How feeling physically ‘centered’ affects your music

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume 115, No. 11November, 2015

Siena Shundi, LCSW-R
Siena Shundi, LCSW-R

Siena Shundi, LCSW-R

The office of the Musicians’ Assistance Program is your one-stop shop for musicians’ health. We offer counseling – both one-on-one and in groups – as well as information on all kinds of social services, including health insurance, food stamps and more. All services are free to Local 802 members. Contact us at or (212) 397-4802.

Pilates instructor Karin Fantus and I recently met with two musicians – Brian Brake and Mary Wooten – who have been taking Karin’s Pilates class here at Local 802 to learn how the class is helping them and what it could do for other musicians. (For information on taking one of these free classes, see the end of the article.*)

Siena: For a musician, is there a connection between feeling better physically and being able to play better?

Brian: When you’re better aligned, you have one less thing to feel tense about. And you can really focus in on what you’re playing. When you’re feeling good, you perform a lot better.

Mary: Without a lot of frustration and fatigue.

Karin: Do you allow yourself to acknowledge pain or do you keep going?

Mary: Oh, you acknowledge it to yourself and your colleagues. Sometimes colleagues can help. But I think you acknowledge it and you keep going.

Brian: You acknowledge pain, but then you forge ahead. That is the normal way to do it, but to me it’s the wrong way.

Karin: What we do in the Pilates class is try to change your body’s whole mechanism so it works better. This can be as basic as how you sit in a chair. I have a client who is a violinist who tells me that everyone brings foam support to sit on.

Brian: And then your preference changes over time. I used to like cushy seats, but now I can’t sit on them. Now my seat has to be supportive.

Mary: Cellists always have seat problems. My mom used to tell me it was just me being picky – but when I got into the professional world, it was everyone. It’s tough when you’re in the pit and you don’t have much room. Your best position on a chair is sitting on the edge. But when there’s less room, you have to sit on the back edge, which is not good. I find myself having to bring in an inflatable cushion. The chairs that slant backwards are the worst for cellists because it tightens the hip flexors. I can sit on the back, but on the edge I just end up so uncomfortable. Cellists in the pit specifically ask for “cello chairs,” which slant forward.

Karin: It’s not just about how you sit, either. The truth is, if any musician were to hold the position of how they are when they play music, it’s usually not a comfortable position in real life. Violin positions are the worst. I mean, you do that for how many hours?

Mary: You’re holding this box with your head! It’s nuts!

Brian: It’s like how baseball pitchers often have to have ligament replacements because pitching is not a natural movement.

Siena: Parents are now being encouraged to have their children play more than one sport to avoid problems that arise from doing one repetitive motion over and over in one sport.

Mary: A violinist once showed me that one side of her was so much more developed than the other side.

Brian: I had issues years ago from always looking in one direction while playing music, so I changed the position of my music stand and that solved the problem instantly. Also, I always alternate sides when I wear shoulder bags so not only one side is pulling down on me. All of this is why when I saw the Pilates class advertised for musicians, I said “I’m in,” because I knew it would stretch all of my muscles out.

Karin: As a musician, your body is always going to be pulling in opposite directions, so you need maintenance.

Siena: Musicians should constantly check in with themselves and ask themselves, “Am I in pain right now? How am I carrying my instrument? How am I sitting? How am I standing? Is any of this affecting my body?” As musicians get older and your metabolism slows down and maybe you put on some weight, then you’re more impacted by standing for longer periods of time or carrying things. I can speak about my own experience as an athlete and how I learned that in order to compensate for overuse, resistance training is important to reduce the likelihood of injury especially over time.

Karin: The more centered you are and the more strong you are at your core, the less susceptible you are to injuries. The pelvis matters, too. The pelvis shouldn’t move too much. It’s important to know how to hold yourself neutrally

Brian: A good question for musicians is, “Do you know where your center is?” If you don’t know, then maybe you should learn.

Siena: I like that, Brian. It encapsulates a lot of meaning – both physical and emotional.

Brian: Even spiritual. Feeling “centered” is not just one thing – it’s mind, body and spirit.

*FREE PILATES AND BODYWORK CLASSES: Do you want to improve your endurance, stop masking performance pain, give your body a tune-up, and learn strategies for lifelong health? Join bodywork instructor Karin Fantus for a series of free classes! All musicians welcome (both Local 802 members and non-members). Pre-registration is required. Classes fill up early. We offer a beginner body awareness class and a Pilates exercise class. (You must have taken a class with Karin previously in order to register for the Pilates class.) Classes take place on Friday afternoons in midtown. To register, contact Anya Turner at (212) 397-4802 or Location and times will be given out once you register.