Many musicians face body pain in their careers and, for some, it means an end to their career. I faced this pain several years ago and was lucky enough to overcome it using the Alexander Technique. What follows is what I’ve learned to be true about the nature of the chronic pain many musicians face. Part 1 includes common ideas and misconceptions about the nature of overuse injuries and chronic pain.
First, I want to be clear about the type of pain I’m talking about. Overuse injuries like carpal tunnel, back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, trigger finger, sciatica, etc., plague musicians and other performers, and this is what the Alexander Technique is so good at addressing. I want to be clear that I can’t help you with physiological pain - only your doctor can do that.
The pain I’m talking about often comes with a particular activity, like playing music or using the computer, or sitting for too long. It could also be pain that seems to come from no particular activity, like maybe your wrist just started hurting for no apparent reason. Or maybe you threw your back out, but have no history of back pain. Or maybe you’re not in pain, per se, but just really tight and uncomfortable in your body. You’re not alone.
They say that the road to Carnegie Hall is paved with injured musicians - and that’s no joke. A 2009 Study published in the journal “Medical Problems of Performing Artists” found that 72% of music students at Midwestern University reported being in pain. 72%!
I was an injured musician and the pain I experienced in my arms, back, and neck almost ended my career as a violinist. On the way to my recovery I came across these common misconceptions about the kind of pain musicians often face.
That pain is an inevitable fact of life. Of course, this is true at one level, but chronic pain needn’t be a permanent fixture of your life. This idea has many variations: “I have a bad back,” or “Human bodies are a flawed design”. I find these ideas to be disempowering - also, they’re not true!
Another version of this idea is that chronic pain is inherent in music-making. Again, this is disempowering and untrue. Violin can seem like a very awkward instrument to play, for example, but I’ve since figured out a way to make it very comfortable - and you can, too.
Other people talk about “subluxations” or having a slipped disk. My questions is always this: How did this happen in the first place? What moves vertebrae? Muscles. What moves muscles? Your nervous system. What I teach is how to retrain your nervous system so your muscles don’t pull your bones out of place to start with.
Another idea about chronic pain is that it’s related to bad posture. What I’ve found is that our usual ideas of posture are very misguided. Good posture actually can actually hurt you if you’re doing it wrong. I’ll have more on this in upcoming posts and videos.
We can certainly have pain related to previous injuries, but I’ve found that a lot of times that pain can be exacerbated by our body’s attempt to protect the injury. However, in order to be free from the pain once the injury has healed, we must learn to use our body without the new habits of protecting the injury.
Other common ideas are that chronic pain comes from not stretching or strengthening enough. I used to have chronic pain and no amount of stretching or strengthening helped me one bit. I am now pain-free and I almost never stretch and I never do strength-training. The difference is that I no longer use my body inefficiently, which is what Alexander Technique helps me with.
In sum, although many of these ideas have a grain of truth, none get to the real cause of chronic pain - which I’ll get to in tomorrow’s blog post!