Between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I injured my arms at a music festival. I went from zero (summer orientation job, too exhausted to practice) to sixty (practice camp, seven hours of playing daily) way too fast. Three weeks into the camp, both my flexor muscles had become painfully inflamed and my kind Oregonian violin teacher was prescribing visualization exercises for me to do while I ran my arms under cold water. It would be about eight months before I played normally again.
For me, as I think is true for many who’ve experienced performance injuries, it was a deeply depressing and frustrating time. My ability to play the violin was central to my identity, and without it, I felt helpless and lost. I also couldn’t write — my other central creative outlet. Luckily, my wonderful teacher pointed me towards lots of great resources for understanding injury and healing the body.
Since then, years have passed without another major incident. I’ve undergone a major setup change — no more shoulder rest — that I think has made a big difference for physical freedom while I play. I also know a lot more about taking care of myself. But still, pain occasionally flares up, reminding me that I’ve been taking my physical health for granted.
It’s amazing how interconnected all our muscles are. I’ll spend two days walking around in heels and feel my low back seize up during quartet rehearsal. I’ll spend too long hunched over the computer and feel my left hand getting exhausted during practice later that day. When it comes to my body, everything’s good — until it isn’t.
We’re all one accident, or one crazy gigging week, away from injury. The basics are worth restating:
Get enough sleep. Drink enough water.
Warm up your muscles before playing. Stretch them after playing.
Take ten minutes of rest for every fifty minutes of playing.
Here’s an important one I haven’t mastered: Develop upper body strength to help reduce strain on smaller muscle groups. I still don’t have a good sense of how to do this — and I think it’s particularly important for women with small frames.
And if you do experience pain, the most important thing you can do is stop playing for awhile. Easier said than done — especially when your career and income depend on using those poor injured muscles, tendons and joints. But the longer you push your damaged body, the longer it will ultimately take for you to recover from the injury.
I’m curious to hear whether you’ve experienced performance-related pain and how you’ve dealt with it. In the meantime, happy stretching!