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Can’t See The Forest for The Trees

As musicians, we sometimes become so focused on details that we fail to honor the overarching shape of a phrase or the entire movement/work. We need to be able to zoom out and see the big picture. A musical example comes from a recent quartet rehearsal where all four of us had similar rhythmic passages consisting of running eighth notes with meter changes (groups of three and two) with accents on the first note of each beat grouping. We were struggling to maintain the the precision of these rhythms. When we zoomed out, we realized that we were so focused on the individual eighth notes that we were losing the changing pulse of the threes and two that forms the basis of this movement. The solution was to bring out the accents, which also provides rhythmic clarity, and not try so hard on all the other little notes.

As humans, we can have similar issues with addressing movement problems and injuries. One must know clearly what is the symptom and what is the movement problem that led to this symptom. As a manual therapist, I was taught that where the client feels pain usually isn’t the source of the problem. Sometimes, the symptom is addressed, but the underlying movement problem isn’t. For example, many people suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. Eventually, they have the surgery and, for some, the pain comes right back because the faulty movement problem that led to the issue wasn’t properly retrained. I’ve been teaching this idea to my students and clients for quite some time. It was humbling to discover again that this was showing up in my own movement. I had surgery in November to remove a Morton’s neuroma from my foot. The incision has healed nicely, the neuroma pain is gone, but there was still pain in my second toe when I started to do more activity. In my case, the neuroma was the symptom and the true cause of the issue was biomechanical breakdown in my gait cycle. Fortunately, I’m working with a fantastic physical therapist who has helped me figure out that there was muscular weakness and a lack of coordination in muscles that were affected by nerve damage due to my herniated disc from several years ago. All of this in combination led me to push off the ground with the ball of my second toe instead of the ball of the big toe. Doing the intensive, boring, hard work to retrain my movement is solving the problem. 

To summarize, I had low back and core stability problems showing up as a foot thing. I see this all the time with my musician students and clients. There’s something not quite right happening in the middle of their body which is causing problems downhill. With my college students, we start learning about the importance of feet and the movements of the pelvis right in the first week of the semester. Many times, sorting out an issue with stability of the shoulder blades improves issues with hands, wrists and elbows. The pain shows up in fingers, but it’s often a result of a shoulder blade that isn’t moving properly, which demands compensation from somewhere else.

Humans are master compensators!

We get the job done, no matter what. This strategy works right up until it doesn’t. Eventually, we get signals, usually in the form of discomfort or pain, that something isn’t quite right. Pain in our body’s request for change. 

It may take more than one professional to address all parts of a movement problem. Some providers deal exclusively with symptoms. After my hand surgery, the surgeon considered his job done because my joint was stable. It was the job of the hand therapists to help me regain full use of the hand. Don’t be afraid to keep going until you have the right team of people to help. It’s our responsibility as humans to seek the help we need when there’s a problem. Unfortunately, this is often a long, expensive process, but it’s absolutely required. We have to be able to zoom out to see the big picture of our own health and movement. Once the true source of the problem is identified, then real progress can be made. As musicians and teachers, we know this true and experience it on a daily basis – we are error detectors and musical problem solvers. Movement problem solvers are out there, just waiting to help you get yourself sorted out.

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