Playing in Pain Many Musicians Face Challenge to Careers from Aches and Strains

Article excerpt

FOR FOUR YEARS St. Louis Symphony concertmaster Nina Bodnar swept onto the Powell Hall stage to enthusiastic applause. Young and glamorous, she amazed audiences by confidently leading musicians twice her age in final tunings.

But Bodnar's life wasn't so pretty as pictured. She usually was playing in pain.

Tendons and muscles in her neck, shoulders and hand were inflamed from the strain of playing the violin. Eventually pain shimmied her finger's aim. Two years ago, pain kept her from the orchestra's European tour. Last year, pain kept her from most St. Louis Symphony concerts, including its Japanese tour.

In June, she resigned as concertmaster and player. When the St. Louis Symphony opens its season Sept. 15, David Halen will be acting concertmaster.

Bodnar, 33, is not giving up. This summer in Colorado, she has been finding ways to use her hands and arms differently so she can play without pain. Her husband, the orchestra's principal cellist, John Sant' Ambrogio, is buoyed by her determination. He hopes she will join him playing for an hour or so in chamber concert here this fall.

Bodnar's injury is a dramatic example of a growing problem among professional musicians. At some point, three of four orchestral players experience upper body pain severe enough to prevent them from working, says a survey of players in 45 major orchestras. Younger players report injuries more often than older players. Over a third of all musicians have missed more than two months of work. At least 20 of the 110 St. Louis orchestra members have taken at least a month off because of pain.

Soloists also suffer. Next spring, symphonygoers here will hear Composer William Bolcom's "Piano Concerto for Two Left Hands" played by concert pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman. Bolcom wrote it for his friends because the careers of both pianists have been thwarted by their pain and loss of control in their right hands.

Musicians' pain is not new. Centuries ago musicians' diaries lamented missed notes because of cold hands. In 1887, a frustrated doctor wrote about struggling to get pianists in pain to rest hands long enough to heal. Playing Under Pressure

But the problems are becoming epidemic, doctors say. Musicians play longer schedules. The St. Louis Symphony's schedule includes 200 concerts a year, and as many as 40 recording sessions. They also have two or three rehearsals most weeks. A generation ago, they played 15 weeks a year and recorded on occasional years.

"Musicians play new music that didn't exist 50 years ago where string players have to play harder, louder, to balance out the brass," said Dr. Richard D. Norris, director of the National Arts Medicine section of the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Bethesda, Md.

Competition adds stress. Getting an orchestra job, and keeping one, has become tougher as arts funding falters and orchestras fold.

Over the past 10 years, a handful of clinics in this country and Germany and England have developed a sub-specialty called arts medicine. Some doctors focus on hurt dancers, singers and painters, but most of the work is with musicians. Music conservatories, the musicians' union and instrument manufacturers' trade associations call in these arts medical specialists to teach preventative care and to help with fingering alterations for some instruments.

For years, many doctors pooh-poohed musicians' injuries as stage fright or imagination. But now rehabilitation experts have evidence: They can see musicians' inflamed tendons on magnetic resonance imaging screens.

They also can see a range of other problems. Woodwind and brass players suffer pain from jaw and joint dysfunction, tooth problems and the loss of muscular strength in lips and tongue. Many lose hearing. The high intensity at rehearsals and concerts makes orchestra musicians just as vulnerable to hearing loss as rock musicians. …