Janet Horvath  

Static Loading, Back and Disc Problems:
Winner of the Independent Book Publishers Gold Medal

Janet Horvath
June 9, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

Janet Horvath has revised her book, Playing (less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians, and the new edition is now available. Janet has updated the book and added 100 pages to include new information for educators and training, information for jazzers and rock musicians, new ergonomic products, an extensive hearing chapter, new photos and much more. Polyphonic is pleased to excerpt a section on static loading and the fatigue that muscles endure (and the damage that can be done) with prolonged periods of static positions.

I wish every conductor out there would read the first few paragraphs of this excerpt and adjust their rehearsal schedules accordingly! Janet provides invaluable tips for alleviating some of the pains associated with playing prolonged soft and slow passages, as well other posture issues.

Janet's book received the Gold Medal in the 2009 Independent Book Publisher National Awards in the health category. Congratulations, Janet! For more information, click here.

Janet has graciously offered a 15% discount to registered Polyphonic readers. Ordering details are at the end of this article.

- Ann Drinan

Janet receiving her award Janet receiving her Independent Book Publishers Gold Medal in June, 2009 (click to enlarge)

Muscles like to be in neutral position or at the midpoint of their normal range of movement. Loading, or putting stress on joints in uneven or asymmetrical ways due to awkward, fixed or stiff body positions will result in static loading on the body. Static postures are enemies to be avoided. One can describe muscular activities in two categories: dynamic (or rhythmic) and static (or postural).

According to Etienne Grandjean in his book Fitting the Task to the Man, a Textbook of Occupational Ergonomics, we can do a dynamic movement for a long time without fatigue. This is because during a dynamic movement we alternate between tension and relaxation or flexion and extension. Blood flows generously, even up to ten to twenty times more than the flow at rest, and waste products are flushed out. By contrast, static postures and positions (such as holding up an outstretched arm) tire us out, and damage can result if we hold these static positions over long periods of time. This is due to the fact that in a static position our muscle is compressed and is in contraction, where blood does not readily flow through the muscle. Oxygen is not replenished and waste is not removed. We cannot continue a static muscular effort long, before fatigue, and eventually pain, set in.

Cover to Playing (less) Hurt The very cool cover to Janet's new edition of Playing (less) Hurt (click to enlarge)

Static effort is much more strenuous. Therefore, when evaluating a movement, the static component is most important. Unfortunately, only when we are lying down is static loading avoided. Static loading occurs every day as a by-product of living, as it is often postural. Static loading occurs in almost all forms of work.

If static effort is repeated daily, damage to tendons, ligaments and discs may occur. “Muscles subject to static work need 12 times longer to recover from fatigue. Moreover, the muscles of the upper extremity cannot maintain a contraction level in excess of 20 percent of their strength for more than a few seconds without significant fatigue. Hence in the absence of sufficient recovery time, prolonged and excessive static work will weaken joints, ligaments and tendons,” says Vern Putz-Anderson in the book Cumulative Trauma Disorders: A Manual for Musculoskeletal Diseases of the Upper Limbs.

When you’ve been in a prolonged static position and your muscles are called upon suddenly to do a dynamic movement you need a blood surge, which is sometimes unavailable because your muscles are constricted. Injury may occur. This is why it’s much harder to play slowly and softly, and it is more fatiguing to go from long held notes to pyrotechnics!

We had palpable proof of this recently in the Minnesota Orchestra. One week our program billed the very demanding Dvořák Carnival Overture, the Bartók Rhapsodies for solo violin and orchestra and the mammoth Eleventh Symphony of Shostakovich. The following week consisted of Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C and Mozart’s Requiem. Which was the more taxing program? The second seemed as though it would be a welcome relief, but it was by far the more physically taxing! Our arms were fatigued to the point of “falling off,” because these works featured many long notes, soft dynamics and overall holding back. In music like this, try to find ways to keep moving. Focus on deep breathing and on releasing tension. Do anything possible to avoid the static load scenario.

A bent head is an example of static load. When your head is bent forward or backward or to either side, your neck muscles are engaged in a lifting task. Your head weighs about fifteen pounds. Supporting your head constricts the muscles in your neck and shoulder area, obstructing blood flow. The stress is exacerbated if your arms are extended in front of you or if your torso is bent forward. Tight neck and shoulder muscles can con­strict blood flow and compress surrounding nerves, many of which extend down the arm. Over time, this tension can bring on disc or nerve problems, headaches and eye strain.

We who hold instruments in awkward positions on a daily basis must be especially vigilant. It is essential to be mindful about posture at all times. A common trouble position is forward flexion—when you lean too far forward while sitting or standing. This requires sustained muscle tension and static loading in your back muscles. The forward shoulder position also destabilizes the arm during movement, making its motion more difficult. The unnatural arrangement of the spine stresses ligaments and muscles in and around the spine area. Legions of cellists, flutists, guitarists, bass players, bassoonists and many others are guilty of hunching forward over instruments and thrusting their heads forward or down.

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