Sunday, 10 November 2013

Interview with Dr. Eckart Altenmüller, keynote speaker #isme2014

ISME 2014 – Porto Alegre, Brazil
Interview with Dr. Eckart Altenmüller, keynote speaker

Dr. Eckart Altenmüller, world-renowned performing arts medicine physician, will serve as one of the keynote speakers at the 2014 ISME World Conference in Porto Alegre, Brazil.  Gail Berenson, chair of the Musicians' Health and Wellness SIG (special interest group) interviewed Dr. Altenmüller, offering ISME members a glimpse into his life and some personal insights about this remarkable individual.

Dr. Altenmüller, you are a world-renowned and respected physician in the field of performing arts medicine.  We are honored that you will be serving as one of our keynote speakers at the 2014 ISME World Conference.  Tell us a little about your extensive background in music and what ultimately influenced you to choose the field of performing arts medicine as a career.

I come from a family with 8 siblings and I am the youngest. All my brothers and sisters made music and I started to play the piano at age 6 and flute at age 8. Our house was full of music and when I was 16 I wanted to become a professional musician. However, my parents were somewhat skeptical about a musician career and so they convinced that I should study "something real". That is the reason why I started with medicine. But my wish to play music became stronger and stronger, and therefore, two years later, I decided to study additionally music. I finished my doctoral degree in medicine in 1983 and my music studies with a major in German flute and a concert diploma in 1985. Already at that time I did research into the brain mechanisms of music perception and into the influence of music on our brain wiring. After 1985 I decided to become a neurologist, since I believe that the brain is the most fascinating organ of our body. I was trained in the Neurological Department of the University of Tübingen and continued to do research into brain plasticity after injuries, furthermore into changes of the brain due to music instruction. The latter work I did in collaboration with my colleague Wilfried Gruhn from the Music Pedagogy department in Freiburg. During all the time, my musicians friends continued to ask me for medical advice and that is how I realized that there was an urgent need in knowledge concerning prevention of musicians injuries. In 1994 finally I had to wonderful and unique opportunity to join the faculty of the Hannover University of Music, Drama and Media and to establish an institute dedicated to research, prevention and treatment in performing arts medicine. 

Do you still continue to practice and perform?

Yes, I still play and continue to practice and perform, and I consider this as an important part of my private and my professional live.  If one really wants to understand all the pressures, but also the joys, a musician experiences, you have to give concerts in a professional way.  

Knowing what a powerful and pioneering advocate you have been for musician wellness, how do you think performing arts medicine has evolved over the past decade and do you see evidence that administrators, fellow physicians and musicians are beginning to recognize how crucial this subject is to everyone? 
I am very happy with the development of the last twenty years. A lot has happened, there are well established Performing Arts Medicine Associations in the USA, in Germany, France, UK, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland and new associations continue to be founded, for example two years ago last year in Austria and this year in Ireland. Furthermore, music conservatoires and musicians become more and more aware of prevention of musicians' problems, and I am very happy that ISME is now also taking initiative to augment knowledge in this field.

What role do you feel universities should play in educating music majors about healthy music making?  How might this be accomplished?
Universities have a crucial role in promoting students health and in providing students with techniques to prevent injuries, overuse, burn-out and self-exploitation. I think all music universities should offer at least one practical course on health management and one theoretical course in prevention and "healthy musicianship". it is the more important, since students are the future teachers, and they are going to multiply knowledge and to transfer it to the youngest. And as I always say, the beginners need the best informed teachers! 

Do you perceive integration between your work in healthcare and your life as a musician?   In other words, do you see art in the practice of medicine, and do you see health science in the performance of music?

Yes, I feel that these two fields are complementary. A good musician is a therapist, since she/he can not only communicate emotions and give sense of meaning to other people, but also communicate body awareness, sense of wellbeing, proper breathing. Musicians can be models for the art to deal with the body, since their bodies are their instruments. On the other hands doctors can try to communicate emotions as musicians do, they can consider their work as an art, as a skillful and empathic activity and they need to listen to the patients as musicians do with their fellows in chamber music or in a choir. It is not by chance that the Ancient Greeks unified both arts in one God, Apollo. 

What do you consider to be the most critical wellness information that teachers should be communicating to their students?
Students should listen to their bodies and they should learn to control bodily and psychological tensions.  And they should learn to stop practicing in the right moment - most music students tend to practice too long! 

What direction is your research currently taking? 
We are mainly working on the prevention of chronic pain and overuse by investigating and promoting healthy practice. Furthermore we work on the treatment and prevention of a condition called "Musician's Dystonia". This is a loss of fine motor abilities in trained musicians, due to overuse and genetic factors.  

Of the patients you see, do you notice any particular trends in the types of injuries that they are experiencing?  Are the numbers increasing or decreasing?
This is a very interesting point. I observe, that our prevention programs in Germany are increasingly effective. When I started with this work, 20 years ago, I saw many more overuse injuries than nowadays. Furthermore, the patients were much more distressed and they had seen many doctors who could not help them. Nowadays, access to specialized health professional is provided almost all over Germany and there is a lot of knowledge in the musicians community.  I am sure that the ISME -network will contribute enormously to internationalize this positive trend! 

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