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 professional 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.
My guest this week is horn player Julie Rochus, who is currently performing in the Orquesta Filarmónica del Desierto in Saltillo, Mexico on Second Horn. Julie reached out to me with her story after reading Stéphane Krim’s post. In this interview, she opens up about her experience with injuries and stress, and how this almost caused her to leave behind a career in music. Thank you, Julie, for sharing with us!
Born: Aylmer, ON
Currently living in: Saltillo, Mexico
What is your musician’s health story?
My health story began in my undergrad, when I stepped off a city bus and was hit by a bike, two hours before my second year placement audition. I played the audition anyway, but what followed were many years of aching pain in my arms, hands and back, and numbness in my fingers. At its worst, my hands would “freeze” and I would be unable to grip things. Once, as I went to pull my horn from my locker, I dropped it (in its soft Alteri case), because my hand couldn’t grip the handle of the case. It just froze. And yes, there were dents…
When I was 23, I began preparing for my first professional audition. I became obsessed with this audition, mostly motivated by the debilitating fear that I was graduating in 6 months with student debt and no dream orchestral job. My body began to show physical signs of the pressure I had put on myself. My bottom lip broke out into cold sores, canker sores developed in my mouth, and the familiar pain and numbness in my arms and fingers came back.
Instead of telling anyone, or stepping back from my horn (I was going to win this audition, whatever it took!), I went to the pharmacy, bought some numbing cream, and numbed the inside of my mouth and bottom lip before every practice session.
Please don’t ever do this; I was miserable. And by the time the audition came, I was burnt out and hurting—mentally and physically. I thought my only way out was to quit the horn, and so I decided that after I graduated, that was it, I was done.
What followed was the best term of school ever! No pressure to succeed after graduation meant no stress. My sound opened up, I was more relaxed, my pain went away and I started to have fun.
After a year and several attempts at quitting, and “Okay, THIS is going to be my last audition/summer program/concert,” I realized that the horn just wasn’t letting me go. With a new perspective, and a more relaxed approach to the instrument, I enrolled in a Master’s program, where I was introduced to Alexander Technique (AT). My AT lessons changed everything. The pain and numbness I had felt for years went away, my sound improved and the calmness I felt in AT lessons transferred to my playing.
Did you seek professional help? Did you find it accessible?
After my run in with the bike, I went to a chiropractor regularly, who was excellent in the short term, but ultimately was not a long term solution. Without the help and recommendation from my private teacher, I would not have known who to go to, or how to get there. Luckily, as a student, my visits were covered under medical insurance, but I know so well that’s not always an option for freelancers or people just out of school.
When I decided to quit horn, I did not seek any professional help because I felt that my only option was to throw it all away. I was not aware of resources at school that I could have used. I know now that at the first signs of trouble, I should have sought help, instead of letting months and years of pain and stress build up.
When I began taking AT lessons at the University of Illinois, I finally found a long term, sustainable solution for the pain and tension I was experiencing. I was so lucky, because Champaign-Urbana has the highest number of AT teachers per capita (so I’m told!), and so finding an excellent teacher was not a problem. I ended up taking lessons for about a year and a half. I did have to pay out of pocket, until I grabbed a spot in the AT course in my last term, but it was absolutely money well spent.
What have you found is particularly challenging as a horn player, with regards to your mental or physical health?
When the 3rd stand, inside viola player misses a note, it usually goes unnoticed. But when the 1st horn misses a note…it’s usually noticed.
My biggest challenge is not letting my fear of missing a note overtake my entire performance experience. This fear can be absolutely debilitating for a horn player.
If I’m in a rehearsal or at home, and I miss a note, if I REALLY miss it, the first thing I do is laugh, because it probably sounded funny. Then I ask myself, “Why?” Was my air too fast, too slow? Can I sing my part? What is my role here in the music? Was it a page turn that I was unprepared for? And then I fix the problem, and practice until I can confidently play the passage.
Replacing negative thoughts with this detective work has really helped me overcome this particular challenge of horn playing. Also, preparation, a grateful attitude and an endless monologue of positive cheerleading has also helped!
