Archive for the ‘Health and Wellness’ Category

A True Champion of Indomitable Spirit

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

A few weeks ago, I came across a YouTube video showing an incredible performance of a young girl from China playing Richard Clayderman’s “Souvenir D’enfance”. Normally, this would not warrant such a strong reaction, but under the circumstances, this particular performance is nothing short of austounding. If you look carefully, you will notice that the performer has no fingers on her right hand. Zheng Guigui, a 19 year old from Henan Province, was born without them due to a genetic defect. Even more amazing is the fact that Zheng has only been studying the piano for about three years. This is a perfect example of how powerful indomitable spirit can be to a willing heart. It really makes us think about all the times we feel unmotivated to do something just because we feel it’s too difficult, or because of the fear we feel should we fail. In music, and in life, we have to be willing to fall on stumbling blocks if we are to learn the skills to help us success. Even Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors of all time, went through over 1,000 failures in the making of his electric lightbulb. When asked how he persevered through all those failures, he humorously replied, “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward.” If we allow ourselves to lose our fears and believe in the power of what we can do when we believe and work hard to achieve our goals, then nothing can stop us from succeeding. After all, nothing is impossible to a strong mind and a willing heart.

Physical Health and the Clarinet

Saturday, January 8th, 2011

            Playing the clarinet effectively, as any other instrument, requires a heightened use of specific physical attributes not normally used in daily activities. Unfortunately, because we are usually so focused on listening to our sound and playing our best, we often neglect the maintenance and proper care of those same physical attributes we require to perform. As a result, potential damage may be caused over time which can conclude in career de-habilitating injuries. Two of the most common maladies affecting professional clarinetists are tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

            Both tendonitis and carpal tunnel are injuries of the hand and wrist, in severe cases causing playing to be extremely painful or impossible. These disorders are known as Musculoskeletal injuries, or MSI[1]. MSI is primarily caused by continued aggravated practices, rehearsals, or performances where constant pressure and strain are put on the affected muscles, in this case, the wrists and fingers. Musicians are second only to jobs requiring prolonged computer use as the highest risk for MSI[2]. The progression of pain during performance normally begins with irritation after practice, followed by pain during practice, and finally increasing until all aspects of daily life are affected. In severe cases, surgery may be the only course of action in repairing serious damage. Even so, scar tissue may form after surgery, severely limiting performing ability. Fortunately, steps may be taken to reduce the risk of MSI or repair damage if identified early. However, it is necessary to define these disorders to identify their causes and ultimate remedies.

            Tendonitis is defined as a disorder in which the tendons become inflamed and irritated for a variety of reasons. A tendon is a flexible, but tough, band of fibrous tissue which connects the muscles to the bones. When muscles contract in daily life, the tendons absorb the force of the muscle contraction to relieve pressure placed on the bone. In clarinet playing, the small tendons in the wrists and fingers serve to relieve the enormous pressure that each finger movement can create after extended playing. When the tendons become inflamed, finger and wrist movement then becomes painful. Thus, tendonitis literally means inflammation of the tendon[3].

            The most common cause of tendonitis is overuse. As musicians advance, the increased level of difficulty forces them to utilize the wrist and finger tendons at a faster pace. The tendons are unaccustomed to operating at the level of demand, and will eventually become inflamed and painful. Age is also a factor in tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. As we get older, the tendons lose their flexibility and ability to stretch as they used to. Individuals are more prone to experience symptoms of tendonitis and carpal tunnel with increasing age. An additional disorder similar to tendonitis named De Quervain’s Syndrome consists of pain in the tendons at the base of the thumb and on the thumb side of the forearm. This makes it extremely painful to twist the wrist or move the thumb away from the hand[4].

