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Real life stories

How a freelance musician is learningto say 'no' Rebecca's story

Rebecca is a freelance pianist. At the age of 34 she is beginning to wonder if her versatility as a musician and her accommodating nature may be at the root of the problems she is experiencing with her arms and wrists.

Her story is not unique, sadly. But now that she has contacted BAPAM she is beginning to learn that she needs to put her health higher up her list of priorities.

After an academic music degree and masters, Rebecca got her first job in 1997 playing at a ballet school – 8am to 6pm every day plus extra-curricular activities. It was great to have a job with a salary, plus holiday pay, and it enabled her to pay off her student loan. However, she began to miss all the other repertoire she didn’t have time to play, and missed working with singers and instrumentalists.

In 2002 she enrolled on an accompanists’ course and threw herself into the course in a big way. Not just because she loved what she was doing, it has to be said; she was also using her music as an escape from personal and emotional problems. When she started to get twinges in her arms, she ignored them and carried on working.

Since 2004 Rebecca has been working freelance. She has taught herself to play a church organ – ‘I’ve never had an organ technique lesson but I’ve found my way around the instrument’. She gives art song recitals with singer friends: Die Schöne Müllerin is a bit different from bashing out ballet pieces’, and she played harpsichord continuo for an opera company last summer: ‘Socially it was really intense, but we all had a great time. It did mean that I didn’t get any break from playing last summer. When athletes and tennis players say “the season is too long” I know exactly what they mean’. In addition she teaches piano and plays background music in posh hotels. As well as playing such varied repertoire, she is also expected to make music sound beautiful on the worst pianos. ‘Getting a nice legato on a clapped-out old instrument with a wonky pedal is quite a challenge.’

On top of all that, she is still working part-time at the ballet school. They get their money’s worth, employing her for three-hour sessions without a break and giving her any old ‘bucket’ chair to sit on. ‘I don’t want to ask for a better chair or for a five-minute break. I don’t want them to think I’m a diva,’ says Rebecca.

The pains in Rebecca’s arms have become harder to ignore, and she is now finding that her arms hurt when she is not playing. That is what prompted her to come to BAPAM. Her appointment with Dr Chirstopher Wynn Parry was a revelation on both sides. Rebecca learnt for the first time how to warm up prior to playing: ‘I thought it was about playing difficult phrases, now I realise it’s about stretching and doing windmills – nobody taught me that at college’. Dr Wynn Parry for his part was shocked to learn how institutions like ballet schools, who are teaching young performers, have such disregard for the health and wellbeing of the professionals they employ. But we can’t tell musicians to stop. Especially freelance musicians. You can’t be out of the loop for too long. And of course there are bills to pay.

Rebecca’s visits to BAPAM have set her on a new path. ‘I was so relieved to find out there’s nothing wrong with me, apart from a bit of hypermobility – which I learnt is very common among performers anyway. My big challenge is to prioritise my own health, even if it means I have to give up some of the work I do. I need to make sure I eat healthily, do enough exercise and above all, learn to say “no”. I suppose I need to become more selfish. My other discovery is that I am not alone. I have places I can come for help and support, and I won’t be afraid to ask for that.’

BAPAM can help with free assessments from one of our GPs, and we can refer you whatever form of treatment is the most appropriate. We can show you how to look after yourself, with practical and realistic advice for warming up, looking after your joints, eating well and so on. Union members are entitled to a range of legal and other professional support as well as discounts for the practitioners on the BAPAM Directory. Freelancers shouldn’t worry about becoming too expensive to employ if they join a union. They can accept or turn down work as they see fit. 'You can still choose to do things for love' says Pauline Dalby, MU’s Health & Safety Rep.

October 2007