Music and Medicine: Your body is your instrument

Music and medicine go hand-in-hand. Music therapy interventions are known for their psychological and physiological effects. Yet, the well-being of musicians is vastly under-explored.

If you’re a musician, then you know that the countless hours of practice can take a toll on your body.  A 2012 survey of Australian orchestral musicians found that 84% had experienced pain or injuries that hindered their playing. And professionals are not the only musicians at risk. In a high school marching band, 95 percent of students surveyed reported stiff or sore muscles.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are more professional musicians than athletes in the United States. However, media reports of athletic injuries outnumber the accounts of musician injuries. One fact is for sure. Musicians are known for playing through the pain. What is a musician to do? Where do you get support? What are the treatments?

Sarah Hoover is a key leader in the Peabody Conservatory’s work to re-shape the training of the 21st-century citizen artist with a focus on excellence, innovation, and connection.

“Pit Crew” for Performing Artists

Unfortunately, there are only a handful of places specializing in performing arts healthcare. Sarah Hoover, noted that “healthcare providers need to understand and empathize with the particular characteristics and vulnerabilities of elite musicians.” Fortunately, “many [providers] have a history of musical study and/or deep love for music themselves that inform their clinical practice, research and education work” she said.

Hoover is the special assistant to the dean for innovation, interdisciplinary partnerships and community initiatives at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University. The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Peabody Conservatory of Music have recently partnered to discover and treat the underlying causes of disorders affecting musicians.

The new program is designed to be a “specialized multi-disciplinary” or what Hoover calls “a skilled and compassionate “pit crew” focused on the common objective of getting the player back in the game safely and quickly.” The approach includes the understanding that “well-informed studio teachers can play a central role in this health care team; they are often the first to notice and name a problem.”

A Culture of Playing through Pain

When Acceptd asked Ms. Hoover to explain the culture of playing through the pain, she had this to say:

Most serious musicians are very focused and driven, accustomed to spending hours a day working on their craft, and, unlike other elite athletes, they do so alone and unsupervised. Striving for perfection alone without varying tasks or stopping for regular physical and mental breaks to instill habits of mindfulness can set up a culture of overwork, which eventually leads to pain. While current research suggests that it takes “10,000 hours” to master a high level skill, many musicians try to rush those 10,000 hours to get beyond that threshold earlier. While the philosophy of “no pain, no gain” is prevalent, the truth is that more is often not better but injurious.

But taking care of oneself can be challenging; communicating that one is injured and unable to play in a given rehearsal or concert can be perceived as career-threatening, revealing weakness or lack of skill. So musicians can choose to avoid the risk of revealing a problem and instead play through the pain. Research studies indicate that upward of 80% of collegiate music majors experience pain in playing over the course of their degrees. The Center for Music and Medicine at Johns Hopkins/Peabody aims to change the culture of isolation and shame that can surround occupational health issues among performers, to normalize and de-catastrophize occupational injuries when they occur, and to incorporate frank dialogue into training about how to practice safely and to seek and navigate specialized health care.

Music and Medicine at Peabody

Will the new initiatives benefit students at Peabody directly? Absolutely! Hoover shared some details below:

Through new coursework in occupational health, access to rehabilitation and training through the Peabody Musicians’ Clinic, and in ongoing studio instruction. Currently under development is an online course in anatomy and injury prevention called Playing Well. The course will be available to all Peabody students in the Fall 2017 (and publicly in Spring 2018).

As athletes of the “small muscles,” in order to maximize performance potential, musicians need knowledge of:

Peabody faculty member Serap Bastepe-Gray is pictured testing the SmartGuitar, an instrument she designed to measure how much force a musician applies to the fretboard. (Image Credit: Innovative Sports Training, Inc.)

1.) anatomy and principles of movement

2.) common performance-related injuries (and other health conditions that affect playing) and their treatments

3.) rehabilitation and prevention strategies.

This overview of critical occupational health information provides musicians with “operating instructions” for their own bodies, introduces core principles of wellness and injury prevention, and fosters the development of awareness and self-study for lifelong performance health.

How to Prevent Injury

Finally, while you may not be able to escape an injury entirely, you can be mindful while you play. Prevent an injury by:

  • Remaining aware of your movements and sensations as you play
  • Through varied and strategic practice plans
  • Taking regular breaks and refocusing attention thereafter
  • Through engaging in regular cardiovascular and body-mind exercise for conditioning and developing awareness
  • Recognizing warning signs, stopping, redirecting, or seeking help when necessary
  • Through frank communication with mentors and teachers
  • Developing a relationship with skilled doctors and therapists
  • Remembering that music making, while vitally important, is only part of one’s identity
  • And by cultivating a sense of self separate from music making.


To learn more about Occupational Health for Musicians, visit Peabody Institute

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Featured image photo credit: Zlatko Vickovic sound of beauty via photopin (license)