Hello dear readers, this blog is going to be a long one. I have been a blogger for a year but haven’t been able to blog much due to a muscle overuse injury that kept me from typing, and has left a lot for me to catch up on.
I’m a violin performance major in the conservatory, and have been playing violin for what feels like my whole life. Many musicians get squeamish around the topic of injury. It’s a tough topic. When I first began having the kind of pain that ibuprofen couldn’t mask any longer, and had to take a break, I felt as though the world was ending.
My chamber music coach at the time, who was also recovering from a shoulder injury and had to go on leave from his Cleveland Orchestra job, sent me an email a few weeks later, asking if the “world is falling apart” stage was nearing its end.
As conservatory musicians, I think it’s safe to say we love our area of study with our whole hearts. Conservatory life means we live and breathe music. Rehearsing and practicing took up roughly 6 hours of my daily routine at the time. All of that came to a sudden halt, and I found myself wondering at how many hours there are in a day, and how I never noticed that hours are so long— 60 whole minutes. I began to feel anxious, because practicing is strangely meditative. Admittedly, I spent most of that initial time crying, and feeling utterly useless.
10 months later, I’ve learned so much. I’ve been to see several doctors, occupational therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic. I dived into Alexander technique and am now taking one of the most amazing classes on campus: Body Mapping.
I’ve learned about inflammation, healthy living, healthy eating, how my body moves, how to reduce residual tension, and the power of mindset. My teacher has been wonderfully supportive (David Bowlin is amazing in every way, just fyi), and my friends have been there for me every step of the way, believing in my ability to recover. As I am now solidly mending, I can fully appreciate how much this has meant to me.
Coming to Oberlin, I had the standard college student stereotypes in my head. Doing homework in the library at 3 a.m., eating microwaveable mac and cheese as a study snack, and crashing and sleeping 12 hours during the weekend. This type of living is an easy, handy model to grasp. Healthy living? That’s something I’ll worry about in my 30s, I thought to myself.
So I practiced until Robertson (the practice building) closed at midnight, then I would do homework, then I would go to bed. Then my alarm would go off at 9 a.m., it was time for music theory class. Six hours of sleep is enough, right? If I was hungry at 1 a.m (I’d just finished practicing after all), I’d reach for the microwaveable popcorn. To feel more health conscious, I got some Orville Redenbacher skinny pop. Exercising was a fleeting thought that would pass through my head when I watched a jogger pass by, watching their effort and heavy breathing with pity.
After I got injured, I started to wonder, why? I didn’t think I was over-practicing. I was playing a lot, but I wasn’t practicing anything like a crazy 8 hours a day. And slowly as this journey continued, I started to realize that as musicians, we are teetering on the edge of injury constantly. We don’t admit to that, because there is a culture of silence around injuries. Musicians are afraid of being seen as unreliable, weak, losing their jobs, or sitting in the back of the orchestra for the rest of our lives. That’s why we have pain, and we suffer silently.
An amazing chiropractor in Westlake explained to me that if our muscles have the capacity for 100 repetitions, and we do 90, we’re 10 reps away from essentially overexerting our muscles, which leads to overuse injuries. Now take that concept and add sleep deprivation, poor eating habits, and no exercise to that equation. Voila, injury is on the horizon. For whatever reason, women are also slightly more prone to injuries than men. I think it has something to do with our general physical makeup.
Here’s something I’ve learned from the body mapping class I’m in this semester, which is low-key changing my life already. Studies show that more than half of professional orchestral musicians are injured at any given time. To everyone currently at Oberlin or planning to come to Oberlin who enjoys playing music—take that class. It’s only one month in for me, and I’m walking around with my yoga mat, so I can do constructive rest during practice sessions.
I’ve learned that having a waist is a myth (isn’t that awesome!) and the importance of massaging hands, forearms, and feet. And, probably one of the biggest things—musicians are movers. We don’t tend to think about ourselves in that way, but we are.
Think about a dancer’s lifestyle or a gymnast. Do they survive on six hours of sleep and eat microwaveable mac and cheese, and expect to perform their tasks without exercising? Hmmmm no. That’s a non-brainer. Musicians use their bodies strenuously every single day, for hours on end. The only difference is, we don’t use them in a way that tests our stamina in the traditional sense. We don’t run out of breath at the end of a practice hour.
Even with all of this new knowledge, I still fell into the standard college student pattern a few times. The last time was last week, when I realized my schedule was too big for me to handle. It’s just so hard to choose how to spend my time, there is so much I want to learn about, and it’s so frustrating that the day only has 24 hours.
I missed a theory assignment, and wrote my professor a very flighty, sleep-deprived email that was supposed to be a free-write (free-writes are first response paragraphs to a piece that you write without breaking or stopping to fix things, something you’ll encounter if you take theory with Brian Alegant), and I ended up apologizing, saying I was sleep-deprived. He responded saying he understood, and that sleep deprivation is never helpful, especially not for learning. Ding ding ding, another lightbulb moment. If I’m trying to get the most out of my time here at Oberlin, a healthy lifestyle with enough sleep is imperative not just for my playing and physical health, but also for my general cognitive capability to learn and absorb the amazing things being taught to me in every single class.
On that note, get some sleep, and find something healthy to eat. Stay tuned, next time I think I will talk about the power of mental practicing.