Today I want to expand on the topic of Rolfing® Structural Integration and other bodywork modalities for musicians. (Yesterday I posted about Leon Fleisher, the renowned pianist whose career was truncated by focal dystonia until he found a way to manage the disorder through Rolfing® Structural Integration and botox injections to the affected muscles; you can read that here.)
The positioning of the body to play many musical instruments is asymmetrical. For example, playing a guitar or double bass, one arm is up, and one is down, and each does something different – fretting versus plucking, strumming, or bowing. Or the violin, where the head and chin tuck to the instrument. While playing the piano seems symmetrical, I found it interesting that in Fleisher's interview he attributed his focal dystonia to the fact that the affected fingers – the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand – play the keys that hit the piano lyre's shorter strings. Shorter strings have less resonance, and the fourth and fifth fingers are generally weaker, so Fleisher says you have to work harder to play these keys.
Fleisher's ailment is focal dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that has no cure but can be managed by a regimen that includes botox injections and Rolfing sessions. Fleisher reports that 10,000 musicians around the world suffer from focal dystonia.
Repetitive Motion Injuries / Tendonitis
More typically with musicians I see issues akin to repetitive motion injuries and tendonitis. Practicing and playing hours a day will use the same muscle groups over and over, with the potential for contracted muscles, localized fascial shortening around them, and entrapped/inflamed nerves. This type of situation responds well to hands-on Rolfing Structural Integration sessions, as well as manual therapy for the nerves. This work is best done in conjunction with movement therapies for reasons discussed below.
Rolf Movement® and Other Movement Modalities
In an article in Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute, Rolfer™ Elmar Abram reported working with a few musicians who had the diagnosis of focal dystonia, but whose limitations disappeared when they were coached to play their instruments differently using Rolf Movement® Integration techniques. In some cases it had to do with how they played their instruments in terms of posture and alignment, in other cases there was a deeper mind-body issue involved. This shows how much habit affects function, whether it is back pain from a habit of poor sitting posture or other body issues from the habitual way a musician holds and plays his instrument. And it is not surprising that there can be mind-body issues involved, particularly with professional musicians who are under tremendous pressure from an early age to develop and master their craft.
Besides Rolf Movement Integration, I would highly recommend Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method® of Somatic Education, and Aston® Kinetics, three other sophisticated movement modalities that have helped many musicians and other performers.