Physical Stresses of Orchestral Playing


by Dr. Joel E. Margolies

Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience as a hornist and as a chiropractor. First a little about my experience. I studied French Horn with Arthur Berv, principle of the NBC Symphony under Toscanni at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. I performed for three years professionally with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in Israel from 1972–1975, prior to leaving music and studying Chiropractic. I have been a chiropractor since 1978. Presently, I perform for over 12 years with a local community orchestra.

During my initial phase as a chiropractic patient, a year and a half prior to leaving the Jerusalem Orchestra, I thought seriously of the mechanical dangers of orchestral musicians. Sitting the furthest from the stage and opposite the conductor, I had a bird’s eye view of the orchestra. To my left were the bassists. As they draped their body over their instrument they swayed and thrusted their bodies in deep and broad strokes. The fiddles pushed the bridge of their instruments hard against their chin and were forced to raise their right arm/shoulder for extended periods at the same time keeping their cervical spine in a laterally flexed position. In both cases cervicothoracic physical wear and tear was evident. The brachial plexus being aggravated resulted in specific neurological pressure. As we know too well, there is a myriad of complaints stemming from this including, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches, tempomandibular complaints, chronic fatigue and more.

Looking before me were row and row of woodwinds. Flautists with extended positioning of their right arm and shoulder, as well as mildly extending their cervical spine compressing the sub occipital region. Bassoons and Oboes with double reed pinching embouchures and irritating body placement.

Brass players gather their strength pressing their lips to buzz out a sound. Trombones exercised their right arms as they held onto their instruments with their left. Tubists garner all their strength to wrap their arms around their regal instrument as they huffed out their deep tones. Horns .. this special instrument requiring holding the instrument with the right hand in the bell and the left hand manually exercising the valves. Since the harmonic range of the horn is so extensive, the need to bear into the instrument reaching the highest and lowest notes is overwhelming. The best of the musician attempts to contain this pressure as they find the positioning of the horn in relationship of the upper thoracic girdle a chronic irritant.

There is not one instrument immune to physical pressure. Observe the pianist and harpists and watch the busy percussionists. It is easy to view the long term effect of their chronic physical wear and tear.

In our day and age of ergonomics, it is important to examine this area of lifestyle and advise our patients accordingly. Basic stretch and proactive exercises prior to and after rehearsals and performances is crucial. The emotional riptide that accompanies a professional performer only enhances their physical stress levels requiring our advice even more.

This is only a general review of a musicians plight. As experts in biomechanics it behooves us to reach out to all local and professional performing groups. If you have a musician as a patient, I recommend you have them bring their instrument with them and you observe their specific mechanical stress. For example, a guitarist. This instrument finds a useful knee and a draped upper body. Review the mechanical pressure to their spine with anatomical charts. Simple action steps should be offered, such as mild cervical and thoracic stretches, and other useful advice you feel to share. Patients should be advised to listen to their body and keep up with their adjustments to manage the physical stress and maintain flexibility.

It will be obvious that a musician with reduced physical stress only enhances their level of performance. Every musician wants to reach that special zone where their ability to perform intellectually matches the actual result. Chiropractic care is far more than an elective approach to reduce tension and prevent chronic wear and tear, it has a far more noble goal, allowing the musician a free passage toward harmony. Only those that understand and partake in the process will benefit. Play on and turn on those who need to know.