What’s the Connection Between Mindset and Musicians’ Pain?

It was January of 2012 and I was hard at work on an arrangement of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song for my string quintet, Sybarite5. I didn’t mind the long hours at the computer, but I noticed that my hands had started to hurt. It was a strange sensation: a com­bi­na­tion of throbbing and a dull, pins-and-needles feeling that started at my thumb joints and radiated throughout both of my hands. 

I disregarded it. I had experienced and even sought therapy for aches and pains in my hands since I was 16. The treatment always involved stretching, heating, icing – nothing I couldn’t do on my own. I figured that the pain would subside after the project.

But it didn’t. And my overconfidence in pain management would impede the use of my hands and send me on an emotional rollercoaster for years to come. 

Back then, I felt that this was just not the time for an injury. Sybarite5 had just won the Concert Artists Guild Competition and our career was revving up. We had new management and an upcoming Carnegie Hall debut. 

Then the pain started to take over. Everyday tasks became challenging: turning doorknobs, washing dishes, anything involving a touch screen. 

Eventually, it began to affect my playing. When I wanted to play forcefully, painful tension shot through my right thumb muscle. My bow hold became rigid, rather than secure and flexible. As a result, I avoided playing with power – or when I had to, I’d simply endure the discomfort. 

I lost fluidity in my left hand, too. Getting around the fingerboard became a chore, and I’d never know when or why I’d get a shock of pain in my hand. The anticipation made my entire body tense, causing muscle fatigue. I became stressed about executing even the easiest music. 

I was in a state of disbelief. How was I supposed to function as a professional violinist? 

I knew I had to seek help, but I was skeptical about doctors who didn’t understand my profession. Several years back, I’d sought help from a hand specialist for a special issue who had told me that “all I had to do” was figure out how to play my instrument differently. Easy, right? Since then, I’d opted instead for massage therapists, physical therapists and Alexander Technique coaches who specialized in working with musicians and were invested in addressing my issues in conjunction with my career. 

Working with a physical therapist helped, but it began to feel more like a band-aid than a long-term plan for recovery.

Working with a physical therapist helped, but it began to feel more like a band-aid than a long-term plan for recovery. By mid-2012, I had scaled down my playing to a minimum, keeping only my gigs with Sybarite5. Newly in the spotlight, we were gaining momentum, so I powered through our rehearsals and performances. But being on stage had become scarier than ever. My confidence was plummeting. At one performance, I couldn’t execute my vibrato the way I wanted – a common challenge during this time – and as I continued to fail, it sent me into a tailspin, resulting in a debilitating freeze-up onstage. After the concert, I hid in the bathroom of my dressing room, silently crying. I felt like a stranger to my own instrument. 

New York City surrounded me with people chasing after their dreams, multitasking and getting ahead. Meanwhile, I felt frozen in time, stuck trying to figure out how to answer a single email and keep up with dirty dishes.

At a certain point, the only way I could keep up with emails was with the help of my mom. She would log into my email account and we would read my emails together over the phone. I would dictate my responses to her and she would type them up and send them for me.

On the outside, it appeared that I was living the dream. On the inside, I felt like a fraud, and to top it off, I was in denial, too scared to tell anyone how badly I was suffering.

I hobbled through in this way for a year and a half. Finally, I was directed to the musician’s physical therapist Dr. Caryl Johnson, who explained that because I was double-jointed, my thumb joint easily fell out of alignment. My pain was caused by repetitive motions that used the thumb in its incorrect placement. She made me customized hand braces, gave me TheraBand exercises and encouraged me to strengthen my upper body as much as I could, which had become weak after months of decreased use.

The hand braces helped immensely. Gradually, I regained the ability to use computers and touch screens. I started learning to use my hands differently for everyday tasks, shifting my thumb position to avoid the joint collapse.

Progress was slow, and it was difficult to avoid pain triggers altogether, but at last, I knew I was under the guidance of someone who could help me long-term. I figured that after a couple of months, I’d be right back to normal.

As it turned out, this was only the beginning of my journey. 

Months after I started seeing Dr. Johnson, I still couldn’t seem to fully recover. The pain had improved, but it was nearly impossible not to aggravate my hands at some point in the day. And my anxiety over performing hadn’t subsided. 

I felt trapped in a cycle: I was unhappy with my playing, and I didn’t know how to improve it, which made me unhappier still.

