Ep 21: Moving Well to Play Better with Bronwen Ackermann

Ep 21: Moving Well to Play Better with Bronwen Ackermann

Bronwen Ackermann

about bronwen

Dr. Bronwen Ackermann is a physiotherapist whose interest in performing arts health grew as a result of working with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra since 1995. Now Australia’s leading researcher in the field, she has worked extensively with performing artists since the 1990s, with her clinical and research work focussed on musicians’ injuries. She received a Churchill fellowship in 2002 allowing her to spend time with international colleagues involved in both research and clinical work in the field of music medicine.

Her PhD was completed in 2003 looking at performance-related musculoskeletal injuries in violinists. Since then she has been conducting research into musicians’ injuries focussing on performance-related injury prevention, performance-related injury assessment and management, optimising performance through enhancing physical and psychological well-being, and understanding the anatomical and physiological mechanisms underpinning musical performance.

She joined academia in mid-2006 and works in the Sydney Medical School teaching functional musculoskeletal anatomy. She has led several large national musicians’ health projects including an ARC linkage grant investigation developing evidence-based guidelines for best management of occupational injuries occurring in musicians(‘Sound Practice’), and an ALTC national music health curriculum initiative in collaboration with Associate Professor Suzanne Wijsman from the University of Western Australia (‘Sound Performers’).

She was the inaugural president of the Australian Society for Performing Arts healthcare and is the Chair of the International Liaison Committee and the Education Committee of the USA based Performing Arts Medicine Association (PAMA), as well as the editor-in-chief of the premier journal in the field, Medical Problems of Performing Artists. She has presented nationally and internationally to many orchestras, health professionals and music organisations about evidence-based principles of injury prevention and management for musicians.

in this episode

It was an enormous privilege and pleasure to speak with Bronwen Ackermann who is one of the brightest lights in performing arts medicine internationally. She has a wealth of experience working with musicians improve movement patterns and is an incredibly clear and thoughtful communicator. We covered a lot of ground in this conversation including:

  • How Bronwen, a non-musician physiotherapist, became interested in working with musicians, including her transition from sports medicine to performing arts medicine

  • Bronwen’s work as a high-performance consultant at the Australian National Academy of Music

  • Why learning to use the body efficiently is about more than avoiding injury

  • Similarities and differences between sports medicine and performing arts medicine

  • Why balanced physical effort is so critical for musicians and how difficult it can be to achieve this sort of balance given the complex movements required to play an instrument

  • How the stresses of a musical life — including a high volume of practice — can cause very small inefficiencies in movement to snowball into much larger problems

  • How mental and emotional stress can cause more tension to accumulate in the peripheral areas of the body, e.g. the hand

  • What pain is and why no one experiences pain in the same way

  • The complexities and challenges of healing chronic pain and why it is important for musicians to seek help as soon as something feels “not quite right”

  • “Analysis paralysis” and whether or not it is something musicians really need to worry about

  • Why it can be very empowering for musicians to understand and be able to feel how their bodies are meant to move and Bronwen’s view that, while thinking about individual muscle movements would not be ideal in performance, this is actually an important part of practice

  • Why it is important to know what we mean when we use common terms such as “breath support,” “arm weight,” or “corners”

  • Bronwen’s extensive study of music pedagogy books as a means of understanding the received wisdom circulating among musicians

  • Biomechanics and its similarity to acoustics

  • Why Bronwen does a lot of work with musicians away from the instrument, particularly in the initial stages of learning how to control specific muscles

  • Why musicians’ physical training needs to be very specific in order to help them play better (it’s not simply a matter of going to the gym more often)…

  • …But, that general fitness and conditioning is still very important for musicians and what types of exercises are particularly helpful for musicians

  • Risk factors for injury among musicians

  • Acute to chronic workload ratio and its relevance for musicians

  • How nutrition can be important for both performance and recovery

  • The importance of the good diaphragm function for all musicians, not just wind players and singers

  • The need for more flexible and responsive rehearsal schedules for orchestras and other ensembles

  • The flexible nature of proprioception and why it can be helpful to video record yourself regularly to ensure that you are moving the way you intend to move

  • Stigma around musicians’ injuries and how the shame and isolation often associate with injury can slow recovery

  • The role institutions can play in creating a culture that supports musicians’ health

  • The Sound Performers program for musicians

  • Bronwen’s thoughts on the support and training that music teachers need in order to be able to support and promote healthy playing

  • Why it is important for injured musicians to seek medical help rather than simply talking to each other or their teachers

  • Bronwen’s current project: Refining and testing a fine-motor training program which particularly targets hand and embouchure function

learn more

Bronwen’s page on the University of Sidney website

Australian National Academy of Music

Episode with Tina Margareta Nilsson

Sound Performers website

Sound Practice book

Athletes and the Arts

British Association of Performing Arts Medicine

Australian Society for Performing Arts Health

Performing Arts Medicine Association

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