Tuesday 8 October 2013, 15:19
Anyone who has been within earshot of me during the last week will know that I have been having a bit of a rough time. I've not necessarily borne my sufferings in silence.
I've been a little run down, and as a result have had a veritable crop of mouth ulcers. Unfortunately this has coincided with my not so wise wisdom teeth attempting the final push through my poor, long suffering gums. People have assured me I do not, but I'm convinced I look like a hamster.
What has this to do with life with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, I hear you, dear reader, exclaim? Well, you try sitting with a big heavy viola against your jaw for about six/seven hours a day when your jaw is throbbing and every vibration from the instrument exacerbates the discomfort.
Since the start of the season, the majority of the repertoire we have performed and recorded has all been quite physical. I've been quite busy with other projects too, and as a result, haven't had (made) the time to exercise in the way I normally do.
The result? A right shoulder that is utterly inflexible and frozen by muscles that are hard as a rock and so, so tender to touch. At one point, even tying my hair back was a strain.
Coincidentally, my woes started just as a report was published in the Psychology of Music journal documenting a study of Australian orchestral musicians that suggested 50% of the professional orchestral musicians interviewed for the study experience pain during performance. Granted, the study also explored the link between performance anxiety, depression, and pain during performance, but the key fact is that many musicians play whilst experiencing a great deal of discomfort.
In Britain, this is often put down to a gruelling schedule, one which many of our European colleagues would baulk at. No one resents the opportunity to play such a variety of repertoire, nor to have such a full working life, however the occurrence of injury is undoubtedly high. With the constant, over use of so many tiny muscles, injury is perhaps unavoidable.
My problems this week have been a consequence of unfortunate timing and not enough stretching, but I have many colleagues and friends in orchestras across the United Kingdom for whom playing in some degree of discomfort has become the norm. When I first joined the orchestra I played through a wrist injury for a long time before even admitting there was a problem.
Why do we ignore discomfort and pain when playing? Why is it often still a bit of a taboo subject? For many in pay-per-play orchestras, there is the reality that if you are not working, you are not earning. For many of us, there is the difficult to admit reason that we don't want to appear weak to our colleagues and management, and therefore unreliable or troublesome (never positive words to be associated with a musician).
However, perhaps the most worrying reason is that many of us have unconsciously decided that to play with a degree of discomfort is not only normal, but acceptable.
Thankfully, increasingly more is being done to help players. Many orchestras (including the BBC Performing Groups) have a pot of funding available for players who need physiotherapy, etc. Additionally, a useful resource is the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine, which provides advice for all those within the artistic sphere.
We may not be able to eradicate performance related injury, but it is a step in the right direction that it is recognised, and assistance is increasingly easily accessible.