Interview with Jenna Baumgart, Part 1


“My Journey”

Jenna Baumgart received her Master’s degree in Music Education from the University of Utah in 2009. For her Master’s thesis, she looked at how much secondary string teachers knew about preventing performance injuries in their students. Baumgart is currently the Director of Orchestras at West Jordan and Copper Hills High Schools in West Jordan, Utah. She also performs regularly with the Salt Lake Symphony.

Question: How did you first become interested in musicians’ health?

Jenna Baumgart: My interest in musicians’ health comes from personal experience. About 15 years ago, when I was playing viola with the Wyoming Symphony in Casper, Wyoming, practicing and performing became increasingly painful and difficult. My back would ache, my arms, neck, and shoulders would become stiff, and the pain in my left arm and shoulder would be nearly unbearable. I went to four different doctors – ranging in specialty from neurology to orthopedics – and had three of them tell me that they could find nothing wrong. Only one pinpointed my problem. A torn disc in my neck at C5/6 [between the 5th and 6th cervical vertebrae] was pushing on my spinal cord, which was exaggerated when I was playing. We never determined the cause of the tear in the disc, but our best guess is that it most likely occurred when I was about 17 and had been in a “fender bender” type of car accident, and was then exacerbated by either incorrect position and/or overuse.

I was VERY worried that I would never be able to play comfortably or even play at all. The concert I played prior to my surgery ended in more pain than I ever wanted to deal with again. At the conclusion of the concert my stand partner had to take my instrument out of my hands and another friend had to help me up and walk me off the stage. I didn’t want to be like that. Playing was not fun when I hurt that much; it wasn’t worth it. I had a cervical fusion done in 1997, performed by a doctor in Colorado, to remove the torn disc and alleviate the pressure on my spinal cord. The benefit to this surgery was immediate. I hadn’t realized how much pain I had been in even while not playing. I guess the best way to describe it is like the frog being put in a pot of water. If the temperature is turned up slowly the frog may never realize he is going to be cooked – I think that is how it was with me. The pain and mobility problems were always there, and increasing with time, but my body and mind would just adjust to them because they increased in such small increments. With the pressure on my spinal cord gone my body felt light, movement was easy, and, what I then realized had been a constant ache, was gone. 

In 1998 I moved to Utah and, thankfully, found a teacher who had spent time as an injured musician and had been taught how to adjust his playing technique to facilitate the body and encourage smart, comfortable playing. I began playing again, and relearning how to play by using my body to my advantage. Understanding my body, how it was built, what it could and couldn’t do, what was comfortable for it, and how to facilitate its needs as a performer, was eye opening. The concept of “peak flow” as discussed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi makes SO much sense to me. The idea of task and skill being matched – part of that (for musicians) has to do with having your body in proper working order so as to execute the task to the best of our ability.

To the Readers: Have you had any experiences similar to this? Who or what was most helpful on your pathway to recovery?

Coming up next: “Interview with Jenna Baumgart, Part 2: Nurturing Healthy Playing Habits in Your Students”. Baumgart will share the results of her Master’s thesis research, and give us some tips on how music educators can prevent injuries in their students.

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One Response to Interview with Jenna Baumgart, Part 1

  1. Jenny Williams July 12, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

    Great article! I think it is important for doctors to recognize that musicians are just as susceptible to injuries as athletes. Unfortunately, just like Jenna pointed out, 3 out of 4 found “nothing wrong”. Had she gone to see them as an injured ball player, they would have looked closer.

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