Welcome to the sixth post of The Artist Series, where I interview musicians who have overcome injuries to help demystify performance-related pain and inspire musicians to better take care of their health.
Our next guest is Lily Harwood, a violinist and student at the Royal College of Music.
What is your name (and preferred pronouns)?
Lily Harwood (she/her)
Where do you currently work, and what is your instrument/voice type?
I’m a violinist and an undergraduate in my third year at the Royal College of Music in London.
What was your injury, and how did you get injured?
As a teenager, I developed a very dysfunctional way of playing the violin which caused me intense upper back and shoulder pain. I ignored it for years until I literally couldn’t play for more than 10 seconds without feeling a very intense ache in my shoulders and upper back. I saw physios, chiropractors, and massage therapists who all gave me various different diagnoses, none of which helped me. It wasn’t until I began Austin’s program, through considering my injury from all angles, that I started unlocking the causes of my pain.
What were the biggest challenge(s) of your injury?
Breaking down and then re-wiring the way I physically play the violin, transforming my mindset around how I approach my studies and practice, and facing my insecurities and fears that had stopped me from recovering properly.
What was your recovery like? What struggles did you face trying to overcome your injury?
My recovery has been quite a journey. I can’t believe how much I’ve learned about myself and how much I’ve changed (for the better!). Not being able to play the violin functionally and to the best of my ability made me feel like I’d lost a part of my identity. It was difficult for me to slow down and commit to my recovery because I’d always defined my progress by big, obvious achievements and took pride in doing everything I could to get to where I thought that I was ‘supposed to be’ as a violinist, including sacrificing my physical health. Removing unrealistic expectations was the single most important thing I did for my recovery. It encouraged me to show up for myself every day and allowed me to genuinely celebrate the small wins.
What was the biggest lesson you learned during your recovery?
That I am a human before a violinist. Being a violinist is not my identity. My health and emotional well-being must hold paramount importance if I want to achieve what I want as a musician. You can’t pour from an empty cup, and do not sacrifice any part of yourself for perfectionism because it doesn’t exist.
What was something that surprised you during your recovery?
How much patience and compassion for my body I truly needed. For a long time, I searched for a ‘quick fix’ for my pain, thinking it was simply the height or shape of my shoulder rest or a slightly off angle of one of my arms. I put so much pressure on myself to find out exactly what it was so I could get back in the practice room to get in the hours to feel ‘productive’. This unhealthy desire kept sending my body into a panic and worsened my pain every time I started to play.
What are you actively doing to stay healthy and pain-free?
I bookend my days with mobility routines to effectively move and stretch my body, So I start the morning with mobility and breathing, and end my day with more movement and mindfulness-based exercises. I also incorporate myofascial release when I need it. I enjoy regular exercise, watch my hydration (something I never even considered before) and practice mindfulness on a daily basis. Learning how to approach practice with a grounded, inspiring mindset has been a very recent breakthrough for me, and one of the most liberating.
Do you have any words of encouragement for someone currently going through an injury?
You are going to get through it. The emotions you are feeling, no matter what they are, are valid. The wealth of skills and knowledge you will acquire on your journey of recovery is going to liberate you. I can honestly say now that I am grateful for my injury and for what it’s taught me. I am a far happier and healthier person because of it, and after years of anger and feeling lost, I’m learning to love playing the violin on a whole new level.
Any other final thoughts about your recovery journey you’d like to share?
I’m still learning. The more open I am to self-discovery, the more breakthroughs happen and wisdom I gain. Some days I still overdo it in the practice room or during a long day of rehearsals, but each time I remind myself that my best is enough and that I am a better violinist when I treat myself with compassion and care.
What are you currently working on musically? Do you have any projects you’d like to plug?
I’ve just started learning Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, a concerto I seriously believed I would NEVER play because my injury and pain wouldn’t allow me to fulfill the large technical and musical demands it poses. Being able to play it now with such energy and appreciation is a very exciting reminder of how far I’ve come. I’ve also been enjoying a wide range of chamber music this past term, performing works by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Rebecca Clarke in a selection of RCM’s lunchtime concerts.