Peabody Johns Hopkins University Magazine

Conservatory Musicians as ‘Elite Athletes’ 

Conservatory Musicians as ‘Elite Athletes’ 

A year after she began guitar studies at Peabody in the 1990s, Serap Bastepe-Gray (BM ’96, MM ’99, Guitar) developed tennis elbow. “It was devastating,” she recalls. A medical doctor, Bastepe-Gray sought advice from three physician friends: a neurologist, an internist, and an orthopedic surgeon. “They would examine me and say, ‘Are you sure you hurt your arm playing the guitar?’”

Using her background in medicine, she set about researching her injury, and ultimately devised ways to treat it, including changing how she positioned and moved her hand when playing. In effect, she fixed herself, she says. “I was able to get myself to a level where I could play my senior recital and graduate.” She then moved on to earn her master’s in guitar performance.

While diagnosis and treatment of musicians’ injuries have improved in the past 20 years, they remain a serious problem. According to Bastepe-Gray, now the director of the guitar ensemble program at Peabody—and the wife of Julian Gray, chair of Peabody’s Guitar Department—up to 86 percent of classical players sustain performance-related injuries at some point in their careers.

Responding to the problem, this past fall, Peabody presented a three-part seminar series focused on performance health and wellness. Put together by Bastepe-Gray, Peabody director of student affairs Kyley Sommer, and Alexander Pantelyat, an assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the seminars took place in the Centre Street Performance Studio.

“We want to make sure students have information about their physical health as it pertains to their playing,” explains Sommer. “For a lot of our students, there is a stigma about being injured. So we’re really trying to turn that around and give them either the tools for preventive care so that they don’t injure themselves, or, once they are injured, to recognize that it’s okay that they’re hurting and how to get help.”

In the inaugural lecture, Pantelyat spoke to Peabody students and faculty about dystonia—the loss of fine motor control (affecting both fingers and embouchure) while playing, a disorder that plagues pianists and stringed-instrument/brass/woodwind performers. “There is evidence that dystonia in musicians may be associated with overtraining,” Pantelyat notes. “Thus, warming up before practice or performance, practicing for controlled periods of time—25 minutes, then taking a break for three to five minutes—and being mindful of your physical limitations, such as avoiding repertoire beyond your range or abilities, are important.”

The second seminar was led by Ralph Manchester, vice-provost and professor of medicine at the University of Rochester, and Bastepe-Gray conducted the final lecture, addressing what she calls “the nuts and bolts of preventive advice, what to do when you are injured, how to get back to playing, and how to practice when you’re nursing an injury.” She hopes to see this initial effort grow into a robust program incorporating educational, wellness, preventative, and rehabilitative components.

“This is important work,” Pantelyat stresses, “because musicians often don’t realize that they are athletes of the small muscles, and should treat themselves as elite athletes do in order to avoid injury and enjoy long and successful careers in music.”

— Michael Yockel