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The hard work of performing leads to blood, sweat and tears, as well as painful injuries

Sunday, June 24, 2001

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

You're inside Heinz Hall at a Pittsburgh Symphony concert. The lush, gorgeous sounds of the orchestra wash over you as you lounge in the comfortable seats, relaxed and serene. Sweating is the furthest thing from your mind.

Not so for the orchestra members.

Although most in the audience don't give it a passing thought, performing is hard work. The difficult physical labor of musicianship, mixed with intense mental concentration over long hours, can wear on the body as much as a cross-country run. The combination also can lead to an assortment of ills not unlike sports injuries.

    Musicians who have paid a price for performance

The act of performing not only taxes a musician's stamina but also occasionally poses health risks -- everything from repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome to throat nodules and tissue scarring.

Here are a few celebrated cases in which professional musicians have paid the price for performance:

Pianist Leon Fleisher: Perhaps the greatest American pianist of his generation, he was derailed by a crippling right-hand injury in 1964. It didn't stop him. He focused on repertoire for the left hand, as well as teaching and conducting, becoming one of the most respected mentors in the country. Amazingly, years of therapy allowed him to beat the condition. In 1997, at age 68, he made a comeback as a two-handed pianist.

Violinist Jascha Heifetz: The Russian-American violinist set the standard for violin perfection in the 20th century. He is considered to have exhibited the greatest technique in history, but it didn't immunize him from injury. His career was cut short by chronic shoulder problems. In 1975, a shoulder injury ended his concert career.

Baritone Sherrill Milnes: In the 1980s, the once-dominant American Verdi baritone suffered vocal cord failure. He eventually had surgery to repair them but has since been dogged with a reputation as a singer with a problem. For a time, he lost the ability to perform the big roles that established his career. He has since recovered and sings to acclaim today.

Singer Pete Towns-hend: The guitarist and showman who gave us "Tommy" with The Who and "Tommy" again on Broadway suffers from tinnitus, a condition that causes ringing in the ears. That and hearing loss he's also endured were a consequence of 30-plus years of decibel-driven concerts.-- Andrew Druckenbrod


So when it comes to the physicality of musicality, concerts are a spectator sport.

The rough-and-tumble world of recitals and concerts has haunted maestro Mariss Jansons ever since he was announced as the new PSO music director. He suffered a heart attack while conducting (genetics probably also played a role, since his father Arvid died of heart disease), and more recently he endured a performance-related shoulder injury that caused him to cancel his final two concert weekends in Pittsburgh last month.

Jansons' health is generally considered to be among the most fragile among conductors, but his issues are less unusual when one looks deeper at the real Sturm und Drang of the musical world.

"Performing is much more physically demanding than it looks," says PSO harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen. When she plays the harp -- traditionally the ultimate soothing instrument for listeners -- it's a workout. "You use your legs, feet, back and arms. The skin on the pads of your fingers can rip."

She shares that problem with guitarists. The late Stevie Ray Vaughan was famous for playing so long he bled. This past winter, Van Hoesen went so far as to put super glue on her skin when it split because of dryness and overuse.

Playing the trumpet is also a physical challenge.

"It's respiratory. You use your torso and abdomen a lot, and your lips," says PSO trumpeter Charles Lirette. "You have to warm up your lips to help avoid injury."

The oboe, too, is taxing. "Playing the oboe is an unnatural thing to do," says symphony oboist James Gorton. "You would think it was like breathing out and breathing in, [but] it is strenuous to play."

You could go on and on, though we can't forget the strings.

"To play the violin is probably physically the most difficult and damaging instrument -- and the viola is even harder," says PSO concertmaster Andres Cardenes. "I have had my share of aches and pains -- tendinitis in my wrist and forearm, bursitis in the shoulder and lots of carpal tunnel syndrome."

But beyond injury, just the sheer exertion of playing puts most music-making closer to athleticism than you might think. Sports has tournaments; music has competitions.

The distinction between maestro MJ and basketball superstar MJ is not so great. Both run their own show on the floor, performing strenuous activity with tremendous concentration in difficult circumstances. Jansons not only stands for a complete two-hour concert, he jumps around enough to be soaked in sweat by night's end.

"It's not unusual for a conductor to have bursitis or have 'dead arm,' like a pitcher," says Cardenes.

The late conductor Herbert von Karajan, to show how serious he was about the subject, even endowed a unit at Salzburg University for the study of physical stress as related to conducting.

The workouts are also gritty for other positions. "If you warm up and stretch in running, you last longer. It's the same in playing," says Lirette. "Each time I tried to play [J.S. Bach's] Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, I almost walked away injured. It was completely exhausting. Your muscles just can't take it."

Internationally acclaimed pianist Earl Wild, a Pittsburgh native, agrees. "The concert is the high-energy point of my day -- I do get a workout." His colleague, Van Cliburn, collapsed from exhaustion in 1998, when he was onstage and midway through a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.

Pop and rock stars fare no different. A two-hour set, complete with sound waves coursing through their bodies from huge speakers, is an exhausting affair. Musicians lose pounds of water weight during a concert. And there is the threat of injury there, too, whether it be hearing loss, voice fatigue or, yes, even a fall from the stage.

Classical music generally isn't as taxing on the ears, though the noise level can occasionally rise extremely high in decibel level, especially in the brass or percussion sections. The piccolo is notoriously damaging.

Comparisons to athletes are especially apropos for singers who, in effect, use their bodies as instruments.

Some opera singers may be overweight, but that's not for lack of spending energy or building internal muscles. Not only does the whole body come into use, from legs to diaphragm, from lungs to face, but "the vocal cords swell just like muscles do when you do a lot of [weight] lifting," says tenor Douglas Ahlstedt, on the voice faculty at Carnegie Mellon University.

"The physicality of training classical singers is often overlooked," adds Diana Walters, a soprano who taught voice at Grove City College. "The back and abdominal muscles have to be fit, good posture is very important, with the knees flexed slightly, much the same way you would train to play second base. If you get the body lined up properly, you get all the power."

Walters' husband Joseph, associate athletic director and men's tennis coach at Grove City College, once questioned Walters' fitness, even though she was not overweight in the least, by challenging her to run.

"The next morning, we went out of the street and I came charging down," Walters says. "At the end, I wasn't even out of breath. Singing is very physical. ... You train in fundamentals just like an athlete. [Luciano] Pavarotti was a soccer player and a very good athlete. He used to work out in a gym when he was getting his singing career started."

Still skeptical? Let Cardenes set you straight.

"I ask a lot of people to just lift up their arms in the violin position," he says. "They don't last 10 seconds." Holding them up an hour and a half for a Mahler symphony can make the arms feel like lead in no time.

Despite the physical demands, most musicians say the mental strain of performance often takes a greater toll.

"The audience probably doesn't realize the kind of full-time concentration this job requires," says Gorton. "Not just concerts, but rehearsals. Everyone is concentrating really hard. It is physically tiring and mentally tiring."

Cardenes concurs. "Mental prowess takes a huge amount of energy. After a concert, I am mentally whipped."

Wild, 85, one of the profession's more Herculean pianists, has managed to avoid injury over his decades-long career -- in part, perhaps, because of his athletic background. He grew up in Knoxville and "became the fastest kid in school," even winning some track meets. Maybe he was better prepared physically for the musical grind than most. Whatever the case, he believes art trumps athletics on the scale of physical and mental toughness.

"All the sports things you do are limited," he says. "If you have to use your mind in a more complex situation, you can't compare the two."

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