Does a Composer’s Body Need to be Tuned?

Professional singers and dancers have always been trained to think of their bodies as delicate instruments that need constant maintenance. Instrumentalists, less so—a bout of tendinitis is still regarded as something of an aberration in the professional life of a pianist or violinist, though not as much as it was a generation ago. But is it possible that we have not recognized heretofore that a composer’s body is itself an instrument, too? That you unconsciously “tune up” the body to compose as much as you tune up your cello, harp, or clarinet to play with other musicians? Even if this kind of “body tuning” doesn’t involve intonation or pitch per se?

In my view a composer is a musician who sings with his brain. But that brain state of composing is a somatic activity as well. To sing with your brain you engage your whole body, not just consciously in the physical labor of notation but unconsciously in the tension engendered by the anxiety of creation. Gershwin famously complained of his “composer’s stomach.” Morton Gould once wrote that for him “creating is like tearing out one’s guts—it is both a devastating and exhilarating experience….The period of digging into one’s self is always distressing.” To me that’s a remark you’d more likely expect of Mahler, but no, that was Morton Gould. And as for his supposed glibness as a crossoverish composer, Gould added, “Well—all I can say is that it is not an easy facility, and if it is—I would hate to function with any less!” So even the effortless Gershwin and the facile Morton Gould had nervous tension problems with the creative act? This makes me feel much better, because even when I’m sketching (especially then, in the early stages of composition), the creative act pitches me into a state of extraordinarily high physical and nervous tension. Is it performance anxiety of the brain? Is it that the body is being just as cooked as my brain by the mental pressures of the muse? Or is it because I’m unconsciously “tuning” my body as well as my brain in order to compose?

If you talk to a psychiatrist about the stresses of his/her work, you’ll be surprised to hear them tell you how physically (as well as emotionally) taxing it is to sit for hours in a chair listening to other people talk. There’s a famous, maybe apocryphal story about writer John O’Hara collapsing cold on the floor just after mustering the finishing keystroke on his typewriter for a short story he was completing on deadline. We composers, too, sit (or stand) for long, long hours with incredibly intense mental traffic coursing through our brains and bodies. Think of Strauss scoring his operas by sitting in the chair at his desk for 12-hour stints at his Garmisch villa interrupted only by his wife’s tea service. The Germans have a word for it: sitzfleisch.

It’s hard to separate the psychic tension from the sheer elbow grease (or “drudgery,” as William Bolcom put it to an interviewer) of composing. In the pre-software days of composing music (i.e. the entire history of the world prior to about 15-20 years ago), your body has to be a workhorse to tolerate the physical marathon of notating concert music in longhand. (How did Stravinsky do it with all those colored inks? And Boulez’s autograph scores, with his extremely microscopic handwriting?) Composing (i.e. thinking up and notating) a large scale work like an opera or symphony can put a strain on our bodies, and in some susceptible people can be as athletic and exhausting as performing. Sure, there are composers blissfully unaffected by strain of any kind, like Darius Milhaud, whose startling prolificacy was unimpeded even by rheumatoid arthritis (which disease, by the way, also afflicted Morton Gould). Milhaud’s close friend Kurt Weill was not so lucky. Endlessly writing out full score after full score for Broadway by hand, without arrangers’ help, on three hours’ sleep a night in the 1940s arguably helped kill Weill, who had hypertension, at 50.

It goes without saying that many great composers produced their output in spite of all manner of physical impairments, we all know that. But could we all function better and longer, both creatively and mechanically, if we had our bodies “tuned up” the way we have our automobiles tuned up? I for one suffer from the redoubled wear-and-tear of a lifetime’s double occupational exposure: I’ve always been both a writer and a musician. I have used my hands daily for both typing and playing the piano since I was a little boy, and now I’m in my fifties and my body has started to cry uncle. One experienced physical therapist in 2005 alarmed me by announcing, as she palpated, that there were bumps and nodules all over the tendons and fascia of my forearms (until she calmed me by adding that many professional musicians she had treated had the same invisible nodules). Though I’m an irregular piano practicer at best, I don’t know anyone else who has, cumulatively over decades, compiled as many keystrokes of both the typewriter and the piano keyboard as I have. I have typed both my books and innumerable published and unpublished pieces of writing going back to the 1970s. Many pianists who aren’t also writers have suffered tendinitis; I come to it through a triple physical insult, since I’m not only a writer but for some 30 years I composed entirely in longhand. As if this weren’t enough, in my early adult years I studied with a composer who was also an accomplished painter and whose breathtaking musical calligraphy with a dip fountain pen infected me with a compulsion to emulate him. I then attempted, despite being left-handed, to become a professional music copyist (copying was still by hand in the 70s), and to avoid smudging the ink with my southpaw moving left to right on the page I adopted a tight, twisted hand posture which somehow became permanent. Eventually I developed ulnar nerve syndrome and by the 2000s could no longer endure the longueurs of copying parts by hand, my own or others’.

I’ve also injured my hands through various non-music-related accidents (broken fingers, etc.) over the years. Yet I am typing this article and still playing the piano and working weekly as an organist and using my hands in the extravagantly labor-intensive task of composing and notating music, both by hand and by Sibelius, as well as writing prose (maybe 50,000 words in the last year) and doing the daily websurfing-by-keystroke-and-mouse we all do. How do I keep going? I get my body tuned up. By physical therapists and, occasionally, complementary medicine practitioners. It works. Acupuncture, for instance, substantially reduced my ulnar nerve pain and has even helped the early arthritis I have in my finger joints.

