I’m…. back?

Actually, the title should read: “I am my back.”

If it’s the knees that limit the careers of most football players, the chops that give out on many brass players and the wrists that often become a problem for pianists, it is the back that remains the most likely problem area for conductors. In the past year, back problems have contributed significantly to the absences of Seiji Ozawa and James Levine. Tellingly, Ozawa reported to the New York Times last week that he’d beaten his cancer, but that his sciatica was still significantly limiting his ability to walk, let alone conduct.

Karajan’s back problems became serious after a skiing accident in the late 70’s. When asked what he wanted his epitaph to read, Karajan said “I want it to say “he died in great pain.”

Why do so many conductors have back problems?

It certainly seems reasonable to assume that the act of conducting itself is a major cause- standing for many long hours of rehearsal and concert can certainly put strain on the back, particularly the lower back. Perhaps over years, this is bound to simply wear out crucial areas of the back structure? Are back problems the inescapable result of a long conducting career?

I had an experience a few years back that made me question this. I’ve had a recurring back injury that goes back to my years as a rock guitar player. A grim part of the reality of being a rocker is the need to move heavy amps and instruments from gig to gig (until you reach the level of the business when you can let roadies wreck their backs moving your stuff). That this gets combined with some social drinking means that one is often lifting heavy things in and out of vehicles at funny angles when you might not be as mindful as you should about how you use your body. Since my early 20’s, anytime I put on too much weight or am careless with lifting or stooping, the right side of my lower back will get very problematic. In 1999 it gave out so badly that I was seeing stars while playing in orchestra (and we were recording something with a cello solo that week- not a fun time). After that, I took a lot more care, but still had minor problems from time to time.

Then in about 2007, I was in Portland to conduct and woke up one night in the worst pain I had ever experienced- the old injury had erupted with a ferocity I never imagined possible. I couldn’t get up from the bed, I couldn’t adjust my position, but the pain compelled me to try to shift around- when I would try to move, the pain was unbearable and completely incapacitating. I had to call for help on my cell phone to get someone to bring me some ibuprofen, which got me to the point I could get to the doctor (barely) where I got some far stronger drugs, but I was still essentially incapacitated for the whole day. I thought I probably needed surgery, and was about to change my flight, cancel my concert and go home.  All I could do was doze in a painkiller-laden haze.

I woke up at about 6:30 PM that day, just before a 7PM rehearsal that I never thought I would make. I decided to try, and took every drug I could without risk to my life and went to work. I could barely walk, but made it into rehearsal and propped myself up on a stool.

The point of this story is that at the end of the rehearsal, I felt slightly better, not worse. The pain in my back was significant throughout, but any time I leaned or twisted or nodded my head, it was blinding. It forced upon an extreme state of body awareness, but for the next three days, each time I conducted, I got a little bit better, when nothing else helped.

When we conduct, we need to forget our self-consciousness, we need to let go of our fears about our bodies. This may be good for communication, but it also means that we may not be aware of the moments that we’re hurting ourselves. Pain is a warning system– in Portland, my pain settings were turned up so high that I was literally forced to conduct in an extremely healthy way. I didn’t do anything damaging to my back because I couldn’t, but instead got the benefit of that gentle upper body exercise. Normally, conducting makes me forget pain, which in turn, might make me forget what I am doing to my body.  I learned that if I can find a healthy substitute for the mindfulness that came with that pain, the exercise that comes from conducting could contribute to my health, especially the health of my back.

So, perhaps the act of conducting need not be damaging, but only if we do find time to consider our body usage from time to time. It’s all but impossible to disengage from the music in rehearsal to check one’s posture- instead, I think it’s something we ought to develop our mindfulness about: on our own time. I’ve done the odd bit of yoga and Alexander Technique- it’s always helpful to me. Every conductor should study as much body awareness  and movement theory as they can.

The fact is, as we get older, good conductors often think less and less about technique, but an un-natural use of the body can cause severe physical problems. Solti developed a large bone spur on his right collar bone late in life from his conducting. Others, like Gunter Wand and Andre Previn have essentially changed their entire body shape. Even Haitink, who has the most natural technique of any conductor I’ve ever seen, and who still stands beautifully, without a hint of a stoop in his 80s, had to cancel several concerts last year due to back problems.

However, not all of this originates on the podium. Perhaps an even larger contributor to the back issues of conductors is the way we study and the amount we travel. An instrumentalist may lose sight of how they use their body in the heat of a concert, but when they return to the practice room, most are very aware of using that time to work on their posture, technique and setup.

Most conductors don’t really practice- we study. When I prepare as a cellist, I practice, and in doing so, I focus on posture, breathing, fluidity and relaxation. The better I use my body, the better I sound. If there’s a problem in the sound, it’s because I’m mis-using my body.  When I prepare as a conductor, I study- I’m sat at my desk or at the piano for many, many hours, thinking. The sound is in my head, not my body. Even in rehearsal, I may use my body well and get  a poor result from a bad orchestra, or use my body badly and get a great result for a good orchestra. There is no aural warning that I’m hurting myself. When studying, we all tend to lean forward over our desks, bringing our heads out of alignment with our spines. We may sit on dodgy chairs. When banging out scores at the keyboard, I rarely see conductors thinking about a classic pianistic setup- it’s legs crossed, coffee cup on the piano, pencil between the fingers. Not healthy long term.

