Many aspects of musicians' profession that render them susceptible to developing physical and psychological work-related disorders that can have important impacts on their playing capacity and careers.
By Marianne Roos, M.Sc., Pht, Cand. PhD
I think those of us that have some familiarity with musicians are aware that they are very frequently injured. However, those of us who are less familiar with the population may be under the impression that playing an instrument and performing are almost as easy as they look on stage… The reality is that there are many physical, psychosocial and cultural aspects of musicians’ profession that render them susceptible to developing physical and psychological work-related disorders that can have important impacts on their playing capacity and careers.
Musicians are in many ways a unique population (1). They do, however, share similarities with other populations such as dancers, athletes and even firefighters and healthcare workers. So even if you don’t often work with musicians, this series of blogs and content may be of interest to you!
Let’s start with musculoskeletal (MSK) problems. Performance-related MSK disorders are, by definition, disorders that impact musicians’ capacity to play their instrument at the level to which they are accustomed (2). Since musicians are constantly judged by colleagues, employers, audiences and critiques/writers for their performance, a decrease in playing capacity can have very negative impacts on their careers, even causing them to stop altogether. The lifetime prevalence of these disorders is as high as 62-93% in professional instrumental musicians (3) and 85% in orchestra musicians (4) meaning that by far the majority will experience them at some point in their career. At a given point in time in 2012, 50% of all of Australia’s professional orchestra musicians had such an injury (point prevalence)(4) – so let’s remember that many musicians are in pain when they are on the job – they’re not as comfortable as they may look on stage!
Musicians are also known to struggle with psychological difficulties related to their work, such as music performance anxiety and high levels of stress and depression. Research has shown that up to 60% of musicians suffer from music performance anxiety (5), and that they have 3 times more chance of reporting depressive symptoms than the general population (6). Please note that music performance anxiety goes beyond mere nervousness for concerts, including tachycardia, sweating, tremors, dry mouth, shortness of breath, emotional symptoms (such as panic and stress), cognitive symptoms (such as expecting failure) and can lead to avoiding performances or using alcohol and other substances for escapism, possibly ending careers (5). Statistics on alcohol consumption in musicians can be disconcerting; in a 2016 UK survey, 45% of musician participants reported alcohol problems (7).
So what is it about their work that leads to these problems? It is certainly a complex story that one could write books about, and the exact causation of these problems is unknown, but the next blog will give an overview of factors that make up a large part of the picture. I have categorized them into either physical or mental demands, but this is an over-simplification (forgive me!). In reality, these as well as cultural and work environment factors are intricately linked…
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