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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 5, No. 8

As Vulnerable as Athletes: How to Prevent and Survive Musicians' Injuries

by Pierre-Olivier Savoie / May 1, 2000

Version française...

Why do scores of professional musicians suffer career-threatening injuries? Just this spring, the National Arts Centre Orchestra had to cancel several concerts because too many musicians were incapacitated-a problem subsequently blamed on an overly-demanding program. Bernard Labadie, conductor of Les Violons du Roy, criticizes the music milieu for not preparing young musicians for jobs that can be as physically demanding as those in professional sports. "It's as if you had a football club, only talked about strategy, and then went on to play without stretching or doing any preparatory exercises. I mean, this is an aberration," he says.

Stop playing when injured!
Agnes Grossmann had to give up her career as an international piano soloist because she resumed playing too soon after damage to her hand in 1972. Fortunately, she had also developed interests in choral and orchestral conducting, which enabled her to pursue a second career: she conducted the Montreal Metropolitan Orchestra for ten years, and now tours with orchestras around the world.

Grossmann recalls the incident as if it had happened just weeks ago. "One day, I had my [right] hand stuck in an iron-clad door. I felt an intense numbness in my middle finger. When it went away after a few days, I felt so happy that I didn't think about it anymore," recalls Austrian-born Grossmann. She didn't consult a doctor at the time. Two months later, just before leaving Austria for a tour in the United States, she felt a very slight sensation in her finger, but she left for the tour anyway.

After numerous solo and orchestral appearances, she once again experienced a "very strange feeling" in her finger. "It was as if I had lost all the technique in my right hand," she explains.

Once she got back to Vienna, she underwent an operation. "After two or three weeks, I went back to the piano, but quite contrary to what the doctor had said, my finger could move even less. If you look carefully, you'll see there's almost a hole between my third and fourth fingers," she says, showing her right hand.

The two muscles activating each finger were probably stuck together during the operation. Today, her third (middle) finger does not move by itself but can only follow the fourth (ring finger) as it moves. She's tried acupuncture, but it hasn't been able to separate the two muscles.

After two years, Grossman gave up hope and returned to the Vienna Music Academy to study conducting. "I had to cancel more and more concerts, always living with hope, but also knowing that things could not go on like that. [...] That's why one must have more than one interest in life. Besides interpretation, I was also very interested in composition and conducting," she says philosophically. She calls her disability a "coordination disturbance." While it has halted her work as a soloist, it hasn't stopped her from moving the conductor's baton with virtuosity.

Insurance as a safeguard
Another pragmatic strategy is to be covered by insurance, as Grossmann is now. "Insurance is the first thing to think about if you want life to go on after injuries, but we didn't really think of that back in the 60's. And I never had any problems before," she says.

Bernard Labadie also encourages musicians to get insurance. "That's clear... when it is possible. The problem is that if you look in the Musicians' Guild directory, you'll see that 95% of musicians make under $20,000 a year. I know a lot of musicians who don't even have fire or theft insurance because they can't afford it."

Although premiums can be fairly expensive for the average professional musician, Quebec Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Darren Lowe quickly recuperated his money. He says, when he had to stop working, he retrieved the $10,000 or so he paid in premiums within just a few months.

He explains that by Fall 1997 he had taken engagements almost every single day for six months: orchestra concerts, rehearsals, solo recitals and chamber ensemble performances. The overloaded schedule ultimately resulted in a decrease of circulation in his right arm: "My posture was good, but keeping my right arm and elbow in such unnatural positions constantly, lowered the pressure in my arm," he says. Consequently, he was forced to take a two-year leave of absence because of multiple shoulder and arm injuries

Lowe could have lost his job at the QSO had he not been able to phase in his return, starting last fall. Assisted by treatments in physiotherapy and eutonie (a holistic method that seeks to energize and balance the body), Lowe was able to play again after six months of complete rest.

Fear of lost opportunities
Still, the best solution for such problems is prevention: musicians should stop playing at the first sign of injury. It's a practice frequently preached but seldom followed. "I should have stopped playing [as soon as I felt the first signs], but that's precisely the opposite of what I did," says Grossmann. Labadie also admits that everyone in his 16-musician string ensemble has played when injured, sick, or feverish. "Every musician in the world does that. It's a shame, but it's a fact," he says. Often, musicians fear losing opportunities to perform if they admit to their ailments.

Accepting this fact, the Violons du Roy conductor believes in the importance of physical preparation to be ready for undue strain. He also finds that one has to obey their limits. In his own case, if he gains weight, his back hurts when he stands on the podium, and after a few weeks, the pain reaches up to his arm. "I've learned to know myself," says Labadie, who suffers from a recurrent muscular lesion in his right forearm. If he works too hard, he feels the signs and acts accordingly. "I have to warm up or start rehearsals at a slower pace. But now the problem is totally under control," says Labadie. As a result, he hasn't experienced major symptoms since a Quebec Opera production in 1997.

Gilles Courchesne, Labadie's physiotherapist, says that it is hard to sell prevention, but that musicians would win out if they prepared better for the physical hardships they will encounter. "Musicians don't prepare their bodies, they just exercise the technique," he says. "It's as if a gymnast only practiced spinning somersaults but didn't do any weights," Courchesne adds. He also notes that musicians often stop playing for a certain period of time because there are no concerts. He advises these instrumentalists to exercise so that they will still be in shape when the concert season resumes - just like professional sports players, who have to be fit when they show up for training camp.

Agnes Grossmann still hopes that, one day, she will be able to sit at her piano with ten good fingers. Darren Lowe continues his physiotherapy exercises every day in his living room. To prevent repetition of cases such as theirs, Bernard Labadie offers this lesson: "The important thing to remember is that musicianship is sometimes as physically demanding as doing certain sports. Whereas in sports you learn very early to warm up, this is never talked about in music."

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