Musicians and athletes possess many similarities. Both train or practice for hours on end to build endurance for a big game, a marathon, an audition or a competition, both require a degree of mental preparation in their training to help calm nerves on the big day, and both are at high risk for repetitive strain or motion injuries that increases if they are not taught how to prevent or treat them. Something I have discussed in previous articles regarding my research in the field of performing arts health is that as musicians, we hear all too often that the only solution or treatment to the pain we are experiencing is to take time off of playing our instruments. This advice can be unrealistic for many different types of people; taking extended amounts of time off of playing as a student can set back your educational progress if you are studying music performance, and taking extended amounts of time off at a professional level can drastically affect your sources of income if your career is based on freelancing and performing. As a budding activist in the performing arts health field, searching for resources to share with fellow musicians that provide adequate care for treating and preventing performance-based injuries has been the primary source of my work thus far.
I came across Angela McCuiston's business, Music Strong, online after sharing my website www.playingwithoutpain.com on a musician's health and wellness page. Music Strong is a Nashville-based business that provides personal training for musicians. What makes this business different than any personal training or fitness service is that Angela seeks to find the specific underlying cause of the pain the musician is experiencing - whether it be a result of overuse and trauma or simply a result of general muscle imbalances and weakness. Angela uses strength training and corrective exercises to address the weaknesses in the clients' muscles, and then incorporate them into whole body movements so that the client's body functions well as a whole, in balance. Music Strongfeatures individualized training programs tailored to the client's unique goals, health situations and with their lifestyles in mind. Music Strongoffers initial consultations and assessments, progressive and periodized training for individual clients, and is run by professional flutist and certified personal trainer, Angela McCuiston, who has suffered from performance-based injuries herself and chose to create a solution for all flutists and musicians experiencing a similar pain narrative. Although her business is based in Nashville, TN, Angela also offers online coaching and consultations over Skype and is available for travel and workshops to promote Music Strong and the importance of personalized muscle and fitness training for injured musicians. You can find Angela's work and more information about Music Strong by visiting her website, http://musicstrong.com/.
1. You run a business titled "Music Strong", providing personal training services to treat and prevent performance-based injuries in musicians. What initially got you started in the field of performing arts health and personal training? Were there specific events that occurred in your life that motivated you to create Music Strong?
I've always been interested in health and fitness, it kind of runs in my family, but I didn't put the two together until much, much later. I have had 3 separate injuries as a result of playing my instruments, and when they happened, all doctors would tell is "stop playing". Well that's not an option, as we know, and I decided that instead of being frustrated I couldn't find an answer, I would BE an answer. So right after I graduated from graduate school I decided to pursue fitness and just see what it was all about. I did some research and discovered that NASM has a movement assessment chart that starts every program, which intrigued me. From there I saw that they had a Corrective Exercise Specialization, which helps you identify and uncover possible muscle imbalances that can lead to injury and something in my head just clicked and I thought, that's it! My first injury was tendonitis in my wrist, from increasing my playing time in high school from a couple hours a day to 8 hours a day at Interlochen. I wasn't given any preparation for that type of volume and suffered an overuse injury because of it. My second injury was in graduate school where I was not only playing several hours a day, I was also strength training up to 6 days a week, with poor form, using pictures and workouts from magazines (I didn't know any better) and had no idea that 20+ years of playing the flute had created an imbalance in my left chest/shoulder/back area. I was in the gym doing an incline dumbbell bench press (with poor form, so a 1-2 punch of bad idea) and felt a sharp pain and then I couldn't move. Turns out I had torn my left rhomboid muscle - all caused from muscle imbalance and overuse. The third injury came after graduate school when I last minute learned of an audition I really wanted to take. There was a lot of repertoire I didn't know and so, against my better judgement, I crammed. I went from 0-2 to 3 hours a day of piccolo practice and not only did I cramp up my right bicep, I developed spasms in my back, neck and shoulder, headaches and a trigger point in my left pectoral major muscle. I went to see a doctor a week before the audition when I couldn't stand it anymore, and his exact words were this: "Well, you've got what we call a "knot" in your chest. Usually when they're this severe I would give you a cortisone shot right in the middle of it to release it and calm it down, but it's directly over your heart, and that might cause your heart to stop and kill you, and you don't want that, so why don't you stop playing?". I was astounded. THAT was his answer???? I told him that was not a solution, so he gave me a steroid cream and told me to rest, and I determined right then and there, enough was enough and I was going to be a solution.
