Healthy Musicians

A partnership between physical therapy and music has been helping performers for more than 16 years. By Erin McKigney

Musicians are athletes too. At least that’s what Nicholas Quarrier ’76, a clinical associate professor of physical therapy, believes.

Quarrier coined this phrase after he realized that many of his patients in the PT clinic on campus were musicians suffering from aches and pains related to their art.

The more he treated musicians, the more Quarrier realized how physically and mentally demanding their work is, and how important it is for them to incorporate muscle-strengthening techniques into their routines — both to prevent injury and to increase their performance levels.

“Why should piano athletes do nothing but play the piano?” Quarrier asks. “They need to train, so they will be flexible, strong, and coordinated—all the things athletes need.”

Some 20 years ago, Quarrier was attending the Performing Arts Medicine Association conference, a well-known annual symposium that’s dedicated to improving the health of performing artists, when he was struck by the fact that most of the conversations focused on treatment and surgery to repair music-related injuries—and little to do with prevention.

 “I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to set up a similar workshop,” he says, “but instead of gearing it towards doctors, [we’d teach and learn] about how to prevent music-related injuries for the musician.” At the time he was just musing, but a few years later he’d be putting Ithaca on the map for something just that positive.

In spring 1993 Quarrier and former IC music professor Susan Bruckner created an elective class, Prevention of Music-Related Injuries. The class was so popular that it prompted the idea for a summer workshop.

With Bruckner and Carol McAmis, IC professor of vocal performance and specialist in Feldenkreis® movement training for musicians, Quarrier created the Healthy Musician Workshop. The program, now beginning its 16th year, caters to professional musicians and music educators, as well as health care providers interested in creating a performing-arts medicine program or developing their knowledge of strategies for treatment of music-related injuries.

“This is [still] the only place I know of,” says Quarrier, “that has an intensive five-day multidisciplinary workshop on injury prevention.”

Hands-on workshops and seminars focus on musicians’ health and musical performance and examine the physical and mental factors that influence both. Instructors come from IC’s School of Health Science and Human Performance, School of Music, and health and counseling centers, as well as from Cayuga Medical Center, Finger Lakes School of Massage, and other local health care practices.

The high stress of striving for perfection causes musicians to become tense. The tenseness and rigidity can negatively affect body movements and the ability to support an instrument. Plus, over time, the repetitive actions and unnatural stances used by musicians can cause inflammation, muscle fatigue, and soreness in hands, arms, back, shoulders, and elsewhere on the body. Such pain can be subtle and not easy to explain, identify, and diagnose, Quarrier points out.

Many injured musicians often don’t reveal their pain for fear of being sidelined (something they have in common with athletes). “We’re trying to dispel that fear,” Quarrier says, “let them take control of their lives and bodies, and prevent the
injuries [in the first place].”

Workshop participants learn the basic physiology of abnormal muscle tension, soft tissue injury, pain, inflammation, and healing.

“We videotape the pianists from above, so they can see how their hands are stretching and getting in and out of position,” says Bruckner, who is now professor and head of the piano department at Cabrillo College. Once the musicians see how they’re exacerbating problems, they can learn to adjust their posture and movements.

Other musicians hold themselves too stiff. “So [we show them how to be] a little more fluid and get better circulation,” says Quarrier. “This feeds the muscles and makes them a little healthier.”

Feldenkrais is an alternative method that uses gentle movement sequences, similar to yoga, and targets specific body parts to help students become hyper-aware of routine body habits like which hand or eye is dominant. These exercises improve range of motion, enhance flexibility and coordination, and help regain strength and movement lost to injury. “It teaches you to be in communication with yourself and not need an external teacher,” McAmis explains.

Students are also exposed to neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), an area of psychology that studies how people specifically process their life experiences. NLP examines sensory processing preferences that can influence people’s decision making. The NLP model also helps musicians understand what learning styles work best for them. For example, not all pianists are visual learners. Yet they have to deal with a lot of printed materials.

“If they are not a visual learner,” says Bruckner, “I’ve got all kinds of unorthodox methods to help them increase their visual acuity.”

Marty Heresniak ’74, M.M.’77, an Ithaca-based voice teacher, has attended the workshop twice. He uses NLP techniques to help discover if his students are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners. “You get very good at finding out who is what kind of learner, and that changes the way you teach,” he says. “You’ve got to become the right teacher for every student.”

After 16 years, the workshop has become a global entity. Participants have come from as far as Australia, England, Israel, Japan, and western Canada.

John Hadock, an M.D. who practices emergency medicine and urgent primary care in Mackay, Queensland, Australia, attended the workshop last year. Despite the distance and cost, he wanted to meet other practitioners caring for those with performance-related injuries. “The best thing,” he says, “was being able to observe the integrated way in which people like Nick [Quarrier] work with colleagues from outside their own fields to achieve better health outcomes for performers.”

Hadock says he’s now much more attuned to the parallels between musicians’ health and their ability to perform. He is establishing a multidisciplinary clinic in Australia where amateur and preprofessional performers of all ages can access affordable preventive and rehabilitative health care—an impressive outcome of the Heathy Musician Workshops at IC, half a world away.

Over the last few years, the National Association of Schools of Music has been urging its members to integrate musician wellness into their curricula. Ithaca College is way ahead of that curve. “We are pioneers in this,” says McAmis, “which is pretty cool.”


I was interested to learn more about the neuro-linguistic programming. Learning which way best teaches you is fantastic. It's good to recognize that musicians endure physical strain as well as sports athletes. I would definitely be interested in learning more about these core philosophies and findings

I,also, as an individual thriving off intellectual life here at Ithaca, find this article extremely interesting. Brava to this glorious synthesis of music and therapy!

It would be really great to see these summer workshops start up again!