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The subject of injury is slowly becoming less taboo amongst classical musicians. But how do we navigate the professional logistics of being in pain?

It’s like comparing apples and oranges, of course, but lately I‘ve been wondering which is more undesirable: the physical discomfort of playing through an injury, or the emotional turmoil of letting down colleagues. The vast majority of musicians I know take enormous pride in what they do, with a deep-rooted sense of personal accountability and obligation even towards engagements that someone else entirely has organized, programmed, and promoted. (This comes as no surprise — musicians are by and large kind, decent, empathetic people who hate letting others down.) Let’s add another layer: what if the someone doing the organizing, programming, and promoting is… us? What if the situation at hand is a project of our own invention, with repertoire we love fiercely and musicians we've personally handpicked and promised a certain sort of experience? Do we dare — and if so, how do we dare — extricate ourselves from these sorts of scenarios, where the lines between professional and emotional already seem so blurry? Do we plow through the pain because we feel, in essence, responsible and potentially even irreplaceable (which may be true, or it may be the ego talking; does it even matter?) for the successful outcome of a project and our colleagues’ sense of emotional and financial comfort? Or do we force ourselves to take a step back in order to preserve our own health and sanity, and risk having the intricate musical structures that we’ve so painstakingly built come crashing down?

This subject feels like not only an emotional tug-of-war but a practical one, too, as the financial burden many in our profession face cannot be ignored: if we’re experiencing pain or burn-out, can we afford the time needed to rest and recover properly? For many of us, and especially since the pandemic — which uprooted an already precarious sense of financial security for huge swaths of our profession — the answer is no. And so we plug away, reluctant to step away from our jobs, as getting to the end of a concert is the only way we know how to pay our rent or put food on the table. (“But what if I have to take even more time off in the future than I would have had to up front in order to nip this pain in the bud? Oh well, I’ll think about that later…”)

I’m afraid I don’t have any answers, so if you’re looking for some, I’m very sorry to disappoint. These are merely some ramblings that have been clanking around in my brain, a plea for others to join an admittedly awkward conversation. Or, I suppose more accurately, help me to make this a bigger conversation. Because as far as I can see, there haven’t yet been satisfactory questions, let alone answers, to the issue of pain amongst musicians.


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