Most of us with full-time, professional playing careers depend upon help of some sort to keep us going. Physical therapy, acupuncture, strength training, and nutrition play a big part in our lives, and a great many of us need cushions, back supports, straps, foam rollers…well, you get the idea. But for the basic requirements of looseness, flexibility, and pain reduction, many of us count on regular massage.
Assistant Principal Trombone Mark Fisher tells a familiar tale: “I've had shoulder/back/neck/arm stuff, with varying degrees of pain and varying degrees of management success. A mix of some physical therapy, bodywork/massage, yoga/stretching, and strength training is how I deal.“
It may sound like a luxury (think spa day), but for pain management and freedom of motion, massage becomes an important therapy. In fact, the Mayo Clinic website states “Brush aside any thoughts that massage is only a feel-good way to indulge or pamper yourself. To the contrary, massage can be a powerful tool to help you take charge of your health and well-being.”
Massage seems to have developed as a therapy alongside athletics in both China and Greece. Many healthcare professionals consider musicians elite athletes, so it seems fitting that therapeutic massage has proven so helpful to us. For opera instrumentalists, the pit is often crowded, and interferes with healthy playing posture. In fact, when Lyric Opera of Chicago presented its first complete Ring cycles under the baton of Zubin Mehta in 1995, we hired massage therapists to offer short sessions during intermissions.
Melissa Trier Kirk spoke with Paul Chitwood, a massage therapist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who helped her through a physical crisis. “Paul and I met a few years ago when I was dealing with a post - Lyric Opera season pain in my left shoulder and starting a demanding Santa Fe Opera schedule. He sees many musicians who come to him for a variety of issues. I couldn’t lift my left arm without pain. Between daily practice, performance, and rehearsal, most of us are playing 5-6 hours per day. Through massage, Paul was able to extend my range of motion and decrease the tension in my shoulder.”
What special needs do musicians present to a massage therapist? Says Paul, “You have the same kinds of physical problems as athletes; habituated repetition of movement. String players come to me with tightness in the shoulders, back, and neck. The muscles can be knotted up like a walnut. A tight muscle is accustomed to being called upon. It sends up a warning pain that if ignored becomes stressed. Massage reminds the muscles to relax. Being comfortable in the body is not a small thing for a musician. I try to help by releasing the tension and teaching stretches in the opposite direction.”
There are over 200 different types of massage, but because of our specific needs, most of us are drawn to the massage techniques that deliver more than general relaxation. Deep tissue massage is a technique that seeks to target and realign the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. It can be helpful in improving range of motion, alleviating stiffness, and breaking down scar tissue after injury. Sometimes this can be painful and soreness may linger, so it pays to be careful and communicate openly with your massage practitioner. Trigger point massage is related to deep tissue – but the therapist will concentrate on the specific “trigger points” and uses pressure to calm the muscle. A trigger point may be responsible for pain at the site or referred pain in another body part. Neuromuscular therapy is more aligned with Western medicine and requires a highly specialized practitioner.
It may seem mind-bogglingly difficult to find the right practitioner. American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) has a locator service on its website, www.findamassagetherapist.org. And although massage is a standard, useful therapy, it is not without certain risks of injury from the massage itself. Therefore, for many of us, word-of-mouth recommendation seems the safest option. Massage therapists who have musician clients understand the nuance of providing serious treatment without inflicting damage.
Last week I was caught in traffic and had to come in to play Die Walküre without my usual warmup. I can tell you that nothing felt right that night. I was not able to play the fast passagework comfortably, I couldn’t get settled in my chair, my neck kept cracking when I turned my head, and afterwards I was stiff and out of sorts for days. I will be scheduling a massage asap.