Physical therapy grad helps injured musicians play for keeps

Inspired by her brother's struggles with tendonitis, Alex Brohman knew she'd found her calling when she created a guide to help pianists deal with injuries.

Helping people deal with their aches and pains makes Alex Brohman happy, but when she saw her musician brother hurting, she decided to up her game as a physical therapy student.

Brohman, who is graduating with a master of science degree from the University of Alberta's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, used one of her courses at Augustana Campus to create a handy booklet to help piano players avoid and treat their injuries.

It was an experience that has her feeling excited about her chosen profession.

"The biggest thing I'm taking away from the U of A, and especially from the course, is that I do have valuable knowledge and skills to make a difference for people," she said.

Brohman, 27, was already working as a physiotherapy assistant in a Calgary clinic when she became aware of her brother's injuries. As a percussionist playing everything from the drums to the triangle, he had developed tendonitis in both elbows and was constantly icing and stretching them to deal with his muscle pain.

"As an undergraduate music student, he had to practise constantly and ended up with this condition. Rest is usually a part of recovery, but that wasn't possible for him.

"As a big sister, I wanted to do everything I could to help, so I was trying to give him suggested stretches."

He learned to cope through massage and physiotherapy, but even so, the problem still flared up, she said.


Among the requirements for her master's degree, Brohman needed to complete an elective course, and one option included a community health promotion component.

She saw an opportunity to help musicians like her brother.

"My idea was to develop some kind of resource to help musicians with injury prevention," she said.

She approached now-retired music professor and pianist Milton Schlosser, and the pair worked together to explore the types of injuries sustained by piano students and how to balance her knowledge as a physiotherapist with their knowledge of playing.

"I can't presume to tell a piano player how to play; I needed to work with Milton quite a bit to understand that if we tweaked this or that, does that prevent them from playing properly? For us as physiotherapists, it's easy to tell a patient to modify how they're doing things, but musicians have adapted very specifically to the way they do things. Changing that can really alter the way they play."

Keeping that in mind, Brohman created Playing for Keeps, a four-page booklet that outlines the common injuries pianists face, ways to recognize symptoms early and manage certain injuries when rest isn't an easy option, and ideas for prevention.

The booklet was submitted to the Alberta Piano Teachers Association as a resource to assist members in educating students about keyboard injuries.

"It's about checking in with students on a regular basis to talk about pain and then encouraging certain movement patterns that are fluid and least stressful on their bodies. It also encourages them to not play piano in a mindless state, but monitoring for pain. People tend to edit out the pain they're feeling," Brohman said.

A lot to contribute

She also gave a copy to her brother, whom she interviewed for the project.

"He was proud of me and happy that his experience inspired me to do this and give something back."

Now working as a physiotherapy resident in Ontario, Brohman has a new appreciation for sitting down with a client and combining her knowledge with theirs.

"Being able to work collaboratively is a basis of physiotherapy treatment," she said.

She's grateful to Schlosser and in particular to her supervising professor, Lisa Jasper, for their guidance in developing the booklet. "She was instrumental in consulting on the physiotherapy side and helping me pick out the most important information to include.

"Putting this resource out, I was definitely nervous, I didn't want to have anyone feeling I was telling them how to do things, but it showed me I have a lot to contribute," she said.