The Athletic Musician?

Article by Andrew Roberts, originally published in CASS magazine, Summer 2003

It’s a bit like trying to get blood out of a stone to get some professional musicians to talk about or admit to having physical problems that relate to their beloved instrument. A friend of mine once rang me during a tour with a major London orchestra. She was in tears saying she could not feel her left hand fingers. When I asked how long it had been hurting, she replied 18 months. Some of her colleagues had told her not to make a fuss. It cost her several years of not playing and some expensive retraining to put things right.

Some of you may have read my article about the Kooiman thumbrest and how I feel it has significantly improved the ergonomics of the instrument. There have been other articles in the Clarinet and Saxophone magazine about the problems that can afflict us, for example the Aussie thumb and lan Mitchell’s description of his personal difficulty with an injury.

However, there is still an apparent disinclination from most teachers and players to tackle posture and improve the ‘ergonomics’ of playing a musical instrument.

This might stem from a lack of specialised knowledge or a reluctance to have a ‘hands on approach’ to teaching an instrument; sad but understandable, to a point, in this day and age of litigation.

My teaching has always followed the ‘demonstrate and be damned approach’ as I feel very strongly that students must be able to feel the small changes that we often demand to perfect our art.

Since recovering from not one, but three operations to repair my injured right shoulder (which was the result of a road traffic accident) I have been privileged to work with some excellent specialised physiotherapists. They have described me as their ‘life challenge’ as I presented them with quite a list of problems, some of which I had created myself from bad habits when playing the clarinet.

One of the biggest problems we can face relates to seating. Most chairs are designed primarily to stack well. Fortunately many orchestras have got wise to this and realise that it is cheaper in the long run to buy well designed chairs for sitting on, than to pay for musicians to be off work with back, shoulder or neck problems.

There are many potential hazards to the musician, amateur or professional. My specialist physio, Jo Gibson, was horrified to see the amount and weight of the instruments that I regularly have to carry from the-distant car park to the venue for every gig. This often means that we arrive at the rehearsal/concert with our arms and fingers aching and numb. Then we try to play without warming up the said fingers and arms to give them a sporting chance at getting the right notes.

The title of this article might seem a little odd, but we should compare ourselves to athletes. No serious athlete commences any session without stretching and preparing the muscles that are to be used. You try telling musicians to do that and most will mock you… mercilessly!

To be fair, there is a growing awareness, but it will be too little and too late for some performers, who are destined to crash and burn before they reach their full potential.

Those of us who teach owe it to our students to work with them on their posture and help them discover how much easier it is to play when you are able to control the muscles, to help make them relax enough to work optimally.

Jo Gibson made a very valid point to me when we were discussing my case with a surgeon. As the repair that I needed was often performed on big strapping rugby players, my surgeon believed it would be easy to sort my playing out the same way, as the demands were less physical. Jo pointed out that building the control of small muscles is much more difficult than developing the bigger muscles. Small is, as they say beautiful, but hard to achieve. She was right, and my road to recovery was paved with a lot of sweat and tears of frustration.

Thinking about the parallel between musicians and athletes led me to re-assess my teaching. Much of my lesson time can be taken up with getting players to stand or sit correctly. This allows improved breathing and it removes tension from the shoulders, and there are not many clarinet players who would not benefit from that!

To some this may seem a waste of valuable time but it pays great dividends. Where else are your students likely to get such important advice? It might avoid you having to terminate your playing and may even help you in every day life – such as working at the computer.

The idea that we should support the weight of the clarinet on a small thumbrest, usually too low on the clarinet, is crazy. Show the design to an engineer and they would laugh. Many bad techniques may be traced to the stupid small thumbrest. Biting to keep the instrument still and supported, gripping too hard with the fingers, resting the bell on various parts of your anatomy to help in the difficult passages….the list goes on.

I have tried just about every sling and support on the market (I’m not called Andy-gadget for nothing!) to make life easier. With increasing technical demands on players, fine young artists such as Ricardo Morales (currently on sabbatical with the Philadelphia Orchestra) always use a sling when performing. If it’s good enough for him…

So what do you do if you have a problem playing or carrying the instruments? Quite a few organisations worldwide specialise in musicians’ problems. Some of you may have already discovered a book called The Athletic Musician by Christine Harrison and Barbara Paull. Christine is a professional violinist in Canada, who has had physical problems caused by playing.

To conclude, if it hurts when you play you are less likely to enjoy it. Often small changes can make the difference between pain and pleasure. I prefer to make things easier to do, not harder, as I intend to keep playing and enjoying the clarinet for many years to come.

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