Wellness Program Helps CU Musicians Keep Their Bodies In Tune

May 31, 2019

College athletes have coaches, trainers and physical therapists who place a lot of focus on keeping them physically fit and help them recover from injuries. At the University of Colorado - Boulder, there's a similar program for musicians.

"It's something that a lot of people in the general population don't really quite understand about musicians — that we do things that are athletic in nature," said James Brody, director of CU's Musicians' Wellness program.

In 2003, Brody helped start the program, which uses the Alexander Technique. The method focuses on changing repetitive movements and posture to avoid injury and maintain peak performance.

"I'm not sure that we could truly say that musicians are athletes — which some people say — but we do things that are athletic," Brody said. "We do a lot of muscular activity and it's completely possible to get injured from that."

Yoga balls, mats and foam rollers sit against one wall of Brody's office, while another is lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. A skeleton, like the kind you'd find in a doctor's office, is tucked in a corner. For now, this is where he works with students.

The program is included in CU's $57 million expansion to its Warner Imig Music Building opening in summer 2020. In addition to a new recording studio and rehearsal halls, the 64,000-square-foot addition will feature actual therapy space for the wellness program so Brody's office can look a little less like a yoga studio.

When she started playing the oboe in sixth grade, Brittany Bonner said she was like most musicians.

"It was just 'pick up the instrument and play' and everything is new, bright and shiny and fun," Bonner said.

It didn't occur to her that playing music could take a physical toll until college. Now as she works towards getting her masters in music performance, Bonner — who came to CU in part because of the wellness program — said she takes her health as a musician seriously.

Director of CU's Musicians' Wellness program James Brody stands in his office next to a skeleton he uses as part of the Musicians' Wellness Program.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

While preparing for an upcoming solo recital, she worked with Brody after noticing soreness in her shoulders and hands. Turns out, the fix was easier than she thought.

"So one of the special qualities of being an oboist is that we have to make our own oboe reeds," Bonner said. "And what I realized was that a source of my tension while I was playing, in my hands, was that I felt like I couldn't get my lower register to respond and I felt like I was trying to fix the tension in my hand (...) but then I realized, well, if I made a reed that was easier to blow through, to play on, then I won't feel as much tension in my arm."

But every instrument has its issues, Brody said.

"For example, a violist who just fell in love with the instrument but may be a little bit small of stature and not able to make that stretch as easily," he explained. "The trombone player who doesn't quite understand how many joints they have on their arm and doesn't release from their sternoclavicular joint for example, can't get out to the furthest positions."

It's easy to think of sitting in an orchestra pit playing an instrument as not very physically taxing, Brody said. One of the most common instrument injuries he sees comes not from the larger instruments like the tuba or the trombone, but from the humble flute.

CU sophomore Nicole Peters knows that all too well.

After her first semester of college, the 19-year-old flute major began suffering from tendonitis in her shoulder.

Peters uses the wellness program to help keep her healthy and hopes to use the techniques to reach her ultimate goal: playing in the orchestra pit of a Broadway musical.

"I'd like to continue playing for as long as I physically can and I hope to make that many, many years because nothing makes me happier," she said.

"I'd like to continue playing for as long as I physically can and I hope to make that many, many years because nothing makes me happier." -Nicole Peters, CU flute major

Which is why Peters didn't bat an eye when explaining her gruelling schedule, which includes practicing for an average of three hours a day on top of another three hours of daily rehearsals.

"I find it frustrating that since we're not technically athletes we don't get the same funding for (things) like physical therapy that's provided to all of these campus athletes, even though we're doing just as much work even if it's not as visible," she said.

And the idea of wellness extends beyond just aches and pains to includes hearing tests and mental health counseling to address stress, depression and anxiety. It's also more than the old advice of picturing the audience naked to get over stage fright.

"It's kind of funny; wouldn't that be horrifying — playing to a naked audience," laughed Matthew Tomatz, a psychotherapist at CU's Counseling and Psychiatric Services. Tomatz specifically works with students in the school's music program and one of the more common issues he sees is performance anxiety.

The advice makes some sense, he said. Performing on stage makes a person vulnerable.

"And so what could be more vulnerable, in a way, than a room full of naked people?" Tomatz said. "But since that's not the case, we work with vulnerability, which can be felt as this exposure to deep threat. And that then causes people to have reactions and sometimes that reaction tips into an anxiety that affects the performance in a negative way."

Tomatz said he encourages musicians to think about their own vulnerability and what it means to actually connect with the audience and lead them in an experience, which then starts to make vulnerability less threatening.

He also sees musicians struggling with a deep-seated need for perfectionism, sometimes putting it above all else. It can be difficult in a profession that in many ways relies on exactness, particularly with classical performers, Tomatz said.

"If one of the key players goes down, then the team's gonna suffer. If one of our key orchestral members goes down, that situation's gonna suffer as well." -James Brody, CU oboe professor

While focusing on musicians' health might seem odd, Brody said it's a concept that more universities are adding to their programs. Even the National Association of Schools of Music recently changed its guidelines from suggesting schools add a wellness component to mandating it.

As he walked down a hallway lined with rehearsal studios filled with dozens of students practicing, Brody returned to the comparison of musicians to athletes, noting that much like a strong athletic program, musicians' wellness has helped CU's music school attract and retain its star players.

"Just as say, the basketball team — if somebody goes down, if one of the key players goes down — then the team's gonna suffer," he said. "If one of our key orchestral members goes down, that situation's gonna suffer as well."

In addition to offering treatment, Brody also teaches several classes on musicians' wellness. Ultimately, he said he hopes students training to become music teachers will take the lessons into their classrooms, where they'll prepare the next generation of musicians.