CONVERSATION WITH JANET HORVATH

by Chrys Wu

When you hear the words "Mahler's Fifth," you probably think "great music." Janet Horvath wants you to think "phenomenal athleticism."

Horvath, associate principal cellist of the Minnesota Orchestra and a pioneer in performing arts medicine, has been on a mission to get musicians, instructors and management to realize that playing any instrument is physically demanding.

The last movement of Mahler's fifth symphony requires cellists to make 6400 movements in the left hand alone, she said. "It's really awesome what we expect of our bodies and we feel very let down when something goes wrong."

Fresh from a European tour of 12 concerts in 11 cities over 14 days, the Minnesota Orchestra has finished the equivalent of an adventure race. And just like those extreme athletes, the orchestra members were constantly on the move and sleep-deprived. Combined with a demanding but genial conductor, intensive rehearsals, and high expectations, injuries and illnesses were bound to happen.

Knowing this, Horvath asked management to hire a physical therapist for the tour. "Musical performance is athletic," she said. "Athletes travel with their sports trainers. Why shouldn't we?"

Orchestra management argued that they didn't have the money. But thanks to Horvath's campaigning and strategic phone calls by fundraising volunteer Holly Slocum, orchestra donors paid for a physical therapist to travel along and offer services full-time. Management was off the hook, and the musicians had relief.

Not only did the therapist work out performers' muscle kinks before and after concerts and rehearsals, she conducted stretching classes and treated other staff, guests, and even one of the truck drivers.

"She was sought out way more than the medical doctor who accompanied us," said Horvath. "The preventative nature of what she does and did for us was very, very important and helpful.... She even stopped [my head] cold dead in its tracks."

In Horvath's 25 years with the Minnesota Orchestra, she said no tour has been as grueling or successful as this one. She attributes a large part of the success to Kathy McClure, the physical therapist. "What we know from previous tours is that there've been a lot of injuries and illness," said Horvath. "I hope this will be precedent-setting because musicians will know the benefit."

Had it not been for her own need for rehabilitation while studying with Janos Starker at Indiana University, Horvath may never have had the career she has today.

"When I was a student with Starker, I wanted to be the best Starker student who ever lived," she said. "I was kind of sheltered, and was kind of lonely, so I locked myself in a practice room and practiced hours and hours and hours. I believed I could play thorough the pain.... We called it Bloomingtonitis."

The overpractice resulted in cumulative soft tissue injury so severe that Horvath could not perform daily tasks. Holding a knife and fork, turning a doorknob, and answering the phone were impossible. Fearing she'd never regain normal use of her hands, Horvath created her own recovery program under Starker's guidance and made a comeback. She also started to talk publicly about her experience and gather information on how to prevent injury.

Her research resulted in the book, Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians. Now in its third printing, Playing (Less) Hurt details how and why musician injuries occur, gives practical advice on how to avoid injury, and how to recover from injury.

For cellists, Horvath specifically recommends beginning each playing session with long slow shifts and slowly warming up larger muscle groups before beginning strenuous practice. She also suggests periodically uncurling arms and letting them hang for a minute during practice, and rolling shoulders and thumbs to relieve tension. For every 50 minutes of practice, cellists should take a 10 minute rest away from in the instrument and out of the chair.

Horvath's book also illustrates unobtrusive stretches that can be performed on-stage, such as "Hey, look at the flutes! Aren't they playing great today? Hey, look who's in the audience!"

Musicians who are injured so badly they have to stop playing must have patience during the recovery process, Horvath said. "I tell people that what you do is so physical and so athletic, that if you don't come back painstakingly and slowly, then (the injury) becomes chronic.... You need to be wise if you want to continue a long playing career."

Playing Less Hurt is available through Horvath’s website, www.playinglesshurt.com, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, Shar, and Southwest Strings. When she is not performing with the Minnesota Orchestra, Horvath plays chamber music on tour, gives salon concerts locally, and lectures on performing arts medicine throughout the country.

Copyright © Chrys Wu 2004. All rights reserved.




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