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Quick Take: Avoiding the Injuries that Plague Performing Artists

Much like athletes, professional musicians, dancers, and artists are prone to career-ending injuries. Music professor Stephen Caplan explains.

Arts and Culture  |  Mar 29, 2018  |  By Jennifer Vaughan
Portrait Stephen Caplan with student Jairo Pulido

Music professor Stephen Caplan and Jairo Pulido, senior music major.
(Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

UNLV music professor and professional oboist Stephen Caplan knows first-hand the injuries that repetitive motion can cause. He remembers clearly the case of a talented high school student who returned from a summer program unable to play as the result of such an injury.

Caplan had no idea how to help that student, but he was determined to learn more. As he began studying the causes and dynamics of performing arts injuries, he began working with other professors in his college to develop the College of Fine Arts Consortium for Health and Injury Prevention. The consortium helps practitioners of all the performing arts avoid and mitigate injuries.

What kinds of injuries do performers incur?

Most musicians’ injuries are caused by over-use and include tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and TMJ dysfunction. Dancers tend to have more acute injuries than musicians, and injuries to the leg joints are the most prevalent. Actors, of course, often sing and dance, which can lead to injuries.

What can performing artists learn from your work to prevent injuries?

One of the best ways for performing artists to avoid injury is to increase self-awareness, especially related to posture when sitting, standing, and moving. Improved postural awareness will help anyone who uses repetitive motions on a regular basis — grocery clerks, hairdressers, anyone who uses a computer a lot, etc.

How did you begin studying injuries in performing artists?

I was frustrated when one of my best high school students came back from a prestigious summer program, but couldn't play the oboe anymore because he had developed tendinitis. I had never experienced injury from playing an instrument, so I had no idea how to help him. Now I've written a book about it. One of the greatest things has been receiving emails from people all over the world, thanking me for writing that book because they say it's saved their career!

What's the biggest challenge in getting artists to take steps to avoid injuries?

Changing a performer’s way of thinking about self-care (both physical and emotional self-care). Most performers turn to doctors, therapists, movement specialists, etc., once they are injured. Self-care should not just be about fixing something. It must be recognized as something performers should do all the time in order to maximize success.

What self-care or therapies do you recommend?

I have personally been helped by many wonderful somatic disciplines that increase physical awareness and muscular freedom, especially Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, and Body Mapping. I also feel performing artists can benefit from yoga and tai chi. There are many modalities that work, it's just important to find what you connect with — and do it!

More About the Performing Arts Wellness Symposium

The College of Fine Arts Consortium for Health and Injury Prevention will host its first Performing Arts Wellness Symposium on April 6 and 7 in the Alta Ham Fine Arts Building.The symposium begins at 7:30 p.m. April 6 with a showing of the new documentary that performers all over the globe are talking about, Composed: Addressing Performance Anxiety. Through the lens of professional classical musicians, Composed explores the many ways we experience and can address performance anxiety. This first-rate documentary features interviews with many of today’s top performers as well as with psychologists, performance coaches, and others.

The following day is a lively and interactive look at the health issues confronting today's performing artist. There will be a panel discussion, lectures, workshops, a performance, and a meet-and-greet reception.