2. What were some challenges you faced when creating your business, and how did you overcome them?
So many challenges. Having degrees in music performance did not really prepare me to be a full time entrepreneur, so I have had to teach myself everything about business. I had to create an identity and a name, which was really tricky, because what I do is such a niche, and so different, people just don't understand it. I wanted Music Strong to convey just that, strength, and balance through strength, without alienating anyone. I had to get a logo created, I've had to learn all about marketing, website design, taxes, networking, social media, you name it. None of that I learned in school and it has taken quite a while to get the hang of some of it. I read voraciously, everything I can get my hands on that has to do with business, entrepreneurialism and fitness. The fitness certification and specializations were just the beginning - continuing education is so crucial, so I do my best to not only read as much as I can from reputable sources, but to attend fitness conferences. The two I have attended have helped immensely and improved my training so much, and I'm again going to be attending the OPTIMA conference put on by NASM in Scottsdale, AZ, this coming October. Education should never stop,if it does, you're outdated.
Another challenge I've faced when creating Music Strong is that people just don't understand what I do. I tell them I'm a personal trainer for musicians and I constantly get asked "Does that mean you lift your flute for weight? Do you train with your instrument?" And then I get asked everything from "does that mean you can teach me guitar" to "is that like yoga?" See, people have preconceived notions of musicians and personal trainers, and they are different, when you put the two together, people get very confused. When I throw in corrective exercise (which is still a relatively new and unknown field to the general population) then I start getting asked if I'm a physical therapist. Oh no, definitely not. PT's and corrective exercise specialists are two separate jobs, though a lot of our exercises overlap and share. So learning to explain my business in a concise way that people understand has been a struggle. But when I tell people that I help musicians overcome and/or prevent pain from playing related muscle imbalances, through strength training, they get it.
3. What is the primary motivation behind pairing musicians with personal trainers, and how can working with a personal trainer help musicians to treat and prevent performance-based injuries?
The primary motivation comes through wanting musicians to not just be balanced and overcome their possible muscle imbalances but to also be strong and really understand their own bodies and how they move. When your self awareness is increased, it's easier to prevent postures and habits that can cause problems. Alexander Technique, Body Mapping and yoga are all good for this, but they do not address the fundamental issue which is muscle imbalance. You have to find the imbalance and release what's tight and overactive and then specifically activate and strengthen what is weak. Then, you need to integrate that new movement pattern into the body as a whole, or you will just go back to what you were doing before and be no better off. It's like athletes though, you know it's a matter of time before an athlete gets injured; it's the nature of what they do, doing one thing, all the time, and they have to actively train to prevent that. A pitcher in baseball works out doing squats and rows and various other things that to the untrained eye you would think "why bother? That's not his job"? But the body does not work in isolation, it works as a whole and you have to treat and train it as such. Personal trainers are in a unique situation to be able to address those specific muscle imbalances and guide musicians through those exercises safely, coaching them on correct form and regressing, or progressing them as need be. No two people are alike and I may have 5 people with the same muscle imbalance but I don't treat any of them the same, because while someone may be able to do or feel one thing, another has zero clue and it will take longer and you need to go a different route. Musicians are exactly the same way.
4. Do you have any success stories of customers you have worked with and trained through Music Strong? If so, would you mind sharing one and how they overcame performance-based pain or injury through personal training?
Oh for sure! My favorite story is an electric bass player named Zach. He was in college and came to see me because he was to the point that not only could he not play for more than two minutes without excruciating pain, his arms would start to go numb and tingly. He had tried everything, including rigging up a double strap, but nothing seemed to work. I gave him a movement assessment and he presented as having upper-crossed syndrome and possible shoulder impingement/Thoracic outlet syndrome. Not being a doctor or PT or having access to MRI or etc., I'm not allowed to make any kind of diagnosis, but going off his lack of range of motion, etc. I was able to create a plan for him that addressed the muscle imbalances he had, which were systemic. FIrst off, we had to release his tight muscles, so we did foam rolling of his thoracic spine and lats, and also he had the tightest forearms of anyone I'd ever seen, they were like rocks! We started out with balls on them to release, but he took it a step further and purchased something called an ArmAid, and used it every day. We did stretches to release those tight muscles and then strengthening exercises for his weak upper back and shoulders, neck and entire posterior chain, and also his core, it was so weak! And because the body does not function in isolation, we also worked on his balance and leg strength and we incorporated everything together.
We came up with a routine he could do and then he tweaked it himself, a mixture of heat, massage, stretching and post playing ice and between that and strength training, I'm happy to say that Zach is pain-free, and able to play for hours at a time. People like him are the reason I do what I do.
Interview by: Francesca Leo