What’s your advice to a musician who may be questioning their career?
At the first sign of pain, or the first sign that something doesn’t feel right, go and talk to someone! Don’t let it get to the point where you feel like quitting is your only option (like me).
If you start to question your career, it’s okay to take a break and explore other hobbies and passions. Get involved in other projects, travel, explore other genres of music. Trust yourself and know that if a career in classical music is right for you, you’ll come back to it.
How do you balance the physical and mental challenges of being a professional musician?
I just want to preface this by saying that I definitely don’t have it all figured out. Sometimes I come home both mentally and physically exhausted, and I lay on my couch and watch Mexican cable television for hours. But here are some things that have helped me.
I already shared some of my strategies for staying mentally healthy in question 3. Positive thinking, a grateful attitude and a sense of humour have helped me so much!
I would also add that orchestras *can* be the home to a lot of drama. You know the Kermit the Frog meme, where he’s sipping a cup of tea with the caption “But that’s none of my business…”? That’s me. I learn my parts, focus on the positive and play the music. I’ve had to learn that I don’t have the mental energy to worry about every little thing that’s happening, so if it doesn’t concern me directly, I sip my tea (coffee) and remember Kermit.
As my friend and colleague likes to say: “That sounds like a job for the Drama Llama!” A helpful reminder that it’s not my drama.
Physically, I am constantly reminding myself of my AT lessons. In rehearsals, I like to challenge myself to play as efficiently and relaxed as humanly possible. By reminding my body of how to play the horn efficiently, when I’m nervous or performing a difficult program, my body doesn’t resort to tension. AND I’ve avoided pain and numbness in my arms and hands for over three years now.
Otherwise, I try to maintain a balanced lifestyle outside of the orchestra. Running, word searches in Spanish, keeping in touch with friends around the world and exploring the city are just some of the things I do to achieve that.
What do you think needs to change, so that musicians are more healthy?
Change needs to happen at the undergraduate level, or even earlier. Alexander Technique, and other health resources (for example body mapping or sports psychology classes) need to become less of a novelty and more of a given in music degree programs.
Masterclasses or one-time seminars can be a helpful introduction, but just like singers have multiple lessons each week for diction and technique (right? I’m not a singer…), all instrumentalists should take lessons on their instrument AND in AT, sports psychology, or whatever they need. For example, when I was studying at UIUC, my lesson schedule consisted of a weekly horn lesson, and a biweekly AT lesson.
This way, burnouts and career ending injuries could be prevented before they happen, and musicians would be much more comfortable talking about their own physical and mental health.
What do you think the future is for musicians’ health?
I love that blogs like yours exist! I hope that more musicians come forward to share their stories. By doing so, we can create an environment where it’s okay to reach out at the first twinge of pain, instead of keeping it to ourselves until the pain becomes unbearable.
I would love to see every Faculty of Music in Canada have a resource centre for musicians dealing with mental or physical pain. Hopefully, if a musician is experiencing any type of pain in the future, they can address it openly, treat it, and feel comfortable talking to others about it. And then they can focus on what’s really important…making music!
Anyone who is close to me knows that the past year hasn’t been easy—immigrating to a new country, learning a new language and culture, and meeting giant cockroaches in my kitchen.
But every concert day, I put on my concert clothes, sit down in my chair in the back row, play a few notes, and I know I’m in the right place. I’m the happiest horn player around when I’m making music with my colleagues.
Whether it’s in an orchestra, a jazz band, a community ensemble or through teaching others, my hope is that everyone reading this will find the same joy and happiness in music that I have found.
Please everybody, take care of your health! (And consider finding an Alexander Technique teacher near you! You can find out more about AT and a teacher at this link.)
Julie will be returning for a second season with the OFDC. In September, she is looking forward to performing Mahler Symphony No. 2 in the city of Xalapa, as well as the Mozart Horn Quintet with her string player friends in Saltillo. You can follow what Julie’s up to on Instagram @juleslro.
If you are interested in contributing your story, anonymously or publicly, contact Claire Motyer here.