Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The ‘not so soft’ life of musicians

By Dave Babbitt – Special to the Sydenham Current

Anyone with as many birthdays behind them as me, can likely say that they’ve had many jobs.

Of course, most of my adult life I spent in the field of education but before that I worked in a few factories, the funeral business, tarring roads and my favourite job of all, an inside postal worker.

Some of my jobs were ‘easier’ than others but every one of them carried with it some degree of risk or danger and you can stop with the funeral home jokes right now!

Surely those of you who work in high-risk occupations will no-doubt laugh when I say that being a musician can also be a dangerous occupation.

In comparing being a musician to something like a professional athlete, stunt person, race car driver or industrial worker, being a musician seems rather mundane and not particularly dangerous.

Musicians are likely thought of as ‘soft’.

But surely, you’ve heard of the rare, but horrific incidents where musicians have lost their lives in events like stage collapses, pyrotechnics gone-wrong, plane crashes on the way to the next gig and those who cannot handle the excesses of superstardom.

And those playing the bar circuit have no-doubt at one time had to duck a variety of objects thrown at the stage by unruly, heavily drinking patrons.

While those, and many other little things as simple as tripping on cables on a dark stage are no laughing matter, I want to focus on the less spectacular and but sometimes, career threatening injuries.

I’ll start with vocalists.

Pop, rock and country artists are known to embark on ‘world tours’ last can last anywhere from months to a few years.

Now think of a vocalist who comes down with a cold, sore throat or any number of ailments that can affect their voice knowing that there are tens of thousands of people, tickets in-hand who expect to hear them at their very best tomorrow night.

And there are several more dates after that before they get a night off!

The human voice is a delicate instrument and cannot be abused if it’s to be utilized night after night.

I think of people like Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones (who stage HUGE world tours) or Brian Johnson of AC/DC and the abuse their voices take night after night and don’t forget about opera artists who while much more formally trained than most pop artists, must project to large audiences without the benefit of microphones.

It isn’t any wonder many vocalists do not want to glad hand with fans after a concert.

The spread of COVID has simply reinforced how simple it is to transmit disease.

I’ve heard of vocalists who refuse to talk after a concert to save their vocal cords.

The best of the best study voice to ensure they are using their instrument properly and safely.

On to the ears.

There have been countless musicians who have had their hearing severely and sometimes permanently damaged from performing in loud venues and in front of stacks of amplifiers night after night, year after year.

Many times, this hearing damage manifests itself in form of tinnitus, or a ringing in the ears.

This has affected many famous musicians such as Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Ozzy Osbourne and Neil Young just to name a few.

Brian Setzer is currently unable to perform currently due to severe tinnitus and Huey Lewis has been debilitated by Meniere’s disease.

Hearing loss for anyone is a terrible thing but when making music is one’s livelihood and it’s downright sad, especially when steps could have been taken to avoid it.

Playing any of the wind or string instruments can present major problems as well, particularly repetitive strain injuries.

One cannot begin to imagine the literally millions and millions of times a violinist would move the bow back and forth across the strings from their time as a beginner through a professional career.

The strain on the shoulder, arm, wrist and fingers, eventually take a toll.

Wind players will press and release keys at a similar rate, often leading to conditions such as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and ligament problems.

Drummers can suffer repetitive strain injuries as well, but add their legs to the shoulder, arm, wrist and finger injuries, and sitting on a drummer’s throne can lead to major back issues.

Recently I read an article about a drummer suffering from dystonia.

Holding a trumpet, trombone or flute out in front of your body for long periods of time strains the arms and particularly the back, and I always feel sorry for saxophone and guitar players who have that heavy weight supported by a neck strap causing neck and shoulder problems.

Back in my high school days, I was playing the trumpet so much (and incorrectly) that I literally put a hole right through my lip!

Luckily, today’s musicians are much more aware of the dangers of their craft and more and more are taking the health and safety aspects of being a musician much more seriously.

Fortunately, for those afflicted with an injury, there are some medical clinics that specialize in injuries to musicians.

Unfortunately, here is no vaccine to keep musicians safe from injury.

Stay well my friends!

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