Musicians are a lot like athletes – they spend many hours in training, and then perform under pressure as a poor performance can impact future success.
And just like an athlete, their bodies can suffer – especially from back pain. Playing an instrument generally involves maintaining a certain position with little room for movement – unless you’re the lead guitar in a band and can slide across the stage on your knees :0)
For most, rehearsing and performing involves sitting or standing, and, if you’re part of an orchestra, you don’t have the luxury of space. And, as with an office worker spending hours in one position, the muscles can become fatigued and eventually start to ache.
But why can some musicians practice and perform for hours without experiencing any back pain at all? This comes down to habit, and invariably, bad habits formed right from the time they first started to learn. A good music teacher will be able to show a beginner how to sit or stand to play. But unfortunately, as children grow, or move to higher levels of performance and the stress involved with taking grades, these early lessons can be forgotten or just ignored.
A musician is an integral part of the instrument, after all, it can’t play itself! And, just as a violin needs to be in tune and functioning correctly, so does the mind and body of the player. The slightest amount of tension in the neck, shoulders or back will interfere with the musician’s movement and can impact on performance.
So, what can a musician suffering from back pain do?
First, they need to put down their instrument and focus on themselves. Remember what I said about habit? As a teacher of the Alexander Technique, I’ve seen players tense their lower back or shoulders as soon as they pick up their instrument. It’s become their habitual response to even the thought of playing. They will adopt a position associated with the instrument. So, first they have to learn how to achieve a poised position. This involves not trying to sit up straight as this is usually done by tightening the lower back and fixing the shoulders.
An appreciation of the support from the chair or floor often helps. Or imagining a thread pulling you up from the top of your head can help eliminate undue muscle tension. But note, this has to be purely a thought and not done, as this will increase, not reduce tightness. Another good tip is to visualise two balloons under each armpit are inflating to widen your back and open up your chest - this will also aid better breathing, vital not only for players of wind instruments, but for all musicians.
Once a musician can sit light and free of tension, the next stage is to maintain that state while picking up their instrument. When poised, they will soon notice if they tense their neck, back or shoulders in response to getting into position. The preparation can be repeated until they’re able to set the instrument in place without resorting to old habits. When this has been achieved, they can start to play scales or a simple piece while observing their reactions. The skill then becomes one of being in the moment so they can be aware of how they’re playing as well as what they’re playing.
Other measures such as taking regular breaks while rehearsing and taking other forms of exercise will help, but ultimately it comes down to how they use themselves during the hours of playing. And, not surprisingly, the process is like learning to play an instrument, except this time it’s about learning to play oneself first.
Roy Palmer is a teacher of the Alexander Technique and has 24 years’ experience of working with actors, musicians, athletes, and many sufferers of back pain. Please contact us today to book an appointment, or book online here....