Welcome to C Natural’s Breaking the Silence series, a collection of musicians’ health experiences from musicians, music educators and performance science researchers. With over 80% of working musicians facing health issues related to their career throughout their lifetime, this series aims to provide strength in numbers and to initiate transparent dialogue surrounding musicians’ health issues in our community.
This week, I introduce you to the beautiful and talented cellist, Jaewon Ahn. Jaewon and I have been at McGill together these past few years and she was also part of the Schulich Musicians’ Health Committee. She reached out to me about sharing her story a few weeks ago, and I’m so thankful for her openness in talking about her struggles with a persistent injury, and also her courage in challenging the institution of classical music for its systemic discrimination against musicians with injuries. Read on to see how she’s combatted her injury!
Born: Seoul, South Korea
Now in: Montreal, QC and Calgary, AB
If you didn’t play the cello, what instrument would you like to play?
I probably would’ve liked to play the horn or the classical guitar. I think horns emanate such a beautiful, serene tone. But I also love the romantic yet lively sound of classical guitar!
What’s been your experience with your health as a cellist?
I’ve been injured twice before and I was able to recover rather quickly without any serious physical repercussions, so when I recently got injured again, I honestly did not expect it to last this long. I started feeling pain on my right hand at the end of summer/beginning of fall last year, when I was playing seven to nine hours every single day due to all the rehearsals and commitments I’d made at the time. During these months, I was also preparing for two major competitions, which was a bit too much to handle given the circumstances.
Juggling five to six hours of rehearsal and then finding more time to practice my solo repertoire began to really hit a toll on me, not only physically but mentally as well. Almost mid-way through the semester, I felt pain that I’d never experienced before, and soon after that, it became obvious to me that it was time my body needed a well-deserved rest. I had no choice but to let go of so many great opportunities such as the competitions, principal chair in the orchestra and other exciting performance engagements. What was really hard for me was not even the fact that my body was letting me down, but that I was having to let go of things that I was so invested in. I was also afraid that I’d let myself down, and others as well, such as my chamber group members, my teachers, etc.
At the time I genuinely felt that this injury had done more psychological damage than physical. Thankfully I had a solid group of people in my life that were so supportive throughout, constantly showing me love and encouragement without any judgements or resentments. Now that some time has passed, I truly feel blessed to know that I have incredible friends who support me unconditionally, and I will forever treasure this experience because I learned so much about myself not only as a musician, but also as a person.
What’s been your biggest struggle in being a musician?
Discovering my own musical fulfilment. I personally see it as an ongoing process, given the fact that musicians are placed in a highly competitive environment from day one. We are constantly fighting for that one spot, whether it’s an orchestral position or a prize in competitions. It’s so easy to get caught in a place where you’re constantly comparing yourself with others and lose sight of the process of music making rather than the end product. Once I recognized that this was my own journey, I received instant gratification from my work and it became so much more meaningful to me.
Do you feel pressure to perform a certain way?
Yes, I definitely have felt pressured to perform in a way that doesn’t take my injury into account, whether it be the physical or emotional aspects of my injury. And when I expressed my limitations, I was discriminated against for speaking up, just like other injured students I know. I think this is a very tricky question because while schools and teachers are now encouraging injured students to speak up, there’s still almost a double standard where schools are reluctant to help guide those students in need and generally won’t put in as much effort to help you because of lack of information and resources.
What was your experience like accessing healthcare with your injury?
Although I am grateful for all the emotional support I’ve received from healthcare professionals, getting an accurate diagnosis has always been difficult. I still don’t have a name for my injury, I’m only aware of what my symptoms are and have figured out a way to combat those symptoms. I think a huge part of this is because there isn’t much research done on musician’s health, in comparison to athlete or dancer’s health, for instance.
Not being able to identify my injury was really exhausting psychologically. Because I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was causing the pain, it was really difficult for me to recognize and understand the whole process, let alone explain to my colleagues and teachers. Everyday when people would come up and ask what happened, either because they were worried about me or just curious, it often left me feeling debilitated and mentally drained because I simply didn’t know how to clearly explain what had happened to my body. All I could say was that it was caused by overplaying, tension, and posture. That was before I realized psychological stress was a big part of it too.
What do you do to keep yourself healthy and prevent re-injury?
I practice yoga regularly, and receive massages and acupuncture on a weekly basis. I try to go for a walk everyday (usually with my puppy Milo!). I also started to pay more attention to my nutrition this year. Because I naturally tend to go for more of a vegetarian diet, I was lacking in protein/fat. After I consciously started to include healthier options of proteins and fat in my diet, I’ve noticed a difference in my endurance and strength.
What else do you get up to besides making music?
In my spare time, I love to cook for my friends and family, read or watch thriller movies! Two of my favourite thriller movies are The Dark Knight (which I just re-watched on a plane last night) and Mad Max: Fury Road. Right now, I’m also reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This book has provided me with some great insight in terms of my artistry, and my outlook on life as a musician. I highly recommend this book to every and any artist seeking for some creative rediscovery.
What brings you joy?
I really enjoy watching concerts—especially concerts that move me and provoke emotions and thoughts. Every time I walk out of an amazing concert, I feel so refreshed and gratified by nothing but the love of pure music. This is essential to my life, especially right now. Whenever I find myself confused or seem like I’m losing grip on why I’m doing the things that I do, going to a concert always makes me feel more grounded and reminds me that I find genuine beauty and fulfilment in sharing music with others.
I also love listening to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony when I’m getting ready in the morning, as it always brightens up my day!
What do you think needs to change so that musicians are more healthy?
I believe that an institutional change is crucial. Conservatories and music schools are extremely powerful places because they are where almost all musicians grow and are nurtured into the musicians they become. Institutions such as professional orchestras are also hugely influential because that’s where more than half of our teachers come from.
Classical musicians have been preconditioned to play through injuries—especially string players—for so many years and we are often looked down upon or judged harshly when we finally speak up about our injuries, even though music schools encourage us to speak up and be proactive about our injuries. I’ve seen so many colleagues suffer silently for months or even years because either they are too afraid to deal with the consequences or too ashamed to come out.
And I think it’s only natural that our teachers of the past generation don’t understand how to help injured students simply because they haven’t been “helped” themselves. I know a number of older musicians and teachers who have said that they ignored or concealed their injuries for so many years in the past because the industry simply doesn’t accept or recognize those who are injured. For instance, you would not be able to get called back for a gig if people knew that you were injured. If music institutions start to educate not only students but also teachers on how to approach and accept injuries in a healthy way, I think everyone would benefit greatly from this. For musicians to become healthier both physically and emotionally, we have to challenge the way we perceive injuries and treat them in a mindful way, so that this cycle doesn’t continue to repeat itself.
This summer, Jaewon will be travelling to South Korea in mid-July to work and study at the GMMFS Festival with renowned cellists such as Lawrence Lesser, Jian Wang and Myung-Wha Chung. Then, in early September, she’ll be back in Montreal for her final undergraduate recital at McGill. You can find and follow Jaewon on Instagram at @jaewonahn.