Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Playing Through the Pain?

Since last month's article about a 15% discount offered to CPB readers for the Armaid device, there have been some interesting articles in the blogosphere about musicians and performance-related injuries. Gretchen Saathof makes the point that massaging devices need to be viewed in a much larger dialogue about injury prevention and awareness.

On the other hand, Norman Lebrecht puts forward the opposite argument, that sometimes you need to play through the pain. I disagree with Mr. Lebrecht for the following reason: unlike the 10-15 year career of the professional athlete, the professional playing career of a musician can typically last from 40-50 years. With that time-line in mind, the goal of a good technique should by necessity include the smartest and safest playing setup, so that when one reaches artistic maturity (often in one's 40's or 50's), there is a solid technical foundation in place to extend that maturity as long as possible.


  1. Chris, I agree with you. Playing through pain will almost certainly exacerbate the problem, leading to more serious injury.

    Wouldn't it be preferable for everyone to be aware of the warning signs and know how to reverse them? And if someone is already injured, wouldn't it be great for them to know what to do about it?

    This is such an important post! The subject of potential injury is not discussed nearly often enough.

    Thank you.


  2. p.s.! Sports put the stress on large muscles. So playing through pain wouldn't necessarily lead to injury so quickly.

    Playing instruments, though, requires repetitive use of small muscles that weren't built for all that work.

    And Chris, your point about the relative length of a sports vs. musical career is important.

    OK, I'm done... ;)

  3. Anonymous7:04 AM

    One of the best collaborative pianists in the US who was also my teacher had this conversation with me once:

    Him: Could you help me lift the piano lid? I've hurt my arm...
    Me: Oh my god... Will you still be able to fly to New York and Europe for your concert tour? What will you do?!
    Him: Of course. I'll just play anyway like everyone else who maintains a performing career.

    I have to agree with him that sometimes, if you want/need the work, and the job is important enough, you would play through some pain. On the other hand, I hurt my arm very badly typing and the same pianist/teacher immediately suggested that I cancel everything for six weeks, except one concert which was very important, and that I see a specialist he knew if it was not better immediately. So he didn't always advocate playing regardless of the pain. While those six weeks off was necessary and healthy, like anyone who has gotten a serious injury, it actually took me almost 6 months to feel completely normal and healthy in my playing and arm again after that incident. I wasn't going to cancel work for half a year-- how would I have supported myself?-- I couldn't afford to do so and wouldn't want to.

    I also know pianists who have played after slamming fingers in closets, doors, cars, hurting themselves exercising, etc. Painful, of course, but they weren't going to let someone else step in at the last minute to events that people bought tickets to hear them play.

    In contrast, I know a pianist who, literally the week that he got tenure at a good school, declared that he had critically injured his arm and has not performed as a pianist in four years. I believe him to be lazy and irresponsible. Who would want to study with a pianist who could not maintain a playing career and who stopped playing as soon as he conveniently settled into a good job because of pain? Yet tenure keeps him on the faculty.....

    With these issues in mind, I don't see the issue as simply black and white: pain=no playing. Sometimes you can/must go on and sometimes you can't. Successfully navigating these options actually seems to me to be what keeps a long career-- knowing when you can afford to pull out of playing versus when you can and should keep going.

  4. Maura Tillotson2:53 PM

    Hello bloggers. It is an honor to help you all play. Thank you for your orders. As you too will soon find musicians say things like Armaid: "saved my career," "my new best friend" and "indispensable." It's a 1-pound, convenient, 10-year warrantied device that is user friendly and made with care.

    Our therapists are always here to talk you through any concerns or questions. We want you arm-and-hand healthy!

    Sincerely, Maura Tillotson VP, The Armaid Company

  5. Anonymous9:52 PM

    This sounds like an unsolicited commercial.

  6. Maura1:38 PM

    Anonymous - Sorry, I wasn't trying to sound like a commercial. Just here to help if you see fit. We are here with Dr. Foley's permission to give the Collaborative Piano bloggers help on any of the pain issues being discussed.