            Wrist tendonitis, also called tenosynovitis, is also a common disorder affecting the tendons, particularly the tendons around the wrist joint[5]. In addition to pain around the affected areas, swelling can also occur over the area of inflammation. Similar to De Quervain’s Syndrome, tenosynovitis can affect the tendon at the base of the thumb, causing pain whenever the thumb is moved away from the wrist. Tenosynovitis and De Quervain’s Syndrome are advanced cases of tendonitis, and require the immediate attention of a doctor or physical therapist. Immediate action can also be taken by icing the area with a cold pack, which stimulates blood flow to the inflamed area. Other treatments for mild or early cases of tendonitis are similar with carpal tunnel syndrome; several of which are listed below.

            Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is related to tendonitis because they are caused by aggravated pressure in the hands and wrists, but carpal tunnel syndrome has distinct differences from tendonitis or related disorders. The carpel tunnel is a narrow, rigid passageway of ligament and bones at the base of the hand[6]. This surrounds the median nerve, which runs directly from the forearm into the hand. The median nerve controls the receptors to the palm side of the thumb and fingers, which allow the fingers and thumb to move easily and smoothly. Carpal tunnel syndrome occurs when the median nerve is squeezed or pressed at the wrist. Swelling from irritated tendons can also be a factor in the compression of the nerve, such as in a previous injury or trauma. Carpal tunnel syndrome, however, is not caused by tendonitis or vice-versa. They are completely separate disorders and have individual symptoms; however, proper diagnosis from a licensed professional should be sought immediately after experiencing any reoccurring painful sensations in the wrists and hands. 

            Carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by a variety of sources, including genetic disposition. The carpal tunnel may simply be smaller in certain individuals, placing them at higher risk. Carpal tunnel syndrome also usually occurs only in adults. Women are also more likely to experience carpal tunnel syndrome than men because the carpel tunnel itself is in most cases smaller than in men[7]. There is no clinical proof that correlates the heavy use of the hands and wrists in playing to carpal tunnel syndrome. These actions usually result in tendonitis or the similar disorders mentioned earlier. However, other causes of carpal tunnel can include prior strain or trauma to the affected areas, fluid retention, joint or mechanical problems in the wrist, work stress, or the development of a cyst or tumor in the carpal tunnel. In some cases, no cause can be identified[8].

            Symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome usually start gradually in the hand and fingers, including a burning sensation in addition to tingling or numbness in these areas. These symptoms usually appear in one or both hands at night, but can increase during the day with increased discomfort. Decreased grip strength, such as the inability to hold the clarinet, is also a common symptom. Physicians can detect carpal tunnel syndrome in its initial stages, in which several forms of treatment are available.

            Treatment for tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and related disorders can be treated by the individual if discovered early. Of course, preventative measures can be taken to reduce the risk of injury, or further aggravate an existing injury. However, seeking the direction of a medical professional should be considered before any other options. Illustrated below are several techniques to lessen the risk of tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome: 

–  Exercise

Exercise before and after heavy practice is beneficial to maintaining healthy joints and muscles. Taking frequent rest breaks can also serve to relax the tendons and prevent them from becoming inflamed. Remember to keep a natural posture whether playing standing up or sitting down.

– Heat and Ice

Using ice and heat packs are helpful in relaxing and cooling off muscles. These packs can also stimulate blood flow and decrease swelling. It is important to proceed only with a doctor’s recommendation if pain is already constant

 – Stretching

 Stretching is the primary deterrent to future injuries in the joints. Stretching exercises that are performed constantly before and after practice can serve to effectively prevent injuries caused by overuse and constant pressure on the tendons.

[1] Musicians and MSI: Symptoms and types of Injuries. Safety and Health in Arts Production and Entertainment (SHAPE), p. 1.
Your Guide to Orthopedics. Cluett, Jonathan. p. 1.
Ibid, p. 2.
Ibid, p. 3.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. National Institute of Neurological Disorders. p. 1.
Ibid, p. 2.
Ibid, p. 2.

Be In Tune With Your Body!

