Breaking the Silence: Katie Richardson

Welcome to C Natural’s Breaking the Silence series, a collection of musicians’ health experiences from musicians, music educators and 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.

Up this week is my first researcher in the field of musicians’ health and well-being, Katie Richardson! I was put in touch with Katie last fall because of our shared career interests; she’s also a violinist who became injured during her undergraduate degree, introducing her to the idea of research in musicians’ health. Now she’s at McGill University doing a PhD in music education and researching musculoskeletal health in violinists. During this interview, Katie has some great insight into the necessary role of music educators in promoting the development of healthier practices in their students. Read on to catch a glimpse of what Katie is doing for musicians’ well-being!

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Katie Richardson, violinist and PhD candidate in music education. “My identity was wrapped up in being a musician, and I had to face this integral part of my life drastically changing,” Katie confides of her injury.

Instrument: Violin mainly, but I enjoy making noise on viola, cello, bass, piano, and mandolin.

Born: Fort Smith, Arkansas, U.S.

Where are you now: Montreal, QC and Bedford, TX for the summer

Genre: Classical and a little improvisation

What’s your musicians’ health story?

I had been preparing for a career as a performer and teacher from a young age. I took this aspect of my life for granted, assuming that playing and performing would always be a constant. In the very midst of my pursuit, I was deterred from my work by the onset of a progressive neuromusculoskeletal health issue.

Preceding the injury, I agonized over all my musical imperfections and pushed to fix them. I attempted to fill nearly every free moment with more practice, never feeling as though I had done enough. The symptoms of muscle fatigue, pain from my hands all the way to my neck, and tingling/loss of normal feeling in my hands came on slowly, climaxing during the junior year of my undergraduate studies. Ultimately, I found myself experiencing debilitating pain and nerve issues caused by my playing. I was diagnosed with several different issues, the predominate one being bilateral thoracic outlet syndrome, which caused pain and disruptions in normal nerve function and blood flow in my upper limbs.

Since I am a fairly reserved and private person anyway, I relied on my music to express things I did not or could not say. As my body slowly failed to function as I wanted it to, I felt a fear and loss unlike anything I had ever experienced previously. My identity was wrapped up in being a musician, and I had to face this integral part of my life drastically changing.

Though my injury has never completely healed, I am grateful for what I learned from the experience. Dealing with the injury was extraordinarily difficult, but I believe God blessed me through it. I grew in many ways and the injury I experienced led me to see a need in the music field to which I could contribute.

I feel definitively that the issue of efficient and healthy playing must be addressed for future musicians.

When you were injured, what was your experience like accessing healthcare or information surrounding injury prevention?

My experience locating injury treatment and information was long and slow. I saw many doctors who held a variety of opinions, went to a performing arts specialist clinic in Houston, Texas, had many medical tests, was treated by multiple physical therapists, explored dietary alterations, and tried massage therapy. Many things helped, but none completely solved the problem.

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Katie performing Ravel’s Tzigane with the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) Symphony Orchestra. “Momentum in the musicians’ health field is gaining, but it is, as of yet, a fresh territory largely unexplored,” Katie remarks.

You’re my first musicians’ health researcher on Breaking the Silence! Tell me a bit about your research and what you’re up to at McGill.

Thank you for inviting me to write about one of my favourite topics! I’m thrilled to be researching in this field. Momentum in the musicians’ health field is gaining, but it is, as of yet, a fresh territory largely unexplored. My previous research has encompassed string educators’ current technique preferences and understanding of the body, muscle fatigue in violinists, and the impact of yoga practice on musicians. As a music teacher, it is quite important to me that I teach with an eye to the future musculoskeletal health of my students. I hypothesize that there are multiple areas of possible improvement in violin technique (as well as other instruments). My goal through my current research at McGill is to locate areas of highest injury risk to the body during violin playing, consider how to reduce these risks, and change technique/position/training/etc. to make this risk reduction possible. Hopefully, this will impact how students are trained from the very youngest children to university students.

I am currently working on a CIRMMT (Center for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology) supported project entitled the Kinetic-Kinematic-Physiological Musician (KKPM) Database Project. The aim of the KKPM database project is to provide an easily accessible compilation of measurements on musicians, particularly related to the study of performance optimization and musculoskeletal disorders. Measurement tools such as motion capture and surface electromyography (measuring muscle activation) will be used to collect data for the database. This database will allow researchers to better assess the areas of highest risk for injury within current musician technique.

