Avoiding Repetitive Strain Injuries: What we can learn from Musicians

by Robert Rickover

Before I became an Alexander Technique teacher, I assumed that the most impressive physical activities were performed by professional athletes. Their feats were regularly reported in the newspapers and on TV and radio and discussed by my friends and colleagues. So too were the all too frequent injuries that kept them out of play.

When I began my teaching practice, my studio was located a few blocks from Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto School of Music. From the very start of my teaching, almost half of my students were musicians. They came complaining of neck and shoulder pain, tense necks, back pain and a host of other stress-related ailments.

It quickly became apparent to me that these students had chosen a career that posed extreme physical challenges. I heard horror stories of promising musicians who were forced to give up music because their bodies just wouldn’t cooperate: violists who would wake up one morning with absolutely no ability to move their bowing arm, singers whose voice would give out half way into a concert.

Less dramatic - but of equal concern - were the frequent tales of musicians who played in a more or less constant state of pain.

Since the widespread introduction of computer monitors and keyboards at work in recent years, terms like “repetitive stress injury” and “carpal tunnel syndrome” have entered our vocabulary.

But musicians have been dealing with these sorts of disabilities for generations. Consider the act of playing a violin. Professional violists, for example, typically practice for several hours a day, during which time their bowing arm moves through its range of movement thousands of times. And not just simple up and down movements, but movements that need to be very precise. Then they may have a two hour performance (in some cases TWO such performances - musicians playing in musicals, for example).

Add to that the stress of playing before an audience, sometimes in very uncomfortable chairs and cramped conditions and often having to share a music stand with another musician who may be much shorter or much taller so that the height of the stand has to be a compromise for both.

And as if that were not enough, there is also the pressure of working in a very competitive field where the quality of one’s performance is right out there for everyone to hear and judge. If a musician makes a mistake, he or she can’t just go back and fix it.

Given all these pressures, it’s not surprising that musicians have looked for help wherever they could find it. There are doctors and physical therapists and massage therapists who specialize in working with musicians and various therapies have been developed to help with specific stress-related problems - the hand and wrist stiffness some pianists face, for example.

A growing number of musicians have discovered the Alexander Technique, a century-old method for getting rid of unwanted habit patterns that interfere with smooth performance. The Technique is now part of the curriculum at many of the most progressive music schools, such as The Julliard School and the Royal College of Music in London. A number of famous musicians - Yehudi Menuhen, James Galway, Sting, Paul McCartney, to name but a few - have studied the Alexander Technique.

Lessons in the Alexander Technique can help a musician identify their habits of posture and playing that cause pain, fatigue and which interfere with the quality of their music-making. Several examples can be found in “Poise in Performance: Alexander Technique for Musicians” by a colleague of mine, Joan Arnold. The full article can be found at http://www.alexandertechnique.com/rsi

Joan writes about a jazz musician she interviewed after he had taken Alexander Technique lessons: “The age-old thing with me is that my terrible ‘jazz’ posture was affecting my playing.” While studying classical piano in college, he recalls struggling with difficult Beethoven passages. “I would freeze up in my forearms. I felt I had this weird problem I carried around that no one was going to be able to do anything about.”

After Alexander Technique lessons, he reported: “I felt a lot better...the carriage of my whole upper torso shifted appreciably. A lot of physical issue I had with the piano cleared up. I felt able to relax more as I was playing. Things that had been difficult for me became easier.”

Many musicians have similar stories to tell about their experience with Alexander Technique lessons. If the Technique can help people who are engaged in such a demanding occupation, surely it is worth investigating by anyone who suffers from repetitive stress injury.


The web page Musicians and the Alexander Technique”has links to many articles on this topic.

Avoiding RSI's - How the Alexander Technique Can Help is a well-written article by an ergonomist and Alexander Technique teacher.


Robert Rickover is a teacher of the Alexander Technique living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He also teaches regularly in Toronto, Canada. Robert is the author of Fitness Without Stress - A Guide to the Alexander Technique and is the creator of The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique Website.

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