Ensuring Student Health, Part 2

Here are more ideas to keep your students healthy while they make music:

Encourage home practice. If students go home and continue to play, they are building physical stamina and mental acuity. Give your students specific practice strategies and sections to work on. If students know you have the expectation that they will practice at home, they will eventually comply.

Teach your students about maintaining performance health. Explain that muscles are responsible for movement and tendons support that movement by connecting muscles to bone or another structure. This knowledge will help students understand performance movements. Discuss what constitutes a problem and how to identify it. Define overuse and how it affects muscles and tendons so students can begin to understand their own physical sensations. Pay attention to change – whenever any activity creates new sensations such as pain or stiffness, you should carefully consider what happening. If you catch these changes early, then you will be better able to diagnose the problem and fix it.

Reinforce good technique. Emphasize basic technique so that students’ muscular mapping is correct. When performance technique is first learned, those initial motions, habits, skills and concepts are essentially “programmed” into the brain and become the foundation for what follows. If that initial information is “mapped” incorrectly into the brain and the muscular and mental vocabulary, it’s difficult to remediate. The best precaution is to establish correct habits in the beginning.
Festivals and marathon rehearsals may be extreme examples of physical challenges for young musicians, but teachers see students every day who are at risk for some sort of music-related condition. For students who may be experiencing rapid growth, dealing with a medical issue, or having other difficulties, daily rehearsals can put them at risk. Pay close attention to the amount of time, effort, technique, and stamina—or performance load—you levy on your students. Many students are engaged in other activities such as drama or athletics, and combining these with the demands of music-making may also create problems.

Festivals and other special events are essential experiences for students, but often the event schedule is driven by logistical or organizational issues rather than by desired musical outcomes or health considerations. Remember that there is a limit to what you can safely expect your students to handle. To keep students safe, shorten the number of rehearsal hours, and add supplemental activities, if possible.

The risk of musculoskeletal problems is a very real one for all musicians, regardless of age. Music educators are role models for students, and must help them acquire a healthy music lifestyle. Model and encourage only the most beneficial behaviors and habits. Doing this will help your students to become lifelong music-makers.
This article is adapted from “Adopting a Healthy Approach to Instrumental Music Making” by NAfME member Kathleen A. Horvath in the January 2008 issue of Music Educators Journal. Kathleen A. Horvath is associate professor of string education and pedagogy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
—Gregory Reinfeld, January 4, 2012. © National Association for Music Education