Of Rest and Wrists - Raising the Issue of Pain and Performance

September 25, 2023, 12:49 PM · For me, Sunday was a day of rest - I was resting my wrist for day number six. And as I was thinking about the subject, I wanted to offer some thoughts and inquiries on rest and wrists.

Elena Urioste

The subject of injury is slowly becoming less taboo amongst classical musicians. But how do we navigate the professional logistics of being in pain?

It’s like comparing apples and oranges, of course, but lately I‘ve been wondering which is more undesirable: the physical discomfort of playing through an injury, or the emotional turmoil of letting down colleagues.

The vast majority of musicians I know take enormous pride in what they do, with a deep-rooted sense of personal accountability and obligation even towards engagements that someone else entirely has organized, programmed, and promoted. This comes as no surprise — musicians are by and large kind, decent, empathetic people who hate letting others down.

Let’s add another layer: what if the someone doing the organizing, programming, and promoting is… us? What if the situation at hand is a project of our own invention, with repertoire we love fiercely and musicians we've personally handpicked and promised a certain sort of experience? Do we dare — and if so, how do we dare — extricate ourselves from these sorts of scenarios, where the lines between professional and emotional already seem so blurry?

Do we plow through the pain because we feel, in essence, responsible and potentially even irreplaceable? That may be true, or it may be the ego talking; does it even matter? Do we go ahead with it, for the successful outcome of a project and our colleagues’ sense of emotional and financial comfort? Or do we force ourselves to take a step back in order to preserve our own health and sanity, and risk having the intricate musical structures that we’ve so painstakingly built come crashing down?

This subject feels like not only an emotional tug-of-war but a practical one, too, as the financial burden many in our profession face cannot be ignored: if we’re experiencing pain or burn-out, can we afford the time needed to rest and recover properly? For many of us, and especially since the pandemic — which uprooted an already precarious sense of financial security for huge swaths of our profession — the answer is no.

And so we plug away, reluctant to step away from our jobs, as getting to the end of a concert is the only way we know how to pay our rent or put food on the table. The thoughts nag: "But what if I have to take even more time off in the future than I would have had to up front in order to nip this pain in the bud? Oh well, I’ll think about that later…"

I’m afraid I don’t have any answers. These are merely some ramblings that have been clanking around in my brain, a plea for others to join an admittedly awkward conversation. Or, I suppose more accurately, to help me to make this a bigger conversation. Because as far as I can see, we haven't yet asked enough satisfactory questions, let alone come up with the answers, regarding the issue of pain amongst musicians.

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September 25, 2023 at 08:30 PM · This is a real issue, and not just for soloists. Certainly orchestra musicians and gigging musicians face the same kinds of problems. It can be especially acute when rehearsals and concerts are clustered close together, which can be the feast-or-famine nature of free-lancing. It makes for a lot of physical strain and performance stress, all in a short frame of time.

September 26, 2023 at 02:07 PM · Really good post on an important and widespread problem. And the "Artist Athlete" one page handout is great.

As a psychologist, I would add this - make sure you take a few moments to relax your body and mind each day. There are many, many suggestions you will find on the internet and from books and articles, and from professionals you may have contact with.

I can add only two suggestions:

1. Most people follow instructions to "take a deep breath and relax." Unfortunately, the way most of us take a deep breath is to tighten our stomach muscles and suck in as much air as we can get into our chest. It is NOT relaxing. Instead, think of a relaxing breath as a normal, "shallow," everyday sigh. Loosen your stomach muscles and just take that normal, everyday sigh, with your stomach relaxing. We do this every day but we usually don't pay attention to it.

2. Very briefly, do a little self-talk. For example, the famous Emile Coue self-talk statement: "Day by day, in every way, I'm getting better and better." Say that 10 times and then go about your business. If you don't like the Coue statement, try different ones. It has to be very, very short, and very believable.

I hope that helps.

September 26, 2023 at 05:11 PM · It's hard to wrest the entrenched idea that 'you don't talk about how wrists need rest' from players' heads. It's good that some lone people are speaking out, and we'll all be in better hands when the rest acknowledge this issue.

My wrist is rusty at the moment and I should probably go see a PT.

September 27, 2023 at 11:12 AM · Such an interesting post. I've been struggling with wrist and thumb pain for a few months. Working with my teacher to adapt my technique has been helpful, as has breaking down practice into 30 minute bits with rest inbetween. I'm also doing a course of accupuncture.

As a late starter adult learner, now 70 yo, I've felt I was in catch up mode but I guess I understand increasingly that I need to nurture my ageing hands.

I've looked hard on the internet but there's very little information about violin players and hand pain, or how to ameliorate these problems.

September 27, 2023 at 03:45 PM ·

I've had repetitive injuries not related to the violin, and I believe that, once it gets to the level of pain, it's gone too far. Versus needing to better understand how to deal with the pain, we need a better understanding of how to prevent a repetitive injury from becoming painful, once we know that it's headed in that direction. Pain is an indication of injury; the less injury, the easier and quicker the repair.

Once one suspects that an abnormal discomfort may be leading towards a repetitive injury, the best response is to STOP whatever activity is likely responsible and seek medical help. Of course, it's problematic that a repetitive injury can sneak up almost beneath notice. Unfortunately, it's usually such a gradual process, that caution can end up giving way to pragmatism. And then, it's too late.

September 28, 2023 at 02:03 AM · I had a gardening injury (tendinitis) right when I started a professional orchestra job. I went to a sports clinic where they gave me ultrasound treatment, and the forearm took most of the season to heal. I iced the arm every evening after rehearsal or concert, and learned a lot about how to move in a more relaxed way. Just saying.

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