Performing Arts Medicine

4th October 2011 | Daily Life, Musings | 2 comments

To a talk at the Guildhall School of Music about musicians’ injuries. ‘Suffering for their Art’, presented by Helen Reid, explored the complex topic of how performers deal with injuries which prevent them from playing their instruments. It seems that musicians are notoriously reluctant to speak openly about their injuries. Playing is so bound up with identity that injured musicians find themselves going through a cycle of emotions very similar to that of bereavement: denial, anger, grief, acceptance.

It was suggested by the panel of experts that classical musicians are more inhibited than other musicians about admitting to their injuries. This is probably in proportion to the length of time classical musicians have been practising their instrument (often since childhood) and planning their future as performers.

Those who had suffered injuries while at college had ‘negative recollections’ of the help offered. The lack of help is a hard thing to quantify, given that sufferers find it hard to admit to their problems in the first place. But there were some very sad stories of students finding that their teachers had nothing helpful to suggest, or were even alienated by the suffering student before them. The situation is improving, but slowly and patchily.

On the positive side, those who had recovered from an injury often felt that the enforced break had helped them to gain perspective, and to ‘let go’ and enjoy music more when they resumed playing. Breaking the obsessive pattern of practising and being forced to find other goals in life, even for a short while, had long-term benefits. Years later, some musicians were even able to say that the injury ‘turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me’. This is not guaranteed, alas, especially if the sufferer has to abandon thoughts of a career in music.

I learned one thing I didn’t know before: that the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine runs free clinics in a number of UK cities for musicians with playing-related problems. (You can book an appointment through their website.) Much of the treatment is free, and in more complicated cases, BAPAM can refer people to specialist help whose cost is often greatly reduced for musicians. I wish I had known this earlier – but at least I know it now.


  1. Johnny

    I was also present, and I agree with Susan that this very personal area is indeed somewhere most musicians (I assume actors and athletes too) would wish to keep private and one-on-one with their teachers.
    Instrumental and singing teachers are now so sympathetic to these issues, so I can understand why there will always be a large number of performers/teachers unwilling to discuss this in an open arena.
    Wonderful info re BAPAM which I am grateful for, thanks for including this Susan!
    I think the question should always be ‘how’ do we practise/play/perform and, like an athlete, be aware of any issues and take them to our own teachers to whom (hopefully) we can talk openly and easily.
    Whilst I think think this musician is right to bring the issue to light, I believe she must realise that many of us will wish to keep such personal issues close, and discuss with our teachers/close colleagues.
    I don’t believe the majority of us will read statistics about this, that and the other, but rather get on with our playing and be aware of how our bodies function and hopefully have help close at hand when we need it.

  2. Helen

    A bit late in the day, but to respond to Johnny. I suffered from an injury for years and so I understand the desire to keep it secret. However, I kept it secret from everyone in the end, including my teacher and ended up with an injury that was far worse than it could have been if I’d felt safe to share it. This formed part of the motivation for undertaking the study and writing other articles, and so many people have come to me and said that reading that other people have been through this made them feel much better about their own experience and able to ask for help and support. I think each person should do what is right for them, but bringing the issue out in the open gives more options to choose your own personal way of dealing with it, I think.


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