Partnership works at preventing surprisingly common musicians’ injuries

With help from USC music and occupational therapy faculty, talented Trojans learn how to avoid repetitive-movement injuries

August 24, 2018 Bryan Kang

With a swift upstroke, the conductor picks up into Beethoven’s four-movement Symphony No. 5 in C minor. The orchestra quickly carries through the most memorable motif — buh, buh, buh, buuuummmm — in perhaps all of classical music.

But behind beautiful melodies is an all too common reality that many musicians endure.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50 to 76 percent of professional musicians have reported sustaining musculoskeletal injuries. That statistic highlights an occupational hazard for many musicians: overuse of their limbs with consequent pain and potential for debilitating disorders such as osteoarthritis and entrapment neuropathies.

Yet due to the competitive and rigorous nature of the industry, musicians often leave their pain associated with overuse untreated.

“Sometimes you woke up in the morning and just felt like your body was not at 100 percent,” said Annie Ting, a graduate student at the USC Mrs. T.H Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy who studied violin performance as an undergrad at the USC Thornton School of Music.

“With such a rigorous schedule of practice, no one really had time to address any pain they were feeling.”

Noteworthy partnership

In response, USC Thornton launched its Health & Wellness initiative in 2015. The initiative partners with USC’s own faculty experts on topics like hearing protection, managing performance anxiety and yoga-based breathing. The goal is to educate student musicians about ways to decrease their chances of injury to have a longer, healthier career in music.

Knowing how it is to have an injury and not feel you are at your full capacity as a musician is a devastating thing.

Bill Kanengiser

“Knowing how it is to have an injury and not feel you are at your full capacity as a musician is a devastating thing,” said Bill Kanengiser, assistant professor of practice at USC Thornton and a founding member of the school’s Wellness Committee.

Kanengiser, a renowned classical guitarist, has seen plenty of performance-related injuries throughout his 30 years at USC Thornton, including his own.

“It is vital for us musicians to know how to reduce risk for injuries and address the issues sooner to recover faster,” he said.

Re-tuning for the future

In February, USC Chan visited the Musician’s Wellness Initiative to share occupational therapy’s perspectives and techniques for decreasing risk for overuse injuries.

Ting was joined by USC Chan faculty members Janice Rocker and Chantelle Rice Collins at the weeknight seminar to share advice and tips with USC Thornton students.

“Because many instruments require an asymmetrical method of holding and playing, we as occupational therapists must examine the differences that playing the instrument may have on both sides of the body,” said Rocker, an assistant professor of clinical occupational therapy and a Certified Hand Therapist.

“A musician’s slouched posture might cause him or her to compensate by extending the wrist a little too much, resulting in pain.”

Healthier lives

By evaluating how musicians use their bodies, not only when playing their instruments but also when engaged in typical daily activities, occupational therapists can customize ergonomic interventions that help minimize risks to the spine, muscles, tendons and nerves.

“When you are playing guitar bent forward with your elbow and wrist flexed, how does that posture compare to when you use your smartphone or laptop?,” Rocker asked.

Thanks to the Musician’s Wellness Initiative, USC Chan is helping Trojans who might not otherwise encounter occupational therapy find healthier lives inside and outside of the performance hall. That is a major — not a minor — development.

“There is now a direct engagement between health care and music departments,” Kanengiser said. “There are amazing resources available and we want our students to keep utilizing them.”