Warning: Your Practicing Could Be Hazardous to Your Health

Musicians' Assistance Program - Part 1 of 2

Volume CIII, No. 5May, 2003

David J. Sternbach, MM, MSW, BCD

It’s hard to think of many things more frustrating than sitting down in the practice room to do some woodshedding – and having things end up worse. Every musician has this experience. But I’m not just talking about hitting technical roadblocks. It’s about what we do to ourselves when we hit the wall.

The first problem is physical. Overpracticing – pushing through stubborn problems using brute force – can lead to pain and injuries caused by overuse.

The second problem is mental. How we react to frustration in the practice room may come back to bite us in performance.

Let’s first look at the overuse issue.

Arts medicine specialists say that musicians are more likely to develop repetitive overuse injuries (RSI’s) when practicing – not in performance. Once you’re in the practice room and the door shuts, the drive to excellence may come at a price – neglect of the body. Instrumentalists are “upper extremity” athletes using a small number of muscle areas. And singers use an even more restricted set of muscles.

Watch a major sports team practice, and you’ll see players working out under the watchful eyes of too many people to even count! Coaches, trainers, sports psychologists, sports medicine doctors and physical therapists, to name a few. There might even be several specialist coaches working on different parts of each athlete’s game.

Those trainers and coaches are not just there to improve their play – they’re also there to teach them how to avoid injuring that expensive commodity called a Major Contract Athlete. And with all that going for them, athletes constantly experience sports injuries.

In the practice room, a musician is alone. There’s no guidance to keep us from any number of errors: postural deficits; no breaks; no regular stretching; forgetting to hydrate; overusing or misusing muscles; bad pacing; and worst of all, practicing with pain.

We’re not talking here about normal fatigue; that’s part of any exertion. This kind of pain is different – it’s a warning.

Too many voices for far too long have said, “Play through the pain,” “Suck it up and keep going,” “Play ’til you plotz.”

The word now is, “Musicians should reasonably expect to be able to perform their entire career without pain.” (So says Jan Dommerholt, PT, performing arts medicine specialist.)

Here’s the message. Pain tells us something is not working right, and it’s time to evaluate practice habits or get to someone who can help you to do that.

Even more subtle and complicated than physical issues are the psychological elements in practicing. One common problem is giving yourself unhelpful messages (what I call “self talk.”) Unhelpful self talk will often take place during a frustrating practice moment – when a phrase, major passage or entire piece just won’t get better.

First of all, there’s nothing wrong and everything right with striving for excellence. That’s not the issue.

The real issue is how we handle the unavoidable frustration. Unregulated, frustration can lead to rising upset, rising impatience, and often, indignation – even outrage. This is a condition many readers will recognize, I suspect, and may be prey to.

A teacher once said, “It isn’t the thoughts; it’s thinking about our thoughts,” to which I would add, it’s about thinking too much, in the wrong way.

How did we learn these unhelpful reactions? We know intuitively these are no help to us, and can actually hinder problem solving.

We’ll answer this question in Part 2 of this article, next month.

David Sternbach, a psychotherapist who works with performers, is director of the Center for Arts and Wellness at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. There, Sternbach runs a training program for music students. A former professional musician for 25 years, Sternbach now plays occasionally.