A career as a classical musician comes with many rewards, but optimum physical health is generally not one of them. For example, surveys of symphony members found between 64% and 76% suffer from complaints of the arms, neck, and/or shoulders. Repetitive motions, awkward positions, and excessive force, can all lead to pain and injury, which can hinder performance and potentially cripple or destroy a musician’s livelihood and quality of life.
Janet Horvath’s book Playing Less Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians (Hal Leonard, 2010) explains how, due to the positioning of their instruments, the use of excessive force, contorted posture, straining, repetitive motions, and an often hectic lifestyle, musicians face a lengthy list of physical health risks. Overuse injuries are typical among musicians, as are back, muscle, and tendon problems. Other common problems are musculoskeletal, including osteoarthritis and focal motor dystonias. The mental stress of performance anxiety, grueling schedules, and other aspects of life as a musical performer can exacerbate physical conditions.
Many of these problems can be addressed, corrected, and even prevented with Pilates. Pilates offers a holistic approach to the correction and prevention of some of these conditions by restoring and stabilizing posture, as well as enhancing fitness levels.
Despite the wide range of specific conditions that musicians can suffer from, many can be traced back to faulty playing posture. This can be corrected through a holistic treatment plan that pays special attention to playing posture, practice habits, and trunk and shoulder stabilization.
Extended periods of abnormal positioning, such as a constantly seated position or awkward violin positioning, can cause affected muscles to actually reset their normal length. Some reset to an overstretched state, while others become chronically shortened. Not only does this result in chronic poor posture, but it puts the body at higher risk for imbalance, pain, and injury.
Pilates can help musicians return muscles to their optimal state by performing movements that counteract those held while playing and other unnatural body positions. The exercises elongate shortened muscles, retract overextended muscles, and restore the body’s posture and positioning to a balanced state.
Posture is also improved because of Pilates’ focus on strengthening the powerhouse, or core muscles, namely those of the abdomen, shoulder girdle, back, hips, and buttocks. A strong core is essential for proper posture and trunk and shoulder stabilization.
An added benefit of trunk and shoulder stabilization is better breath control while playing. When the shoulder blades are stabilized, the minor pectoral muscles can assist with breathing. Shoulders no longer need to be held in an unnatural lifted, protracted position that can result in nerve and circulatory impingement.
Improving Overall Fitness
Overuse injuries occur because a particular area of the body is not trained to handle the stresses put upon it. They frequently occur with sudden changes in playing intensity and can often be addressed and/or prevented with a Pilates routine that focuses on overall physical fitness. Specific exercises can target areas that need to meet heavy demands. These are often the muscles of the upper body in musicians.
Some muscles are in constant motion while others are stuck in a static state during practice and performance. Muscles held in a consistently immobile state, such as those propped up to hold the violin beneath the chin, are actually under more strain than the muscles in motion. They are in a position that offers no release of tension or contraction, which can disrupt the blood flow and oxygen needed to replenish and cleanse the tissue. The result is a muscle that fatigues quickly and is at high risk of pain and injury.
Because Pilates exercises are typically performed lying down, static muscle contractions that hinder circulation are avoided. The overall result is a vigorous flow of oxygenated blood that repairs muscles and flushes out accumulated waste products, while it revitalizes and restores.
In addition, Pilates provides effective stretching, strengthening, and mobilization of muscles. Specific exercises increase the endurance and strength of affected areas. Other exercises elongate and strengthen areas containing the muscles, joints, and joint structures that tend to weaken with repetitive use.
Pilates not only provides the physical relief many musicians crave, but it also provides an acute body awareness that can result in overall performance enhancement. Body awareness allows musicians to continuously adjust and correct their positioning to reinforce proper posture.
One added bonus of Pilates’ body awareness is the mindfulness it produces. Musicians perform best when they are comfortable and fully present in the given moment. Physical comfort can automatically produce mental comfort, resulting in easy, confident playing, rather than stress and strain. Pilates can be an integral component of every musician’s routine that eventually leads to that ease and joy.
Michael Salvatore holds certifications in Romana’s Pilates, Foundation Training, and clinical orthopedic manual therapy, along with an MBA from Suffolk University and a BA in Neuropsychology from Boston University. He first worked with musicians from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, but has since moved to NYC where he works with a wide variety of musicians. He can be reached at Mike@FoundationPilates.com.
Salvatore, M. Pilates Alleviates Common Injuries Suffered by Musicians. International Musician. December 2013: 12-13.