Analysis: research shows that these musicians are quite likely to be experiencing severe stress through prolonged periods of performing

By Liz DohertyUlster University and Iseult Wilson, Queen's University Belfast

Tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, neck and back pain: these are not the first things that spring to mind when we think about traditional music. However, a new study at Ulster University has discovered that traditional musicians are quite likely to put their muscles under severe stress through prolonged periods of performing.

The Safe Trad project has investigated the extent of performance-related musculoskeletal disorders within the traditional community. Like athletes, musicians have a very special set of skills which they continuously rehearse in order to achieve the level of performance and perfection they seek. This requires physical and mental strength, endurance, manual dexterity, technical precision and the ability to play repetitively and rapidly day after day, year after year.

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Our research has revealed that Irish traditional musicians like all musicians are susceptible to injuries as a consequence of this. This is further exacerbated by other factors including regular music-making in social, environmental and cultural contexts which are not ergonomically friendly (eg pub sessions). The way in which traditional music is taught, where posture and instrument hold receives little focus, may be another contributing factor.

The practice of imitating and modelling experienced players also means that poor habits surrounding posture may be passed on down through generations of players. Other general lifestyle factors such as computer work, stress and touring contribute to traditional musicians being susceptible to these disorders.

However, a culture of silence and stoicism exists around performance-related musculoskeletal disorders within the Irish traditional music community. There is a fear that acknowledging these disorders may have negative consequences, such as having to stop playing or loss of employment, so many musicians will ignore pain in order to keep playing. The drive to continue playing, even through pain, has been attributed to passion and the willingness to endure challenges in order to achieve the goal of being a musician.

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 The Irish dance world since Riverdance has undergone a major shift in behaviour around the holistic support of the dancer. Equally, well-established supports and structures are in place to support classical musicians. So why have traditional musicians simply not availed of what is already there?

Traditional musicians believe that they are different from classical musicians in many ways. As a result, a process of widening access to supports and structures designed for classical musicians (see the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine) is not quite the simple solution it may appear to be. For traditional musicians, the nuances of their practice that are integral to their unique identity are critical. How and where a traditional fiddle player performs, for example, is likely to be very different from a classical violinist so an "one size fits all’ solution to dealing with performance-related disorders emerging from different contexts simply will not work.

Managing performance-related musculoskeletal disorders in traditional musicians is an area of specialist knowledge. Our research reveals a real need to increase awareness around the specific needs of traditional musicians among healthcare providers in order to fully support those who are already experiencing this. Going forward, we are also working to support changes in teaching practices in order to increase awareness of injuries and to embed good practice so that performance-related injuries can, in fact, be prevented.

Dr Liz Doherty is Lecturer in Traditional Music at the School of Arts and Humanities at Ulster UniversityDr Iseult Wilson is a Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Queens University, Belfast.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