Music professors teach body awareness tools to help prevent injury
Joshua Wilson, a Piano Instructor at Mercer County Community College says, “There’s a difference between a band-aid, you know, putting a band-aid on it, saying I’ll fix it later as opposed to really going in and being like, well, why is that injury really happening.” This is the lesson he says he learned quickly after suffering from tennis elbows as a young adult, due to excessive piano practicing.
He told The VOICE, “My junior year of college I was practicing between 6-8 hours a day. I would play through the entire (music) book including the octave scales, the trill exercises, the tremolos, all the stuff that’s important stuff to learn,”
Over time, he explains, “My body just started giving out. I couldn’t open doors. I thought I was failing as a musician. So I stopped playing piano all together for about 2 months, not because I wanted to but because I really had to give my body a break.”
For instrumentalists and performers, efficiency comes from the way the body is cared for.
Wilson goes on to explain, “Everyone’s affected differently, a guitar player having to get their hand around the neck, or maybe having tension from plucking. It just comes down to it. Are you using your body correctly or not?”
One method of helping improve the health of musicians that is becoming more common is called Body Mapping. It is a popular practice among professional performers and instrumentalists including ones who teach here at Mercer.
Music Department Teaching Assistant Elizabeth Rzasa tells The VOICE, “Body Mapping is really the study of understanding your body and knowing how everything is interconnected and works.”
She goes on to explain how, “Literally everything nowadays causes stress to your body, whether it’s emotional stress or physical stress.” Body Mapping is a way some performers distress and rid tension in their bodies for performing.
Professor of Music and Director at Montclair State University, Dr. Heather Buchanan, is a licensed Andover Educator, meaning she has all of the necessary qualifications to instruct individuals on Body Mapping. She teaches her own course at Montclair in which she works with current performing art majors to benefit their performance capability.
In a recent interview Buchanan told The VOICE there are two main reasons why performers are at a disadvantage when it comes to bodily health. First, she explains, “We’re doing a lot of fast, repetitive movement. Any time you do a repetitive movement, that puts you at risk for an injury.”
Secondly, Dr. Buchanan explains, “the movement that musicians do is concentrated in the smaller muscle groups in the upper part of the body.”
The process of Body Mapping aims to educate performers on exactly how their body specifically operates. Dr. Buchanan says, “The biggest problem that people have is they actually don’t know what they’re doing. People think they’re doing one thing when in fact they are doing another. That’s a huge problem.”
She goes on to explain how individuals tend to attempt to align their body by pulling their shoulders back or turning their feet outward. However, these types of alignments, over time, can cause extensive pressure on the body, which, in turn, limits mobility and can cause injury.
Specific performers and instrumentalists have specified issues which Body Mapping can help improve. For example, instruments such as violas, violins, French horns, and flutes are all asymmetrical.
Dr. Buchanan says: “Those instruments put your body in an unnatural position…If you’re holding [the instrument], and using tension or force to stay in that position, and not accounting for that with counter-balancing moves when you are not playing, you’ve got a problem…”
In terms of how this problem manifests itself, Dr. Buchanan says that musicians often end up seeing diminishing returns on their efforts in practice and rehearsal. She says she hears performers saying things like: “I can’t sing well enough, I can’t play fast enough.”
Ariel Contreras, a current Mercer Music student and horn player believes taking care of the body is key to becoming a performer. She states, “If you don’t have good posture, you’re not going to be able to breathe properly and make sound out of your instrument.”
To Contreras, performing is a “masochistic sport.” She says, “It should be annoying to play an instrument, it should be frustrating, but it should not be actually painful.”
As with any athletic endeavor, developing expertise in musical performance means building muscle and with that does come certain kinds of pain. But just like other athletes, musicians have to know the difference between pain you can push through and get stronger and pain that is harmful.
Dr. Nora Sirbaugh, Mercer Vocal Instructor and Music Professor says, “I use [Body Mapping] with my students so that they can understand where things are in their body in order to more effectively work with their body instead of fighting it.”
The way Body Mapping works is to help performers build an overall awareness of the body
Lish Lindsey, Instrumentalist, Chamber Ensemble Director and Flute Professor at Mercer says “Being able to focus on individual movement while performing may seem like a daunting skill to acquire, however, there are many helpful tips recommended by these professionals…I try to associate what it’s like to talk to a friend,” Lindsey explains, “and then I can remember exactly what it’s like to feel relaxed.”
Body Mapping is often used in combination with other things, such as yoga to achieve best results.”
Wilson says, “There is no such thing as the one technique that works.”
Dr. Buchanan say high level musical performance requires a particular mind set. She says “You’ve got to be a big risk taker. You’ve got to be comfortable making mistakes and learning from them. You’ve got to be willing to look at yourself and look at the world and be able to try stuff. You’ve got to know your heart, your body, and your soul.”