Over the course of a career, musicians may develop various physical issues that make playing difficult, or simply ones that cause discomfort after a long day at work.
I’ve read in the papers about how bad backs cause a lot of sick days with 9 to 5ers, but for those of us who sit holding instruments in strange positions that are unnatural to the body it can cause a myriad of different problems. You can work on the best posture and the most natural and comfortable position, investing in time spent with teachers, or learning the Alexander Technique http://www.alexandertechnique.com/at.htm to try to prevent as much as possible. Some people swear by yoga or pilates to strengthen the body and keep it healthier whilst sitting in one position for several hours.
But those long hours rehearsing or performing do inevitably bring up issues to deal with – as an opera player (and previously ballet), long hours in the pit have brought up various things over my professional career to deal with. Generally opera and ballet performances are longer than concerts – concerts can be more quickly draining, but opera/ballet could almost be described as a distance sport, one where stamina and strength are really necessary.
Back when I played for the ballet company, 7 shows a week of the same show (Tues-Sat evenings with two matinees Thu and Sat) meant that by the time I left that job for my current one, I had mild De Quervain’s tendonitis in my right wrist from playing a lot of tremolo (rapid reiterations of notes). It still surfaces from time to time when we’re playing a lot of Rossini (which has a lot of that sort of thing), but generally is just mildly annoying rather than debilitating.
I know violinists with shoulder problems that make bowing difficult, those who have had nerve damage that cause them to be unable to lift their right arm above their shoulders, viola players who struggle with the weight of the instrument, so it pulls things out of alignment.
Particular composers can cause more trouble than others. Wagner, due to the length of it, can be rather taxing. The first time I performed a run of Tristan and Isolde, I tore a muscle in my left forearm; that gave way in the middle of a show. The next big Wagner opera I had a problem with my right forearm. This time, I’m taking care to be really careful, as it’s not something that I want to happen again!
However, there’s another thing that can cause problems, and that’s something that can be overlooked. Tiredness. Playing for long hours in emotionally draining situations where you are giving of yourself so much does lead to exhaustion, especially if then afterwards you go home to a busy family with kids, and other responsibilities. Last year I had to take time off work after falling down the stairs at home and bruising my ribs and pulling various muscles. I missed a step, because I was tired. It had been a particularly heavy time at work, and I’d not been resting enough. It’s an easy mistake to make, and one that was rectified by a week of rest and boredom at home for me, but isn’t that easily fixed if you’ve got lots of other responsibilities.
So when an injury occurs, or pain beyond the norm is felt, we turn to our “people”. The chiropractors, osteopaths, physios, people we trust to help get us back to functioning and workable. I have a physio that I trust – that when my shoulders are tight and unmovable – as can happen with lots of playing under any sort of stress (which is bound to happen at work sometimes) – she gets me moving again, and able to carry on.. until I can go on holiday for 2 weeks in the sun and give myself a break…!