Janet Horvath: On Preventing Overuse Injuries and Playing Pain-Free

Summer festivals were always the highlight of my year.

Sure, there was more practicing, rehearsing, and playing to do than during the school year, but none of this ever felt like work when it was summertime. Getting to play awesome music alongside dedicated and talented musicians in orchestra and ensemble rehearsals, studio classes, and lessons, made for tons of inspiration and many lifelong memories.

Not to mention all the fun times hanging out with old and new friends, and engaging in various “this-is-probably-not-a-good-idea-but-what-the-heck-it’s-summer” escapades (like hiking up a mountain in the dark to see the sunrise, only to arrive at the summit, discover that it’s a completely overcast day, and realize that nobody ever thought to check the weather forecast…).

However, there was one thing – which almost invariably happened to at least one person each summer – that totally rained on the parade of sunshine and unicorns, threw a giant monkey wrench into the summer and made for a difficult, frustrating, and even isolating experience.

An “overuse” or “repetitive stress injury.”

So what causes these injuries in the first place? Are they preventable? Or is the answer simply to play less? Is there something we could be doing differently, to ensure we aren’t putting ourselves at risk?

Meet Janet Horvath

Janet Horvath is the former associate principal cellist of the Minnesota Orchestra, author of Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians, and has worked through a difficult and trying period of injury herself. 

In this 46-minute chat, we’ll explore:

  • The role of repetition in injuries – and how many snare drum strokes are in Bolero (2:31)
  • How to use “mini-breaks” to reduce tension – even in performance (6:31)
  • The concept of anticipation, and why that is such a key to staying injury-free (7:50)
  • How long to keep working on a difficult passage before moving on (15:33) 
  • Whether we should sit or stand when practicing (16:41)
  • How to stand with good posture (19:03) – (w/visual aid!)
  • How to sit with good posture (19:33) – (another visual aid!)
  • A quick test to find out if your chair is the right height – and whether you’re sitting in it correctly or not (20:02)
  • The common position that causes shoulder problems in musicians (21:21)
  • How to increase the tempo of a passage from slow to fast without getting tight (26:03)
  • The one thing, that if musicians did this regularly, might reduce by half, the number of musicians who experience an injury, according to a physical therapist (31:45)
  • Janet’s five practice rules for staying pain and injury-free (33:35)
  • The ways in which – without realizing it – we’re setting ourselves up for irreversible hearing loss and other hearing-related injuries (38:51)
  • An easy test to see if you’re being exposed to potentially harmful volume levels in orchestra, band rehearsal, concerts, etc. (43:35)
  • And more…

More resources from Janet

You can learn much more about injury prevention and get concrete, actionable guidance on how to stay pain-free in Janet’s book:

Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians

Visit Janet’s website for more articles and videos on this subject:

Essays & Interviews @ janethorvath.com

Stuff we mentioned

The custom-fitted Musicians Earplugs, by Etymotic Research (mentioned at 39:30):

Musicians Earplugs

The disposable, single-use Howard Leight “Matrix” earplugs (mentioned at 39:38):

Matrix earplugs (@Amazon)

Foam rollers (mentioned at 31:45). And if you’re asking yourself if you really need one, well, I used to think foam rollers were just the latest silly gym fad, but now that I have one, I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s the best way to massage out tight muscles, without actually getting a massage. There are lots of foam rollers available, many of which look pretty snazzy and high-tech. But I actually prefer the plain black 36-inch rollers, like this one:

AmazonBasics foam roller (@Amazon)

Take action

Here’s how to do the “if you do only one thing, do this” stretch, mentioned at 31:45:

Foam roller pec stretch

Umm…and why is this stretch so important? Well, the following video shows what happens with the shoulders when the pectoral muscles get tight. And if you don’t have a foam roller, the video also explains how to stretch these muscles with just a wall.

How to stretch your chest @ATHLEAN-X (and just FYI, he uses the f-word totally unexpectedly somewhere near the middle, so maybe keep the volume down if you’re in a public place and don’t want to get the stink eye from a stranger…)

Get help!

The Performing Arts Medicine Association maintains a referral database of health care providers and specialists who may have more experience with and a better understanding of the unique challenges musicians face:

PAMA referral directory

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


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