The implementation of scientifically supported training methods and healthier playing techniques, based on research from such a database, will provide objective improvements in musician technique in a field that is generally governed by the subjectivity of tradition and common practice. This database has the potential to have a substantial positive impact on the field of musicians’ wellness and music education.

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sEMG, or surface electromyography, equipment that measures muscle activation, is used frequently in Katie’s research.

What’s the research field like in musicians’ health, in Canada but also beyond? Are more people getting involved in this field?

I did a review of Canadian literature and health resources recently. The earliest Canadian publications were in the 1980s, and organized efforts in Canada to address musicians’ health have been limited to the last 30 years. Medical clinics focusing on treating injured musicians in Canada became available starting in 1985. Additional resources such as support for re-training post injury, health education, and health support for members of the performing arts industry have become available in some areas of Canada as well. Groups like the Performing Arts Medicine Association are strong proponents of the field internationally and greatly facilitate collaboration.

We still have a great deal of progress to be made before the impact we hope to see manifests itself in schools, universities, teacher training, etc. I would say yes, more people are getting involved. However, it is a young, still-developing field.

Do you plan on continuing to do research in musicians’ health? If yes, in what area?

Absolutely! Musculoskeletal health in violinists is my focus; that broad topic covers a lot of ground, and I have many sub-interests, such as mental practice and stress response in musicians, which I hope to explore in the future.

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Here, Katie is trying out different equipment in CIRMMT at McGill so they can decide which new sEMG (surface electromyography) equipment to purchase that works well with the other equipment they already own. The glasses track eye movement, and the grey balls/headband are reflective markers for the motion capture cameras. She’s also wearing sEMG electrode (some are under her sleeve).

What do you think needs to change so that musicians are more healthy?

That is quite a tough question for me to answer, but I would say that teachers/professors have the greatest potential to reduce the risk of injury. The significant percentage of injury occurrence within the musician population seems to indicate that the understanding of biomechanically-informed technique represents an area of needed growth. There appears to be disconnect between the techniques both taught and practiced by pedagogues and the research-based basic advice for maintaining the healthy function and use of the human body. Most schools, universities, etc., appear to ignore the seemingly logical conclusion that they should educate their professors, and thus their students, so as to support healthy playing and practicing techniques. Considering that quality music-making relies on proficient and balanced use of the body, music pedagogues should prepare to teach students healthy body usage and discover unhealthy techniques before they become significantly problematic.

These are the questions I have for current and future teachers: Are we willing to imagine that our currently conceived notions of how to train musicians, often based on ideas conceived hundreds of years ago, could be improved upon? Are we willing to expose our limitations in knowledge by discussing this possibility freely among ourselves and students? Are we willing to be life-long learners and make sure that we are exploring these issues ourselves?

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“Are we willing to imagine that our currently conceived notions of how to train musicians, often based on ideas conceived hundreds of years ago, could be improved upon?”

What do you think is the future for musicians’ health?

I believe the future progress is mainly in the hands of teachers. Since music education’s appearance in public schools, music teachers have cited the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of music as major reasons for its inclusion in school programs. While the benefits of music and music education remain undeniably substantial, teachers must gain a realistic understanding of the likelihood that their students stand a good chance of incurring injury from playing. Furthermore, many instruments are not intrinsically ergonomic in design, and there are multiple areas in which educators may adjust the techniques and practice habits in order to produce musicians who can perform without risking serious injury.

A great deal more study, research, and collaboration with movement researchers and medical experts is required to learn specifically how these adjustments can most effectively come to fruition. In good conscience, the teaching of presently accepted standard techniques must not continue without careful examination of whether some of these techniques may produce painful adverse physical consequences in student musicians. A music education system unwilling to consider these necessary adaptions will ensure that this pattern of injury continues.

I feel definitively that the issue of efficient and healthy playing must be addressed for future musicians. As musicians, we are pursuing what, in my humble opinion, stands as the highest, richest, deepest art in existence. It is our privilege to cultivate this beauty in the world and train future musicians. It is our duty to develop this beauty without injuring the music-makers.

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This summer, Katie is serving as the Assistant Director for the Texas Christian University String Workshop, and working on the initial stages of the KKPM Database project. If anyone is interested in being a participant for database research measurements during this coming school year for her project at McGill University, you can contact Katie via e-mail at katelyn.richardson@mail.mcgill.ca.

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