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011


Regardless of our varied disciplines as music educators, including both our specializations and our grade level of instruction, we all recognize the highest priority in our lives is our fundamental quality of physical health. It goes without saying that without good health, it quickly becomes impossible to perform our daily functions as educators, let alone anything else! We’ve all heard the disturbing statistics of rising cases of obesity in both children and adults, or that obesity is one of the leading causes of heart disease. In addition, we’ve all been exposed to the wide range of benefits that promoting good physical health can bring, including a dramatic reduction of emotional and mental stress, a higher developed sense of confidence and pride, and an increase in energy and endurance that is essential to our field of music education. But one needs not be obese, or in any other immediate danger of deteriorating health to recognize the imperative to develop a regiment of proper fitness in our lives. In fact, all educators in positions that require physical work (of which music is a certainty!) should develop a lifestyle that promotes healthy choices and staying in shape. 


First, we must understand that promoting good physical health means to look further than the goal of achieving your desired weight, or how many miles you’d like to walk without getting winded. True, short term goals are important for laying out a structured plan, but once those goals are accomplished, then what? For many people who desire to lose weight, they go on a diet. They change their entire eating habits, much to their own chagrin, or even join a gym for a limited time. The problem with this approach is that once that person accomplishes their desired level of physical health, everything goes right back to the way it was. The previous eating habits resume, the gym membership expires, and then it’s only a matter of time until the weight comes back or more serious health problems emerge. I dislike the term “diet” because it implies a temporary change of lifestyle that will eventually return once the goal has been reached. Instead of continuing the downward spiral back and forth between weight gain and weight loss (which in itself can create serious bodily stress), why don’t we develop the goal to continuously maintain our good health once our short term goals have been reached? Why don’t we develop a lifestyle that keeps the weight off and gives us the energy and endurance to teach to our highest potential? 

The Fitness Triangle 

Before I became a music teacher, I used to manage a New York Sports Club fitness center in Princeton, NJ. Having more than twenty years of experience in the martial arts prior to this, I believed I knew everything there was to know about good health. I had endurance, flexibility, strength, and a confidence that transcended into all my endeavors. But when I accepted the position of a high school music director, I quickly found that my healthy habits were becoming less of a priority as I put all of my energy into creating a successful program for my students. Soon, my stress level was rising, I was gaining weight, and I was spending less and less time focusing on my personal health as I was on my job. It wasn’t until one day where I went to my normal karate class and found I did not have the energy to keep up with my own students that I realized my habits needed to change. Fortunately, I remembered my many conversations with the personal trainers of my former gym, and their philosophies regarding what I call the “fitness triangle”.

The fitness triangle consists of the three primary aspects of staying in shape, which are cardiovascular training, strength training, and dietary habits. Cardiovascular exercises are anything that increases the flow of your circulatory system. Exercises that increase heart rate and cause perspiration can help burn calories, which reduce fat, and increases endurance and breath control. Proper cardiovascular exercise is a leading deterrent against heart disease and circulatory problems. Doing things like taking a long walk, jumping jacks, running, and playing sports that require constant movement such as tennis, basketball, or swimming all enhance the cardiovascular system. Taking aerobics classes, martial arts, or kickboxing are all excellent ways to get your blood pumping and energized.

Strength training involves the building of muscle to replace fat, creating stronger, healthier tissue, and will also lower blood pressure. It also offsets the normal loss of muscle from aging, and protects against injury by building stronger bones. Other positive benefits from strength training include anti-depression, loss of back pain, and lowering the risk for kidney disease, stroke, and cancer. Strength training can be separated into two separate concepts: weight training and resistance training. Training with weights can be as simple as lifting a dumbbell or performing a bench press. There are innumerable exercises for each individual muscle, so if one exercise is too difficult or complicated, don’t get discouraged. The best way to learn how to properly train with weights is to join a local gym and get a tutorial from a personal trainer. Most gyms offer an introductory service for free with a membership. Resistance training is very similar to weight training except that you are contracting against the weight of another object. That object could be a weight, such as a dumbbell or medicine ball, but it could also be the weight of our own bodies. Push-up, sit-ups, chin-ups, and leg lifts are just a few examples of resistance training that you can do without any extra equipment.

