The injured musician- a taboo subject?

March 31st, 2011 by

Photo: D. Sharon Pruitt

Fourteen years after my injury, it’s clear to me that it is unlikely I will be able to have a professional career as a pianist again, despite many years of treatments of all kinds. I have a new career as a life coach for musicians and other creative artists, which I find very rewarding, I still teach piano and musicianship, and conduct children’s choirs.  I have now chosen to talk about my condition, in the hopes that my openness will help others in their turn to be open about what has been and continues to be a taboo subject.

I was a professional classical pianist with a successful career in the UK and Europe until my mid-30s, when I experienced an injury that led to a chronic health condition. I have not been able to play piano professionally since that time. When I first became injured, I was very reticent to discuss it publicly, as I was hoping it was a temporary condition and that I would be able to return to my career as a collaborative pianist, coach, repetiteur, and chamber musician.  I had already learned the hard way, during a short-lived period of tendonitis at college, that once other musicians knew I was injured, they moved on to working with other pianists, and in many cases never came back.

We all know that one is supposed to stop playing the moment one feels pain, but in the midst of a busy performing career, that is not always possible. I kept going for two weeks before I stopped, and have often regretted my decision, but at the time, I did not realize the severity of my situation, I had many commitments, and wanted to maintain my livelihood and my reputation. Looking back I can see that musicians are given a double message- you must take care of yourself, and yet you must be reliable and professional at all times. It is our sensitivity that enables us to excel as musicians, and yet we are supposed to be unstoppable super-people also.

Losing my performing career was like losing a loved one, except the loved one was still around, and I couldn’t access it.  It is still hard to admit, after all these years, how much it hurt. I went through all the stages of loss that have been so well documented. It has taken me a long time to be able to relate to music freely and wholeheartedly, and not to mind when I hear of the successful performing careers of my contemporaries. Writing has become a much-needed creative outlet for me—in fact I’m now writing a memoir about my experiences.

I know I’m not alone. Recent statistics in some studies show that up to 87% of musicians report injury or pain. Many others are experiencing hearing loss or distortion. Yet many are still understandably reluctant to discuss it.

In her devastating memoir “Limbo”, A. Manette Ansay bravely recounts her story. A talented pianist, she first experienced pain while studying at a renowned U.S. conservatory. Like many others, she regarded it as a challenge to be overcome by sheer determination, a strategy apparently condoned by the institution. When she would arrive for a lesson at her teacher’s studio, her teacher would greet her at the door with anaesthetic spray for her arms. Eventually, the pain she first experienced in her arms began to affect her entire body, and she ended up in a wheelchair. Fortunately, she also discovered her talent as a writer, and is now Professor of English at the University of Miami with eight books under her belt.

When I consulted the doctor at my conservatory fourteen years ago, he prescribed two aspirin and a bag of frozen peas as an icepack. Fortunately, things have begun to change since then. Some conservatories provide therapies such as shiatsu, Alexander technique and movement classes. In the UK, the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine  (BAPAM) now provides much-needed support and education. Similar initiatives are springing up across the world.

The more open we can become about injury in musicians, the more we can help those we teach and coach to avoid problems themselves. There are so many factors to be aware of: posture, tension, emotional expression, mental stress, overuse,  a mismatch of child and instrument, and many more. Owing to my own situation, I am always keenly aware of potential problems in students. I keep an eagle eye on cultivating a relaxed and balanced posture, and engage supportively with my students when they appear stressed or worried, or experience any kind of twinge in shoulder, wrist, back, and so on. We discuss and practice stretching and warming up before practicing, and getting regular physical exercise. And yet, I always feel there is more that could be done.

What is your experience with injury in yourself and others? How do you work with a student who reports pain, discomfort, or other problems?  What solutions have you found for yourself and others? I’m keen to start a conversation on this very important topic.

Posted in Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips

About the Author

Valerie Kampmeier
Valerie Kampmeier, M.A., brings decades of performance experience as a successful classical pianist in Europe to her piano teaching and her life coaching practice for musicians. She also writes about living a creative life on her blog.
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