Injured musicians: why suffer in silence?

Cellist Corinne Morris has overcome a debilitating shoulder injury to get her career back on track – but such comebacks are rare for musicians. Why do so many players suffer in silence?

With several awards, high-profile appearances and recordings under her belt, the British-French cellist Corinne Morris was on the cusp of fame. About to be signed to a major artist management firm, it looked very much like the beginnings of a glittery stage career – the legendary Rostropovich even nicknamed her ‘Corinotchka’. But the musician’s dreams were cut short when a painful and debilitating shoulder injury, caused by years of overuse, forced her to cancel a string of engagements. She couldn’t play for five years, and even sold her cello.

‘I was about to really take off into an international career at the time,’ she says. ‘It was like everything was crumbling around me.’ Initially Morris didn’t know where to turn – she consulted a doctor but wasn’t satisfied with the advice, which always recommended surgery. She rested her shoulder for several months in the hope it would get better, but the ligament was so frayed and inflamed that it needed much longer to repair.

‘I had to go through a lot of physical and emotional pain for a long time. I became very introverted and depressed. Eventually the pain went away and I was able to think more clearly. I couldn’t make sense of my life without music and I thought, I have to find a way to actually get better and get my shoulder sorted.’

An online search revealed that a treatment normally used by athletes, Active Release Technique, might be able to alleviate Morris’ pain. Used to treat problems with muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves, ART aims to restore the smooth movement of tissues and to release any trapped nerves or blood vessels. ‘I started going to sessions with a specialist and he assured me from day one that I would get better,’ she says.

Morris is now relaunching her career with the release of a new album Macedonian Sessions, recorded with the Macedonian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and released along with a video of the cellist playing. The work features music by Tchaikovsky, Bruch, Fauré, Saint-Saëns and Piazzolla, as well as an original self-penned composition. Morris was even able to perform on the instrument she was forced to sell, a CA Miremont cello dating back to 1876 that a private investor has loaned back to her. Morris has managed and produced the entire project herself, crowdfunded by her fans, without relying on the music industry – a fitting sign of her determined comeback. ‘Starting again was quite a daunting task,’ she says. ‘But I thought, I’ve got to make a release to prove myself to everyone.’

Had the cellist known of Active Release Technique from the outset, she could have been back on track in a matter of months. Sadly, Morris’ story is not unusual: a recent study from Psychology of Music found that 84 per cent of professional orchestral musicians in Australia have experienced pain that impaired their performance at some point in their career. A significant number described their pain as severe. Injuries among musicians are widespread, yet most players don’t seek help, despite many ailments being easily treatable. So why do so many musicians suffer in silence?

Deborah Charnock, the interim chief executive of the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine, says the industry could be at fault. ‘A lot of people who come to us have been struggling with a problem for a long time. The profession can be very secretive, and it’s so competitive. If you have a problem and can’t perform anymore, there’s someone there to take your place. So often musicians have kept [their injury] a secret for a long time.’

It’s an attitude Morris is all too familiar with. ‘I knew the pressures of the industry,’ she says. ‘If you tell people, “I’m having a bad patch”, it’s like you’re crossed off the list forever. So I didn’t want to say anything at the beginning, then I had to say, “I’m out for the moment”. I could feel the doors closing on me very quickly.’

‘There’s not been a recognition that musicians are both artists and athletes. It’s just seen as something that’s artistic and intellectual, and not necessarily about the body’

Thankfully, Morris was able to draw on the negatives of her experience and channel it into her performance. ‘I believe I’m playing better than I’ve ever played,’ she says. ‘It’s made me think about my playing and I’ve also learnt more about how the body works.’ The cellist wants promoters, record label executives and other figures across the music industry to understand that performers can have setbacks but it doesn’t mean they should be written off, or that they can’t make a comeback.

‘I think my injury has made me a stronger performer, I understand things better, I’m a better teacher,’ she says. ‘I’m also doing everything I can to prevent anything like that happening [again], I’m eating healthily, getting enough sleep and exercise. I see my experience as a plus, not as a weakness.’


Corinne Morris © Ben Ealovega
Corinne Morris © Ben Ealovega

But Charnock says there’s a long way to go in raising awareness of the strain musicians put themselves under. ‘There’s not been a recognition that musicians are both artists and athletes. It’s just seen as something that’s artistic and intellectual, and not necessarily about the body. And for a long time there’s been this attitude of no pain, no gain.’

‘Compared to sports, healthcare professionals think if musicians have a problem, they should just change jobs, or have a rest,’ continues Charnock. ‘Musicians don’t always get a lot of sympathy from their own doctors. And the healthcare providers don’t always know how to deal with players. They don’t know the stretch that’s required to play an octave, for example.’

BAPAM offers free clinical consultations for professional, semi-pro and student performing artists. ‘A lot of things that come out of the consultations with our clinicians is healthy performance advice, which will often involve things like warm up, cooling down, playing in bursts rather than long sessions, posture and the ergonomics of the instrument. It’s very much about getting performers to look at how their bodies are working, maintain peak performance and avoid injury.’

The London-based organisation also campaigns to raise awareness of the treatment available to musicians. ‘The two groups that need to become more aware are music teachers and healthcare professionals,’ says Charnock. ‘I have to say it’s not easy getting it into the consciousness of a lot of the places that should be taking it on board, like educational institutions and employers in the performing arts. It’s not integrated yet as something they need to be thinking about, it’s happening in more isolated pockets. A lot of music schools offer healthy performance advice, but it will often be an optional talk during freshers’ week rather than a part of the curriculum.’

While Charnock and the BAPAM team are keen to make sure educators and professionals know how to support musicians, Morris wants her story to be an inspiration to her fellow performers. ‘I had lost my career but was able to find treatment, so it is possible,’ she says. ‘I want to reach out to all those musicians who are having problems, whether minor or major ones, and tell them that it is possible to hang on in there and keep believing that you’ll find a way. One feels very alone with the pain.’

‘Musicians and figures in the industry need to know that if something happens, there is support available. It’s not as widespread yet as it is in professional sports. But I think it’s coming and we just need to get the word out that it does exist.’