There is a Manhattan physical therapist named Shmuel Tatz who actually calls his method “body tuning.” Tatz’s work is premised on the idea that the entire body, like a single musical instrument or ensemble of instruments, must be “in tune” in order both to heal and to prevent injuries of chronic overuse. His system is self-evolved (over 40 years), intuitive, and eclectic—it is neither osteopathy, nor chiropractic, nor Feldenkrais, nor any other “brand name” of holistic body treatment. I went to him for treatment of a knee injury, and found in the very first session that he can “read” a person’s gait and physical mechanics in an uncanny way almost instantaneously, then manipulate your joints, tendons, and fascia with his bare hands to “retune” you according to this “reading.” Believe me, this is not mumbo-jumbo. In one session I mentioned in passing to Shmuel that while riding a bicycle my right arm was going numb. He immediately found a few points along my upper back and shoulder and pressed here and rubbed there. An unexpected by-product occurred that night, when I sat down to play the piano at home: my playing was suddenly like greased lightning. I had technique I never knew I had. Shmuel had truly “tuned” my body.

Shmuel says we musicians, for all our years of training and practice, have not properly learned how to live in our bodies. He doesn’t mean just the correct hand position or arm position you learned from teachers, he means the total body—your carriage, your hip, and other body areas remote from the actual scene of battle, so to speak. He uses many different machines to help reduce inflammation and pain, but his primary technique is to discern, with his eyes and hands, a lifetime of dysfunctional postures, gaits, and muscular imbalances you didn’t even know you had, then retrain you how to rebalance them. His principal therapeutic tools are his own hands. His hands are magic manipulators. He feels surgery is a “racket” and should be used only as a last resort. Treating carpal tunnel syndrome nonsurgically is “easy,” he says. He also says everybody, even world-class professionals, has physical problems, and if they say they don’t, they’re lying. Inasmuch as he’s personally treated musicians like Isaac Stern, Christa Ludwig, Rostropovich, and Penderecki, one takes him at his word.

Shmuel Tatz has just published a book entitled Hands on a Keyboard: A Guide for Musicians and Computer Users, co-written with Vladimir Mayoroff, a Lithuanian M.D. who is also a musician. “Both intense concentration and pure physical strength are required for public performance, and the musician is expected to have more stamina that many athletes do,” the authors write. The book explains several hand and arm ailments so you can really diagnose yourself, and then it describes many excellent self-treatment techniques that you can use for them at home, techniques new to me despite my many previous experiences in physical therapy. As a bonus, it also is a fine primer on hand anatomy for both keyboard and string players.

There are many clinics around the country that specialize in performing artists’ injuries and medical issues, such as the Performing Arts Clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston or the UCSF Medical Center’s Health Program for Performing Artists in San Francisco started by the late Dr. Peter Ostwald, a biographer of Schumann and Glenn Gould. To locate similar clinics in your area of the country try these two excellent links: or (—a caveat: some listed contact addresses may be out of date). But to find a complementary healer in your local area who can address musician’s body tuning issues may be a harder task, though some of the doctors at the performing arts medicine clinics may refer you to good alternative practitioners. Then again, you can always buy Shmuel’s book, or if you’re in New York City, you can make an appointment to see Shmuel.

But the question remains, can this kind of “body tuning” therapy also help a composer become a well-oiled mental machine—a better mentally and physically lubricated creator? Can parts of the body that are out of joint because of the stresses of composing music be adjusted so that composing will become smoother and more creative, too? Does the body really reflect our minds more than we know? Maybe the longevous Elliott Carter is just naturally tuned-up? If one can learn to be less physically tense, will the creative ideas issue forth more profusely? Or if not, if the creative act necessarily induces a certain a priori tension, then can one learn to cope with one’s physical tension better so as to access the muse more efficiently? Actors learn various techniques to explore their deepest emotions so as to liberate energy and improve their powers as actors. Some of these are physical disciplines, some are emotional release techniques. Could it work for composers as well? Maybe the secret of facilely prolific composers like Milhaud, Villa-Lobos, Hindemith, or Schubert is that they were able to carry states of mental tension without becoming physically tense. They didn’t even realize they were mentally tense because they never felt tense physically. They were, in short, in a natural state of good “body tuning.” They were good composing athletes.

For my part, physical therapy, in restoring my ability to work with pencil freehand, has thus also been psychologically liberating. Though I use Sibelius now (an older edition which I need to upgrade), I have a love/hate relationship with it—it affords me greater writing speed and the ability to extract parts automatically, and permits me to engrave large works in defiance of my ulnar nerve problems, but it also feels like wearing socks in the shower. Computer engraving is de rigueur now everywhere in our field, but there’s just no replacement for the unfettered creative freedom and sensuous hands-on experience of making that pencil (or ink) draft with your bare hands like a painting. Recently I returned to sketching and drafting by hand using green Aztec paper, Archives soy ink recycled paper, and my favorite pencil since the Eberhard Faber Blackwing was scandalously discontinued: the Mirado Black Warrior No. 1. (Not long ago a Carnegie Hall exhibit of Leonard Bernsteiniana displayed several sharpened-to-the-eraser Blackwings Bernstein evidently saved for posterity. “My soldiers,” he called them.)

But the final test will be to go back to Shmuel and see if further body tuning will help promote further creative liberation. I hope to “stay tuned,” in more than one sense.


Mark N. Grant

Mark N. Grant composes in all forms, especially music theater: he won a special Friedheim Award in 2006 for his cantata The Rose of Tralee. He is the author of two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award-winning books, The Rise and Fall of the Broadway Musical (2004) and Maestros of the Pen: A History of Classical Music Criticism in America (1998), and wrote a biweekly column for NewMusicBox’s Chatter in 2007-2008.