I grew envious of my colleagues and their enjoyment of making music, longing for the days when I had also played with ease and freedom. I felt trapped in a cycle: I was unhappy with my playing, and I didn’t know how to improve it, which made me unhappier still.

Then, in May of 2014 – nearly two and a half years after my initial injury – a friend suggested that I look into meditation. I scoffed at first, but what did I have to lose? I found a book about meditation that, at the very least, had received Oprah’s stamp of approval.

From this book, I learned about the benefits of mindfulness and how practicing it can reduce stress, anxiety and even pain. I wanted to learn more. Was it possible that my stress and anxiety were contributing to my pain, instead of the other way around? 

I started seeing a psychologist. I was skeptical at first, but then again, I had never been in such a dark place. I didn’t know it then, but for the first time since my injury, I was starting to take care of my mind. 

I began addressing everything that had cluttered my head over the past few years: my perceived loss of ability, my failure to make improvements, my fear of letting down my colleagues, my obsessive longing for the past, my terror of being on stage. 

I learned how to observe my thought patterns – and then shift them. This was the moment that allowed me to start moving forward. My injury had been both physical and mental. 

Today, my pain – while not completely gone – has improved exponentially. But perhaps more importantly, my entire lifestyle has changed as I’ve managed to shift my thinking in crucial ways.

During my injury, I obsessed over problems, unable to envision solutions. Now, I’ve developed a heightened awareness that has allowed me to observe rather than judge.

I’ve learned to see possibility. During my injury, I obsessed over problems, unable to envision solutions. Now, I’ve developed a heightened awareness that has allowed me to observe rather than judge. In a “Discovery Journal,” I kept meticulous notes about my playing. If a different weight in my fingers or a certain angle in my wrist helped my technique, I kept track of it. As my observations grew, I built up confidence as a player, able to decode what worked and why.  

I’ve learned to let go of the past. When struggling with my injury, I couldn’t understand why my playing felt so foreign to me. Well, I was relearning my technique – of course things felt different! Now, when I notice myself dwelling on the past, I’m able to recognize unrealistic comparisons and accept things as they are now.

Finally, I’ve learned to be grateful for my struggle. I’m able to see how my journey over the past seven years has shaped who I am today. I’ve learned valuable skills, developed a passion for teaching what I’ve learned to help other musicians and found a thriving support network that continually inspires me.

I know that the lessons I’ve learned are more important than ever. As many as 75 percent of the country’s hundreds of thousands of professional musicians have reported “injuries and pain that [affect] their playing.” We can’t perform at our best without optimal health – in both body and mind – and we can’t talk frankly about injuries without breaking down the stigma that surrounds it. Let’s do it sooner rather than later. No one’s pain should diminish their self-worth.

Sarah Whitney

Praised by the Washington Post for her “marvelous violin acrobatics,” violinist Sarah Whitney is known for her musical versatility. Recognized as a successful performer, …more 

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5 Responses

  1. Robert Barr says:

    Sarah, I met you briefly when Sybarite 5 played in s concert for Key Chorale in Sarasota several years ago. Thank you for sharing this experience. I thought you were awesome then, and your honesty in sharing this only reinforces that opinion. All the best for you and your artistic career in the future.

  2. Rachel Saul says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article, I’m a violinist who struggles with many playing injuries and can completely relate to your journey. Thank you for having a frank discussion on a topic that musicians don’t particularly like to have, especially when it comes to the mental health aspect of injury. Thank you for your inspiration

  3. Travis Baird says:

    Sarah, thank you so much for sharing your story! Your journey speaks deeply to me and I’m so grateful to have read this post.

  4. Stewart H Holder says:

    Dear Sarah,

    Have you come across the late Kato Havas’ New Approach to Violin Playing ?
    Simply search on Kato Havas and her books which are published by Bosworth can be found.
    Also details of the President of KHANA (Gloria Bakhshayesh) can also be found including her email address.
    Kato Havas did give an interview to the web page http://www.beyondstagefright.com/kato-havas
    in which she mentioned that she gave a Twelve Lesson Course on The New Approach to Heifetz’s Personal Teaching Assistant in the 1960s. Praise indeed also from Yehudi Menuhin with her books. Hope this helps. Best wishes Stewart H Holder

  5. Stewart H Holder says:

    PS By the way, Kato Havas’ New Approach results in playing the violin (or Viola) in a relaxed manner and without pain.

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