Musicians and Their Injuries: Overuse vs Misuse

Musicians and Their Injuries: Overuse vs Misuse

(Photo by Alexandre St-Louis)

“Most of Australia's classical musicians are suffering from injuries due to poor playing techniques, and experts say more needs to be done to educate the industry and overcome what is still largely considered a taboo topic.” – ABC Online News, 2014

Injuries are unfortunately all too common in the world of musicians. “A 2012 survey of members from Australia's eight professional orchestras found 84 per cent of musicians had experienced pain or injuries that interfered with their playing.” Back pain, neck pain, arm and shoulder problems – these are all familiar to many musicians. And “Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI), or overuse and overload injuries as they are now commonly called, affect a significant number of professional and amateur orchestral musicians.”

I am a professional pianist who developed RSI in the late 1990s and regained my career by studying Alexander Technique. Among many things I learned is that it wasn’t overuse but misuse that was causing my problems.

Overuse and misuse

If I use my body (especially my arms and hands) in a way that is unduly tense, this will cause problems over time, whether I play a lot or a little – I will slowly wear myself out due to this misuse. The more I play in this inefficient way, the quicker the problems will arrive. I played a lot in a poor way and hit problems when only 27.

If I use my body (especially my arms and hands) in a free and efficient way, the chances of problems diminish, whether I play a lot or a little - I am not slowly wearing myself out when playing in this way, and so can play for long periods of time safely and comfortably. Overuse is now far less likely. And if there is a problem, I would look to misuse first and see what I can change.

When misused, anything will wear out faster – including us and our bodies

I think we all have a strong sense of this regarding the ‘things’ in our lives. Cars, blenders and washing machines will all break if used incorrectly, and sooner rather than later. But I’d say we don’t have the same sense regarding ourselves and our bodies. Yet the same principle applies. The way something is used will eventually affect the way it works, whether a washing machine or your arms, or neck, or fingers. I believe we need to become as proficient at using our bodies as we are at using our instruments, to give ourselves the best chance to be comfortable and pain-free when playing. And just like learning an instrument, this takes time, and practice, and knowledge.

This isn’t the complete solution, but it’s a part that’s often unexamined

Of course there are many reasons for injury, and misuse is not the only one. But I believe it is largely overlooked and unconsidered. It is difficult to be told you need to change yourself and your playing habits. But in many cases genuine recovery will not be possible until the misuse is removed, or at least lessened. Otherwise, re-injury is all too likely, and perhaps inevitable. Which probably sounds familiar to many musicians, unfortunately.

Bradley Newman teaches the Alexander Technique in Sydney. For more information see or email Bradley on .