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Classical musicians suffer for their art — literally

Torn rotator cuffs, hernias, hearing problems — it's a tough life for musicians. Some play through the pain or seek treatment, but for others, it's a career ender.

August 02, 2013|By Donna Perlmutter
  • Former Los Angeles Philharmonic violist Jerry Epstein, 66, reclines with his dog Sadie, seated next to an idle viola in his West Hollywood home. Epstein's playing led to three rotator-cuff surgeries, and he can no longer lift his arm to play his viola. Epstein played for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for 43 years.
Former Los Angeles Philharmonic violist Jerry Epstein, 66, reclines with… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)

So you think classical music is purely a rarefied pursuit, where what matter are creativity, spirit and soul? The musician's body does not agree.

Not midway through a high-powered symphony. Not sitting near the crashing cymbals in Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. Not during the long haul of Wagner's "Ring" cycle.

Take violinist David Harrington. He was in rehearsals with his adventurous Kronos Quartet, preparing to play the epic String Quartet No. 2 by Morton Feldman — it notoriously spans six hours without intermission. Just continuous playing through what seems like a universe of time.

"We'd already done eight performances of the piece, and this 1996 concert at Lincoln Center was to be our last outing with it," he said by phone from San Francisco.

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But pains started shooting up and down his arm 40 minutes into rehearsal. They grew more and more alarming.

"Finally, after several hours of rehearsal, the pain was excruciating," he said. "We ended up canceling this last and most famous venue for the work."

As with so many other musicians, Harrington found himself afflicted with a literally show-stopping physical handicap. Luckily for him, the condition was temporary. He could go back to his calling: playing music that demands the utmost precision, fluency, coordination and endurance — and doing so with an Olympian level of artistry.

Not everyone is so fortunate. A trumpeter in Los Angeles once ended up with lockjaw and had to withdraw from the Philharmonic. A number of pianists have developed carpal tunnel syndrome that has severely interrupted their careers.

Harrington spoke about his experience with the Quartet No. 2 and what pain the Kronos players' bodies have endured with it over the years.

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"My back, John Sherba's little finger. Joan Jeanrenaud's leg that went to sleep. Beyond that, how we trained ourselves to stay in the character of the music," he said.

"But there comes a point when that pain is almost unbearable. In Hour 3, I would get so angry at Morton [Feldman]. Then you forget about it because the music is so incredibly beautiful, the audience is ecstatic, in another space. The experience is unlike anything else."

That's how listeners on the other side of the footlights see it, with no idea of the risk of physical injury in the pursuit of aesthetic goals.

Reports of torn rotator cuffs, repetitive stress injury, inguinal hernias, exploded neck vertebrae and lower spine problems tell the story. The ailments sound like a disabled list for a professional sports team.

"Elite athletes of the small muscles" is how cellist Janet Horvath refers to her fellow musicians. Unlike athletes who are likely to work 10 to 15 years, musicians boast long careers, so their bodies must toil for decades, with a regimen of practice, rehearsals and performances, often for more than 10 hours a day. As with cars, human parts wear out. And repetitive motion with tensed muscles and held positions takes a huge toll on the body.

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Even a young pro such as L.A. Phil music director Gustavo Dudamel is not immune, sustaining, in a wildly exuberant flourish, a neck/shoulder injury a few years ago. Famous pianists such as Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman have grabbed headlines with their agonizing hand disabilities, their attempted surgical repairs and eventual recoveries.

In fact, orchestra ranks are filled with casualties, especially among string players.

Laura Hamilton, principal associate concertmaster in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and in her 27th year there, said: "I played violin so many years that certain intrinsic hand muscles got weakened, resulting in painful tendinitis, on top of repetitive stress injury with moving my bow arm back and forth." It took six months for her to recover after chasing around to find a correct diagnosis and proper treatment. Finally, with laser therapy, cortisone and strengthening exercises, Hamilton was able to get back in action.

"And I'm grateful for management's rotation policy," she said, which calculates a reasonable number of work hours for musicians with a vulnerability factor. Not many orchestras make such allowances.

The Met, she noted, has "a huge load of repertory — in a week there could be four different performances of three different operas, plus rehearsals. But no orchestra musician sits for everything. The schedules are carefully mapped out so that there is adequate time off.

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"Even so, we don't mind the high volume. How could we? The music we play, the great singers on stage -- it's all just fantastic."

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