Monday, November 21, 2016

Music and Health

I'm surprised to see I have a tag for this but I did some posts a few years ago loosely on the topic. But it comes up again as I just saw an item at Slipped Disc announcing the cancellation of an upcoming concert tour by guitarist Milos Karadaglić.
Dear all
It saddens me deeply to need to write these lines. Performing is all I live for. There is nothing I love more than being on stage and sharing the gift of music. In two weeks’ time I was about to embark on the most exciting tour of my career. I’ve spent all these months preparing for it – just giving it my absolute best. And yet, despite all that, no matter how hard I tried, the physical condition I was suffering from in 2015 has most unfortunately returned.
My doctors have been very clear with me now – the kind of movement disorder I have is complex and uncompromising and it cannot resolve itself within a few weeks or months. Hence, I’ve been unanimously advised to withdraw from all concert engagements for at least this whole season and break the vicious cycle I have found myself in.
It is so incredibly hard for me to accept this, but sadly, I have no other choice but to comply. In the next year, while firmly on the quest to fully recover and play again, I am planning to focus my energy on other things that truly matter to me. I will continue to work with my chosen charities and education organisations and I will work with promising guitar students and guide them towards a fulfilling musical future.
I am adamant in my promise that I will be back on a stage near you, sooner than you think, stronger and better than ever before. However, for now, I can only say, once again, how desperately sorry I am for the disappointment that this news will bring in amongst so many of you.
Yes, this is indeed sad. He doesn't specify which movement disorder he is wrestling with, but my bet would be on some variety of repetitive strain injury such as tendinitis. I have never suffered from this myself, nor has it appeared in more than a tiny fraction of my students (only one that I can recall in over twenty years of teaching), but I have helped a number of guitarists who have come to me specifically because of this problem--most recently two professional guitarists.

I don't have any medical training, but I do have a pretty good understanding of how guitar technique works and I have talked to a lot of people about this and attended a fascinating lecture on RSI in guitarists and lutenists by someone with medical training. Oftentimes the problem is related to the way the musician uses their hands. It seems to show up most often in the right hand and comes about as a result of playing with a constant and high level of muscular tension. One should not try and diagnose a problem from a video (especially one shot with freaky music video cuts and tricks), but looking at Milos' video of Blackbird over at Slipped Disc, it looks to me as if his right hand is held twisted a bit to the left, indicating a fairly high level of base tension. If you are a hard-working musician, practicing and playing several hours a day, this kind of thing can creep in without you being too aware of it.

Apart from his doctor's no doubt excellent advice, what Milos probably needs to do is rebuild his right hand technique from the ground up (assuming, of course, that I have come to the correct conclusions!). I have done this at least three times in the course of my career, but I see from an old photo that my right hand had good positioning even very early on:

That photo was from just before I went to Spain to study, but you can see that the right wrist is straight, not twisted to the right or left. My first instrument was the bass guitar and I wonder if playing that instrument might have helped with right hand development?

Of course, there are lots of other health issues musicians can have--psychological ones such as performance anxiety (there are some very famous musicians that truncated their careers because of this) or hearing issues (sitting next to the piccolos in orchestra can cause hearing loss with prolonged exposure) and of course, singers can have all sorts of problems related to the fact that their body is their instrument!

Let's look at some video clips of guitarists to see how their right hands are being used. First, Milos:

I don't see quite as much twisting in this video, but there is a bit when he uses the ring finger on the melody.

Liona Boyd:

This is a very good illustration of a right hand with problems. First of all, she is twisting to the right and there is considerable stiffness and tension in the hand generally.

Julian Bream:

Bream is, of course, a great master of the guitar, but he tends to play out of sheer willpower and there is quite a lot of tension in both hands. His right hand seems a bit compressed.

Alvaro Pierri:

Pierri is a student of the great Uruguayan pedagogue Abel Carlevaro and it shows. He has a very relaxed and flexible right hand.

John Williams:

This is quite an early clip of Williams, but you can see he has a really exceptional technique. Loads of facility with no obvious right hand tension.

So there is my little tour of the right hand! I hope you didn't find it pretentious or condescending.


Jives said...

This is in intractable problem for some people, you have to be so careful. Our orchestra is preparing for a concert in a couple of weeks, and the soloist just had to change the concerto he's doing, because of recurring tendinitis. Rach III is out, Ravel pour la main gauche is in.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes! Some people are much more susceptible than others. My only problem these days is a ring fingernail that just sounds crappy. Hopefully it will grow out.

David said...

Bryan, I came across a little mention of Liona Boyd's health struggle in this article in the Elmira Ontario Observer:

It appears that she has suffered from focal dystonia. I thought I would pass it along for your interest.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, David.