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Everybody Hurts
8 Feb 2011
Inside the Classics

Playing the viola hurts. It just does. Suck it up.

That’s what I was always told, anyway, by countless well-meaning teachers, conductors, and coaches in my childhood. Most musicians my age or older were told the same thing. Sure, your arm hurts – you’re doing something physical here, there are gonna be a few aches and pains along the way. And sure, every once in a while, some poor schlub gets a one-in-a-million hand injury and has to give up playing, but honestly, what are the odds? Get back to your practicing.

Trouble is, those one-in-a-million injuries have turned out to be a whole lot more common than anyone thought even a few decades ago. And worse, most of them also turned out to be very, very preventable. Me, I was lucky enough to wind up in the care of a teacher who knew better, and knew how to disentangle me, slowly and surely, from years of clutching and grasping at my instrument like I was trying to strangle it. I’ve known a lot of promising young musicians who weren’t so fortunate.

So there are better ways to operate as a musician than just assuming that pain is a part of the game. But until shockingly recently, no one had really bothered to figure all this out in a scientific way, get it down on paper, and jam it under the noses of all of us cloistered, self-involved music folk.

Enter Janet Horvath, the Minnesota Orchestra’s associate principal cello of more than three decades. Janet has battled various playing-related ailments since her college days, and her own pain sparked her interest in a subject that has become a second career as an injury consultant and advocate. Over the years, Janet has organized medical conferences on musician injuries, fielded countless phone calls and e-mails from musicians around the world looking for help in dealing with potentially career-ending injuries, encouraged teachers to adopt low-tension techniques with their students, and literally written the book on the whole ugly topic.

I sat down with Janet at her home in St. Paul several weeks ago, and asked her to share both her own story and some of the wisdom she’s accumulated over years of passionate research. (Her “Starker” references in this first clip are to legendary cellist and teacher Janos Starker, with whom Janet studied at Indiana University.)

Janet’s interest in the ways we hurt ourselves doesn’t stop at the edge of the stage, either. She’s become intensely interested in the way the world around us impacts our behavior, and causes us to sometimes act in self-destructive ways…

To someone who’s never played an instrument, this may all sound a little bizarre. After all, how physical can playing the cello really be? The answer is that it’s intensely physical, but in a way that involves very small muscle groups, which means that players of different instruments face very different risks…

Despite the fact that we’ve barely yet made a dent in preventing injuries in our business, Janet does see hope for the future in the form of teachers who make a point of knowing the risks and keeping their students as safe as possible.

Janet’s book, Playing (Less) Hurt, was originally a labor of love, self-published and self-promoted, and almost immediately, it was a big hit with musicians, teachers, and doctors specializing in things like soft tissue injuries and repetitive stress. These days, the publishing giant of the music industry, Hal Leonard, is distributing it around the world.

Sadly, Janet had to take a leave of absence from the orchestra this season after suffering a devastating inner ear injury that makes even relatively soft sounds seem unbearably loud. Still, her work on the health front is only just getting started, and hearing her talk with such enthusiasm about the chance to expand her work in injury prevention is downright inspiring. She may not be with us on concert nights this season, but the vitally important work she did, and continues to do, will be with us onstage at Orchestra Hall forever.

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