The real problem about the back is that once broken, it can never really be fixed. Instead, it must be managed– I can work around my 20 year old injury by staying reasonably thin, studying on a good chair and stretching when I travel, but the injury is still there.  The back is a finite resource- just as every mile you drive your car lowers its value, every time you mis-use your back, you’re that much closer to the predicaments of Karajan, Levine and Ozawa.

Some conductors are remarkably disciplined about taking care of themselves. Mark Elder gets massage therapy everywhere he goes, and takes regular Alexander coaching. Some are completely careless. I’m probably in the middle- I tend to do as little as I need to avoid that sharp pain that tells me I’m courting disaster. I’m trying to get wiser, but there are always pressures to find more time to study, do admin, even blog. Nobody ever encourages you to go stretch.

Here are some basic common sense tips for lengthening your career and avoiding problems-

1-       Learn something about the mechanics of the body and especially the back. Understand how much being balanced lowers the strain on the spine, and how much damage being off balance can do. Bending 10 degrees forward puts way more strain on your body than standing upright does

2-       Don’t wait until you are incapacitated to start working on posture and body usage. I can tell the minute I look at a young conductor if they’re heading for trouble, but if I tell them “you should take Alexander lessons” they might say they don’t need it because they “haven’t had any trouble.” They haven’t had trouble yet! Whether it’s playing an instrument or conducting- if you are doing something in an unhealthy way, you will injure yourself, it’s just a matter of when. Once you injure your back, it’s going to be a problem for the rest of your life.

3-       It’s not a terrible idea to write the odd reminder in your scores to take a moment to think about your body. I sometimes write the word “TALL” if I think I’ve got a tendency to schlump in a given passage. Be pragmatic- you’ve only got one body. I should do it more often than I do.

4-       Know the tendencies of your body type- I’m tall, so I have to look down more to see the players and the music. This pulls my head forward. It’s something I’ve struggled with all my career. Very short conductors sometimes do the opposite- especially the more aggressive Napoleanic maestri tend to make up for stature by pushing their lower back forward and up, like an aggressive Yorkshire terrier. Be the size you are. Tall or short, boy or girl, skinny or large- whatever your shape, there are typical risks that come with your body type. Learn what they are and guard against them.

5-       Manage your body type. I’m carrying more beer and pizza on my mid-section than I should, but I’m also sharply aware that every pound I carry that I don’t need to is shortening my career, and because of my injury, I know there is a very absolute point at which weight gain equals agony. Just because you haven’t had weigh-related back problems yet doesn’t mean you won’t.

6-       Sit on a chair in rehearsals some times. Many conductors and conducting are quite macho about insisting on always conducting standing, as if sitting down is an act of laziness. You only get one back- sitting for half your work might add 15 years to your career. Just remember not to get so used to the chair in rehearsals that conducting standing in the concert feels un-natural. Also- we tend to place our hands higher when conducting seated, something that doesn’t get a good sound when we’re standing and puts more strain on the back. Alternate standing and sitting, and when you stand, consciously think about lowering your hands and arms

7-       Use a podium. Again- conducting with the arms too high puts more strain on your back. A lot of UK bands treat a podium as a luxury to be used only in the concert- they see me at 6 foot 2 and assume I don’t need one in rehearsal. These days, people mistake the podium-as-tool for a symbol of authority and ego. It’s there for it’s practical value, and for no other reason. I’m finding more and more it’s better to use one as often as possible so the players can see me, and I can have direct contact with the wind and brass and back desks of strings without having to lift my arms above my shoulders

8-       Top travel tips: Never sit on your wallet (I haven’t put my wallet in my hip pocket since that fateful week in Portland 3 years ago- it’s really helped). Be careful with heavy score bags in airports, especially when standing in line for long periods. Stretch before and after flying. Take your shoes off on the plane (the extra weigh on your feet puts un-needed stress on your back when seated for long flights). Drink lots of water.

9-       KNOW THE MUSIC. If you are completely and totally comfortable with the repertoire you conduct, you can find more time to think about your technique, posture and wellness. When you are in command of the music, you tend to naturally use your body better, because your confidence and focus projects into the body. Also, you don’t have to look down at the score as often- every time the head looks down, you put a little strain on your spine! Develop a big repertoire when you are young- make a start on as many things as you can, so that later, you’re not having to learn things for the first time while balancing career, family and admin.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

All material in these pages is protected by copyright.

2 comments on “I’m…. back?”

  1. Bruce

    Ah Ken, that fateful word…TALL! It changed my life in 2008 🙂 Great entry…I got a lot out of this blog post (well…I get a lot out of all your entries really).


  2. Kenneth Woods

    Great to hear from you Bruce! It is a fine word for everyone, but especially those of us over 6 ft….

    Hope all goes well there- keep in touch


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