The Invincibility Fallacy: Balancing Musical Ability with Physical Agility

Nora Kipnis, Arts Editor

One Wednesday during senior double-degree student Eliza­beth Castro-Abrams’s second semester at Oberlin, she suddenly felt an excruciating pain in her wrist. She complained of the pain to her violin teachers, who told her to ice and stretch, but it didn’t stop. Student Health Services wasn’t much help either. Despite nu­merous visits to various doctors, all of whom had different ideas about the injury’s origin, the pain eventually forced Castro-Abrams to drop all of her musical engagements for the rest of the semester. Prior to her injury, she’d been practicing violin up to eight hours a day — not unusual for a Conservatory student, she said — but the injury was completely unexpected. “You think you’re invin­cible before anything happens,” she said. Instead of going to music camp as she had planned, Castro-Abrams spent the summer at home in California visiting specialist after specialist trying to find out what was wrong. By August, she had the answer: a tear in the cartilage of her wrist, for which she would need surgery.

Castro-Abrams’s friends cautioned her to avoid going under the knife, warning her that she might sustain irreparable nerve damage and never be able to play again. However, the doctor told her that if she didn’t get surgery, the tear would only become worse, so she decided to go ahead. When Castro-Abrams woke up from the two-hour surgery, the doctor told her that hers was “the worst wrist I’ve ever seen.” She spent the next two months on medical leave from Oberlin, in a cast and unable to open doors, eat or dress herself without intense pain.

For the next few months, Castro-Abrams used acupuncture, massage therapy and swimming to rebuild her strength. “All of the muscles that I had built up over years and years of violin playing completely atrophied,” she said. By late December, she was al­lowed to return to her violin — but for no more than two minutes a day. Despite the strict time limitation, Castro-Abrams said that when she was allowed to play again, “it was the best day of my life.” Slowly, she increased her daily playing time by a few minutes a week, until by February she was practicing two hours a day. It was certainly an improvement, but even so, two hours is minimal for a Conservatory student. For Castro-Abrams, it meant that if she had orchestra rehearsal, that was all the playing she could do for the day.

College junior Leah Wollenberg had a somewhat different expe­rience with her violin-induced stress injury. Her wrist pain started this past October and has yet to subside. It first emerged while she was changing her bowing technique to improve her tone, which resulted in additional tension in her hand. At the same time, she says that a general frustration with her musical progress cultivated more physical tension while playing. Wollenberg had been taking private lessons in violin and jazz, as well as a jazz improvisation class. Fortunately, her teachers were supportive in arranging ways for her to complete her coursework with minimal playing. She saw a physical therapist in Elyria who wasn’t much help.

As a Music Studies major with a concentration in jazz violin, Wollenberg has been able to cut back on playing this semester; she’s fulfilling her other credits and giving her wrist a rest. She’s also learned a different way of playing to help relieve tension in her wrists. “I have changed, and I actually think that my tone is better for it,” she said, but she’s still working toward the tone she was try­ing to achieve when she was first injured. Talking to many other students about musical technique has helped her in this pursuit. “If you’re doing it right, then you’re not going to get hurt and you’re going to sound better,” she said.

Castro-Abrams also found that her way of playing changed after her injury. She holds her violin differently and now takes a new approach to practicing. Instead of spending hours re­peating the same song or few bars over and over until she gets it right, Castro-Abrams uses visualization to make sure she can play the piece within only a few tries. “I’ve heard teach­ers say, ‘It’s all about repetition, it’s muscle memory,’” CastroAbrams said. “But I think it’s a lot more than that. You have to be completely engaged the whole time.” But while her new method takes up less time, it is far more exhausting than mindless repetition. “To practice properly, you can’t do it lon­ger than an hour at a time. It’s like writing a paper; you have to be extremely detail-oriented and a lot of it is in your head. More than you think.”

Both Castro-Abrams and Wollenberg emphasized the impor­tance of a relaxed approach to practicing. Anxiety and stress lead to tension in the body, which increases the chance of injury. “If you’re stressed out,” said Castro-Abrams, “you’re practicing against that, and it’s way more difficult physically and mentally.” She has tried various mental and physical warm-ups before practicing to help prevent injury, from deep breathing to squats, all in the hope of getting blood flowing to the hands and wrists. Wollenberg believes that mental stress increases one’s risk for physical stress injuries, and that her personal frustration with her music probably had an impact on her own stress injury. In response, she’s learned new ways to keep stress from impacting her body.

While Wollenberg and Castro-Abrams noted that their profes­sors and teachers were incredibly supportive while they dealt with their injuries — Castro-Abrams’s teacher even drove her to see a music injury specialist in Cleveland — they both lamented the lack of school-wide support for stress injury prevention and manage­ment. “It seems like there’s this idea of you get hurt and then you’re hurt, and it’s forever and it could ruin your career and there’s no helping it,” said Castro-Abrams. While the prevention and treat­ment of stress injuries is possible, the pair believes that not enough is being done to help students at the Conservatory. Castro-Abrams suggested the institution of a required seminar for stress injury pre­vention, while Wollenberg said that the Conservatory class Physi­cal Wellness for the Musician’s Life should be a requirement for all students. They would also love to see a sports doctor, physical therapist or music injury specialist on staff at the Conservatory — someone to whom faculty can refer their students for immediate assistance when problems arise, as stress injuries are often difficult for general practitioners to recognize and treat.

Dance instructor Deborah Vogel, who teaches the elective Physical Wellness for the Musician’s Life, emphasizes physical health as a key element of musical ability, and agrees with Wollen­berg and Castro-Abrams that there should be a resource for Con­servatory students akin to the trainer for student athletes. Unfor­tunately, her class is limited to only 12 students a semester, about

half of whom enrolled because they were already injured. Vogel said, “I think sometimes, musicians forget that they have a body. … Their main focus is: ‘how many hours can I put in? That’s going to make me a bet­ter musician.’ ” Vogel espouses a less-is-more approach to rehears­als, saying that visualizing practice can work wonders for rehearsal outcomes. Stress injuries and mi­nor pains are common in the Con­servatory, a side effect of the pres­sure to perform that leads to hours and hours of practice a day. “I’m practicing more here than I have in my whole life. I think that’s the case for most people in the Conserva­tory,” Wollenberg said.

Vogel agreed, suggesting that the intensity with which Conser­vatory musicians approach their training and the competitive na­ture of orchestra pecking orders make them particularly vulnerable to emotional stress and stress inju­ries. In her class, she teaches basic anatomy for musicians, stress-re­lief methods and exercises specific to musicians. According to Vogel, students often report that their in­juries or pain have subsided within a semester of taking her class, al­though Castro-Abrams noted that she knows “students who have taken it who still have problems.” Evidently, the prevention of stress injuries isn’t a cut-and-dried en­deavor. “[Stress injuries] are mys­terious things,” Wollenberg said. “You kind of have to wait and not push things and be patient with it.”