable with the title of ‘best’.  His life’s work was about growth and evolution.  This is perhaps why he continued to create with extreme resolve and poetry throughout a life time.  He did partially lose his eye sight, but even that didn’t stop him playing with an orchestra and taking the conducer’s cues.

Say it isn’t so

So, here is the list of 3 lies that every brilliant, well-meaning, caring, medical professional will be telling you that will be in fact HURTING you in the long run.  They are not intentionally lying, but they simply don’t have the tools to teach and treat has become a passive activity of exchanging mindless information for money.

Lie #1: Normal posture/spine has 4 curvatures:

Cervical lordosis, Thoracic kyphosis, Lumbar lordosis, Sacral kyphosis.

Lie #1: Spinal curves are NOT in the back of the spine!

The further away you can get your idea, understanding and practical structuring of this image, (and the sooner) the better.  The truth is that gravity does not travel best along a curve and this image and its scary implications are based on a faulty representation of a famous anatomist Henry Gray.  By the way, objectively speaking, this image present the best way to develop a bulging disk or a nerve impingement!
Truth is that there is a healthy curve to the spine and we can get the most efficient and sound organisations (posture) possible by realising this curve towards the front of our spine: Where the vertebral bodies actually are! When you learn to objectively lengthen your spine with movement mastery you will be persevering the curve that is formed by the shape of each vertebral bone.  But more than that, you will be learning to apply coordinated support, in time.  

Lie #2: Shoulders back and down is GOOD:

Lie #2: “shoulders back and down”

We have all heard these a million times.  So why is it that after so many reminders, we intelligent and rational animals of all, still forget to put those shoulders back and down? The truth is that it is because the communicated action of ‘shoulders back and down’ is just about the worst thing anyone can do to develop sound and healthy shoulder mechanics.  Further, it interrupts the movement of the diaphragm and constricts breathing and vocalisations and most importantly our ability to apply expansive attention.
Truth is that our ‘shoulders’ do not function, relate or live on a separate planet as the rest of our central body.  But, this direction, intention or behaviour of ‘shoulders back and down’ makes us act as if this was true.

When a musician takes the time to rationally apply the mechanical advantageous movement behaviour that is both supportive, dynamic and practical, then you start to set yourself up for a lifetime of healthy music making.  You don’t have to be anyone else, you can simply express your own truth and enjoy musical wellbeing.

The reason that this advice is so well accepted is that it is the ‘supposed’ right action to take for a violinist, guitarist or pianist who might have spent years stooping over themselves as they make use of their arms and hands.

But the solution is both more reasonable and logical than ‘reverse the tension from towards the front to towards the back’.  The true solution lies in gaining a practical understanding of how the spine can be organised to make the best use of all its available structure and connections.  When you learn to truly unload your spine with movement mastery, then you are getting free lengthening energy and support from your muscles and soft tissues.  The problem with the shoulders, arms and hands will as a result disappear!

Lie #3: The more I practice, the better I’ll get

The researched truth is simple.  The realities of motor learning and especially motor mastery are vastly dependent on the quality of attention that the practitioner uses.  It simply isn’t true that more practice will lead to better quality playing. Or that more practice will make a musician accident or performance proof.  Movement mastery isn’t just about muscle memory.  Our ability to practice, rehears and perform at evolving and growing levels of mastery is highly dependent on the how and the what!

Here are 3 bonus items to help you start the process of destroying the lie of ‘more is better’ which sometimes translates into ‘no pain, no gain’.  Ouch!

Repetitive strain doesn’t’ have to be your calling.

  1. Practice with mind: Repeating mistakes over and over again, teaches you to do just that.
  2. Practice with variety: Periodise your practice, don’t do the same-same everyday.
  3. Practice with intention and goal: This is the most important life-long habit any human and especially any artist can develop.

But, don’t take my word for it!