4 Ways to Not Get Injured Playing Your Instrument

As a music major and later a young freelance trumpet player, I knew almost nothing about performance injuries. They just weren’t talked about as far as I can remember, and though I was likely a little naive, I know I’m not the only one who was in the dark. The fact is, we musicians often find ourselves in situations where we have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone when it comes to physical endurance, and it’s hard to know where to draw the line. I’m not sure I ever figured it out, to be honest - both times I got seriously injured (I stretched my lip muscle in 2010 and tore it in 2011) I finished the gig afterward. That’s how strong the urge was to be a professional, to do the job no matter what. Although you, dear reader, aren’t half the fool I was, let’s talk anyway about how not to get hurt playing your instrument (because we all need a reminder now and then). Know the Worst Case Scenario When I was in college, it just didn’t occur to me that I could seriously hurt myself playing the trumpet. Sure, like every other music major I had read about things like the finger injury that ended Robert Schumann’s career as a concert pianist, but that was about the extent of my knowledge on the subject. I certainly wasn’t concerned with avoiding injury when playing the trumpet, because as far as I knew, that wasn’t a thing. If I play too much today, I figured, my lips will be sore for two days instead of one. No big deal. Whatever your instrument, the worst case scenario is way worse than a little soreness. Sit down with a latte some Saturday morning and familiarize yourself with the common injuries your breed tends to encounter. If you’re a brass player, just stare at this picture for a while (aww, look how sad he looks). Don’t obsess, and don’t psych yourself out, but make sure you know the score. Know Your Limits This is a tough one. Most of the time when we’re offered a gig that’s too much for us, there’s enough honor associated with it that it’s hard to turn down. If you’re a serious weekend warrior who plays a couple of gigs a month and you’re offered a job playing first trumpet on a six-week run of West Side Story, it’s going to be hard to say no, but you probably should. If you’re a busy freelancer with 40+ private students and five performances in a row next week, you probably can’t take the last-minute Temptations gig that comes your way. And any orchestral trumpet player knows there’s no way she can play the Brandenburg within weeks of preparing and performing a piece like Mahler 5, (although it feels great to be asked). Listen to Your Body Remember, our bodies are not designed to play musical instruments. Picking up heavy stuff? The human body is all over it. Jogging? Of course. Manipulating small objects? We invented that. But pressing a piece of metal against your face all day was never in the plans, and if we’re going to do that kind of thing, we need to be smart about it. A little stiffness is normal, but if you find yourself experiencing worse-than-usual discomfort or new kinds of pain, your body is trying to tell you something. Specifically, it’s trying to tell you this: “Hey dummy: either you’re doing it wrong, or I need some time to heal. Take it down a notch.” We think of pain as a bad thing, but like a smoke alarm, it’s there for a reason. No one likes it when the smoke alarm goes off, but it’s a valuable warning system. It lets whoever’s running the show know that something’s on fire before the whole place burns to the ground, and performance pain is no different. This is true for any instrument, of course. A violist with shoulder inflammation may be forced to take two weeks off, and though it can seem devastating at the time, having to take two weeks off is a lot better than having to take forever off. Speaking of which . . . Take a Day Off There’s an unspoken mentality among some serious musicians that if you regularly take a day off, you’ll never become a great player. Even now, after all I’ve been through, it’s really, really hard for me to skip a day. For instance, I probably should take tomorrow off. I’m still getting back into shape after my lip surgery, and I’ve been pushing myself hard the last few days, practice-wise. My chops are noticeably tired. But even as I’m typing this, I just don’t like the idea. It makes me feel like a slacker, and it’s going to be hard to not pick up a trumpet tomorrow. Wait, I have an idea . . . Okay, I just put my mouthpieces in the freezer. Elegant? Um, no. But I bet it does the trick. You don’t have to swear off music on your day off, by the way. Plan to spend your usual practice time catching up on a musical activity you don’t do enough of, like:

  • Listening to new music. Don’t really know the music of Miles Davis, Jascha Heifitz, or Frank Sinatra? Now’s your chance to fix that.
  • Score study.  Come on, you know you probably don’t do enough of this.
  • Mental practice. Try it for twenty minutes, and you’ll be surprised at what you get done.

The Main Idea: Educate Yourself Here’s the point: major playing injuries DO happen, and they happen all the time to players of all levels. Make sure you know what to look out for, and heed your body’s warnings! It’s true that you have to push yourself a little beyond your comfort zone to improve on your instrument, but the next time you’re about to push a little too far, give it a second thought and leave it for tomorrow.