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The Musical Hand: Exploring Upper Limb Health for Musicians

Music generally has been heralded as invigorating and emotional experiences for the listeners as well as players. But for the musician, artistic expression also can extract a health toll. The rigors of playing music will lead more than 60 percent of all musicians to experience upper limb injuries, according to James Houlik, professor in the Mary Pappert School of Music at Duquesne University—giving musicians a commonality with office workers, checkout clerks and the 15 million people who repeat small hand movements that can cause Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI).

“Musicians are small muscle athletes. When you combine that fact with the reality that we are also subject to a great deal of tension, you have a propensity for risk of RSI,” said Houlik. “It interrupts careers, and it’s brutal psychologically.”

A saxophone player for 54 years, Houlik reports no RSI issues himself, but has increasing concerns about the students he is teaching and the practices he has espoused. “I’ve written scores of pages of exercises and it occurred to me that maybe I’ve been writing a prescription for injuries.”

To ascertain if his exercises were medically correct, Houlik studied at Wake Forest University with Dr. Robert Markison, a hand surgeon, and invested time in watching surgeries and discussing RSI.

“It became clear to me that education should be making some kind of an effort to interrupt this tradition of injury,” Houlik said.

To contribute to the long-term health of its students and the musical community, the Duquesne music school has organized two sessions, which are free and open to the public, featuring nationally recognized specialists in the field.

  • On Monday, Sept. 14, at 3 p.m., Markison, who also is a professor at the University of California San Francisco, will address, by live video feed, Comprehensive Care of Musical Hands. Genetics play a part in susceptibility to RSI, but Markison also offers advice to help combat the disorder, including wearing fingerless gloves and intentionally over-hydrating with water, juice and herbal tea to keep microcirculation open to the fingertips.
  • On Wednesday, Sept. 16, Dr. Lea Pearson, a specialist in body mapping and injury prevention from Columbus, Ohio, will explore Tips of the Iceberg: How Whole Body Use Affects Hand Functions. Body mapping involves the connectedness of the entire body. According to mapping studies, tensions that begin at the shoulder and neck region migrate to the hands.

After Pearson’s presentation, Dr. Gregory Marchetti of the physical therapy department at Duquesne will discuss The Role of Physical Therapy in Musicians’ Health. Marchetti, a licensed physical therapist since 1983, has presented nationally and internationally on topics including playing–related disorders in performance musicians.

Both sessions will take place in the PNC Recital Hall of the Mary Pappert School of Music.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.