Professional players often encounter a range of issues.
Pain and Playing-Related Injuries
Sometimes injuries are given diagnoses such as carpal tunnel, focal dystonia, tendonitis, but frequently playing issues are simply experienced as pain either in one or multiple parts of the body (often the hands, arm and neck) with no specific diagnosis or they may be given the generic term repetitive strain injuries.
Players often experience playing limitations that may or may not involve pain but are bothersome, cause anxiety and interfere with communicating the music. They limit enjoyment of playing and performing, and generally prevent the player from being the musician they feel they can be. Examples are; fatigue in certain passages and situations, anxiety in very soft passages, anxiety about bow control in certain parts such as the tip and off-the-string strokes, sustained playing, repetitive passages, rests, just to name a few. The range of issues is long and can be very personal to a player.
Often players believe they have psychological issues, but unless there is some underlying issue, the source of the anxiety is often in the playing, the technique being used. The brain and body recognize the inherent instability in the way something is being executed and when the strain of performance is added, there is legitimate anxiety. Put simply, the brain recognizes that the body genuinely does not know how to comfortably/successfully execute a passage and there is every reason to panic, feel anxious etc. But, when the player knows and feels the physical logic of how things can be executed, in addition to the thorough integration into the playing apparatus, the anxiety goes away. In essence the physical training and recognition of the inherent physical logic cauterize the sources of the anxiety.
As players, it is important to recognize the complex cultural lens which colors the interpretation of these playing issues in institutions and as for us as individuals. Trying to un-pack these cultural factors involves many different aspects but the following are some of the most common factors:
Taking lessons from a young age
Players begin lessons usually as young children in an environment of obedience where questioning the physical comfort of playing is not an option and neither is engaging the mind in the physical analysis and recognition of whether things feel right. As a result, the part of the brain that usually tells a person that things do not feel good, (any small child will protest if their clothes are too tight, they twist their foot etc.) becomes immune when engaged with the instrument and the player learns to transgress normal recognition of physical logic when playing. In other words, the body learns alien movements in the playing because the brain’s usual capacity to recognize them as uncomfortable and wrong has been shut-off. This all manifests itself later, in particular when players ignore signs of pain and keep playing.
Misunderstanding the magic of the music versus the craft of playing
Playing an instrument is a physical craft. The sounds are produced by moving the body a certain way that makes particular sounds come out of the instrument. However emotional those sounds may be to the listener, it remains a physical craft and needs to be understood as such by the player. When players are young, those who fall in love with the instrument, the music and find they are talented are probably the ones who decide to enter the profession. While everyone learns technique, the relationship between technique and music is often confused and players are frequently told to just “feel the music,” emote the music, express it more. When the player is talented, they may well find some way to do that in the moment, but it is often not through a concrete understanding of how to produce the passionate sound or an understanding of the physical components that made that specific sound come out differently. This puts the player in a difficult spot, they have to feel the music for the body to be able to produce it. But, what happens if they do not feel that passionate again, which is highly likely for professionals playing every night. How is that sound made, regardless of how the person feels? What happens when the conductor is asking for that sound but the player doesn’t feel it that day? Suddenly we are left with the common experience of needing nothing short of planetary alignment to play well. We dream up rituals to get into that seemingly unknowable zone and when those fail, often assume we are not talented enough, others must know something that we do not. But, when the playing is understood as a craft and learned as a physical craft that is at the service of the music and can be applied with the utmost artistry, those physical tools that make a passionate sound can be accessed regardless of how the we feel. Players need to be able to produce any sound immediately because they have a physical tool box to meet the demands of the music and the profession.
"More is Better" practice culture
There is high cultural value placed on practice time. More practice must be the answer; if we are not solving the issue, we need more hours. Stories abound that describe the so-called heroic efforts of players with bleeding fingers because they have worked for so many hours, playing hard. This is dangerous territory. Most players have experienced more time not producing the desired results. What is needed is different knowledge and a greater understanding of how to use time depending on the purpose and nature of the practice. Learning the notes in a symphony may take a great deal of time, but training the body to recognize a specific movement to get out of pain may only take a few minutes multiple times a day. When the only solution is more hours of practice time and not the acquisition of different knowledge, then many of us are left feeling inadequate and that change is impossible. This is a pervasive feeling amongst players. It also means that some players are reluctant to engage in learning how to play a different way because they associate such work with hours of practice that is usually fruitless and unrealistic considering the demands of families and fulltime jobs. This is not the case when we understand how we acquire physical knowledge and the process of learning and integrating this knowledge into the playing.
Conservatories and Universities
Misunderstanding of the craft of playing also colors the experience of many students at conservatories and universities. For example, playing repeated passages that come up in many 2nd violin parts, or playing extremely soft notes for long durations of time in an orchestral section (both common causes of pain) require specific technique and information, but are often neglected in the practice room and in the pedagogy. The demands of functioning in the profession have to be met by technical knowledge that addresses the precise demands of the music, so careers are sustainable. This is the craft of playing. Many orchestral excerpts relate to the hardest spots, but the places often causing injury are elsewhere in the music, the least glamorous moments that have their own craft. Very often when players go on to higher education they find themselves suddenly playing this type of repertoire for longer periods, with limited practice time and no tools to address the demands of these types of passages.
Shame, Talent, and Pain
Another result of the confusion over physical craft and music is that when players run into issues, they often do not wish to share the problem or often even acknowledge something is wrong. If playing-related pain is understood as a reflection of talent, commitment, musicianship etc., then players are more likely to try and hide the issues. Playing injuries simply relate to the physical tools being used. These misconceptions result in shame and a sense of depleted self-worth being blended into the physical aspects of the injury. Having an injury or coming up against any of the common problems and obstacles that arise are not a reflection of talent, they are simply physical problems that need their specific solutions.
Identity and Psychology
The nature of being a musician means the instrument and the music are a large part of how we define ourselves, so a playing-related injury often becomes a personal crisis and can also be misunderstood as a psychological issue. The brain recognizes that the body cannot successfully execute the task and a legitimate degree of fear sets in. Often players do not recognize that the fear is based in the physical reality and instead of addressing the physical issues, will seek out psychological help. There are of course psychological aspects to playing that can be worked on in many ways, but when the fear is based on the physical reality of playing, once the physical knowledge is in place, the fear goes away. The brain recognizes that the body does indeed know how to execute the passage and there is no psychological issue. The brain is altered by working with the body.