The final and most important aspect of the fitness triangle is the way we eat. Like putting the right kind of fuel in our cars, it doesn’t matter if we have a Ferrari or a station wagon, it won’t go anywhere unless it has the right fuel. The great thing about the dietary part of the triangle is that it’s simple to understand which foods to choose that are high in vitamins and nutrition. In fact, the dietary aspect of the fitness triangle accounts for about 80% in total importance. Like I said before, you can outfit your car with the best engine, sound system, and accessories, but it won’t go anywhere unless it has a full tank of fuel. Some foods that are high in protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and low in fat and cholesterol include almonds, vegetables like beans and peas, fat-free dairy products, eggs, turkey, tuna, berries, and whole grain products. This is not to say you have to eliminate things like cheeseburgers, cheesesteaks, desserts, and other good stuff from your diet. It just means that you have to balance these foods with the foods that will help to burn fat and build muscle. Replacing soda with water, for example, is a great start. Bringing a healthy lunch to work instead of hitting the McDonald’s drive through is an excellent way to change to a healthier lifestyle. For more information, I suggest reading up on the latest nutritional tips on the internet, or read The Abs Diet, or The Abs Diet for Women by David Zinczenko.       

But I Don’t Have The Time! 

Haven’t we all heard that from at least one student when we ask them how long they’ve practiced in a particular week? And our answer is usually the same: “If you can find the time to spend hours on video games, Facebook, or texting your friends, surely you can spend more time practicing your concert material!” Now granted, the situation is not exactly the same (hopefully!) when we consider music educators teaching a variety of subjects and balancing a home, family, and social life all at once. I have had the experience of teaching Choir, Concert Band, Marching Band, Music Theory, Jazz, and running a Music Booster Organization, in addition to finding time to compose, practice my clarinet and saxophone, and having an active social life. And yes, sometimes it can get quite exhausting. However, we need to understand that without prioritizing our own physical health, we risk losing the very thing that allows us to multitask and run at 100% every week.

During my time managing the New York Sports Clubs fitness center, I interviewed numerous personal trainers in what they believed was an adequate fitness schedule that would both build muscle, trim fat, and promote good cardiovascular health. They informed me that for the strength training aspect of the fitness triangle, only about 2 hours a week was necessary to maintain one’s current condition, with a 30 minute focus on abdominal muscles. Only 2-3 hours a week were needed for cardiovascular training, which could be easily accomplished by taking a brisk walk for an hour three times a week. As for the diet, again noted as the most important aspect of the fitness triangle, that takes a bit more time to adjust to. David Zinczenko, editor of Men’s Health Magazine and author of “The Abs Diet”, refers to dietary habits as the most important part of a balanced fitness lifestyle, understanding once again that the general definition of “diet” is something temporary that you use to lose weight, in which after you gain the desired results, you start back on your normal eating habits (and the cycle begins anew!).

Having the commitment to losing weight and improving your health isn’t something you think about when you stand on the scale and realize “it’s time to go on that diet”. Instead, we should be continuing to maintain our health especially after we have reached our ideal weight. That way, the weight will stay off, we’ll be consistently healthy, and we’ll all feel better physical and mentality. 

So What Can I Do Right Now?

You don’t have to join a gym, hire a personal trainer, nutritionist, or buy tons of DVD’s of Tae-Bo, P90X, or watch The Biggest Loser. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things. After all, you really can’t put a price tag on health when it comes to your own. The first step is the same thing we say to students who are just beginning an instrument: just start playing! Get outside and take a walk, get on the internet and research healthy foods, subscribe to a fitness magazine and practice the exercises, play a sport, anything that gets you up and moving. There is a wealth of materials out there that can help point you in the right direction. Joining a gym and scheduling time with an accredited personal trainer is one of the best ways to start getting in shape and learn how to keep yourself there on your own. When it comes down to it, the primary factor for creating healthy habits is our own motivation. Only we can decide what we want to do with the body we’ve been given, and just like an instrument, it will take care of us if we only return the favor.

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