Results from A Survey of, for and about Bassists
Response to the survey, 'Of, for and about Bassists' was significant: over 520 bassists participated! Thank you for your valuable and insightful input, your time, and your openness.
To review, the survey included the following categories: General Setup Information, Physical Symptoms, Mental/Emotional Symptoms, Change, and Describe Yourself (demographic information).
In analyzing the results, patterns began to appear. General setup information and demographics were assessed first. Results were then looked at from several different perspectives. Ultimately, what is presented here is the result of looking for any patterns among bassists' responses. In addition to general setup and demographical information, results will be shown in the following subcategories: primary bow usage, primary focus of work, and areas of the body most significantly impacted with pain, tension, and fatigue or weakness. In general, levels of symptom intensity will be reported with the following descriptions: minimal, moderate, intense, extreme. Intensity levels reported in these results apply to most but not all respondents, and some reported symptoms only on an intermittent basis. Respondents had a wide range of intensity levels; intensity levels reported here are for the average of all results for each individual question. Some respondents noted additional sources of physical symptoms: computer use, sitting for extended periods of time, lifting incorrectly, shoveling snow, gardening, sports, and other general aspects of life.
Results were cross-examined within demographic groups (student, amateur, professional orchestral, professional jazz, professional higher education, professional other). These subcategories offered the most insights into potential patterns among bassists.
Physical Symptoms According To Primary Bow Usage
Of all respondents, 53% play with French bow only, 33% play with German bow only, and 14% use both bows, depending on repertoire and other performance situations. For those who use both, choices of bow were made according to orchestral or solo categories, heavy or light styles of music, performance practice interpretation, and in some cases, to alleviate physical tension. Some respondents also noted historical bow usage and how that presents further opportunities for use of different bows. For those who switch bows to help alleviate physical tension most tended to move from French to German. For those who use both, the number of people playing mostly French was comparable to the number of people playing mostly German. For this reason, when assessing data according to bow usage, results will mostly be shown according to either French or German.
When assessing physical symptoms, those who play with only French bow reported the following:
Hips: 10% of players had minimal pain, fatigue and tension in both hips. 90% reported no symptoms.
Legs and Feet: 30% of players had minimal to moderate symptoms. There were some reports of numbness and tingling in the feet. The primary location of fatigue and tension was the soles of the feet; upper legs were next prominent.
Back: 50% of players reported significant levels of pain and tension. Of those who reported symptoms, 50% had issues across the entire lower back, 30% the entire upper back, and 25% across the entire mid back. French bow players had more issues with the right rather than left lower back, and with the left rather than right upper back. Intensity levels of symptoms were as follows: 65% reported mostly moderate to intense levels of pain; 75% mostly moderate to intense levels of tension; 50% mostly moderate to intense levels of fatigue or weakness.
Neck, Chest and Shoulders: 25% of French bow players reported pain, 48% tension, and 12% fatigue or weakness. The chest had negligible symptoms. 54 % reported neck symptoms, 40% reported symptoms in both shoulders, and 25% reported symptoms in either the left or right shoulder only. 80% of those with symptoms in the neck and shoulders reported moderate to intense pain, 90% moderate to intense levels of tension, and minimal amounts of fatigue or weakness.
Arms, Wrists and Hands: In this category, higher rates of intense symptoms were reported overall. Players reported the highest number of symptoms for both hands, at 35%. Specific to French bow players, symptoms were more dramatic on the right side: 30% reported issues with the right thumb, as opposed to 18% with the left thumb; the right forearm and right upper arm also showed more dramatic symptoms. 60% of respondents reported moderate to intense pain, 70% moderate to intense tension, and 60% moderate to intense fatigue or weakness.
Eyes and Jaw: 81% reported no symptoms. Of those who had symptoms, most reported eye fatigue and / or clenching of the jaw.
When assessing physical symptoms, those who play with only German bow reported the following:
Hips: 12% moderate tension, 7% minimal pain. Unlike French bow players, symptoms were more apparent in the right hip at 53% of respondents.
Legs and Feet: 37% of players had minimal to moderate fatigue, primarily in the soles of the feet.
Back: 60% of players reported significant levels of pain and tension. Of those with symptoms, 56% had issues across the entire lower back, 19% the entire upper back, and 24% across the entire mid back. German bow players had more issues on the upper right portion of the back than on the upper left. Intensity levels of symptoms were as follows: 60% reported moderate pain, 80% moderate to intense tension, and 70% moderate to intense fatigue or weakness.
Neck, Chest and Shoulders: 15% of German bow players reported pain, 41% tension, and 11% fatigue or weakness. The chest had negligible symptoms. 40% of respondents reported neck symptoms, and 35% reported symptoms in both shoulders. German bow players reported more left shoulder than right shoulder symptoms. 75% of those with symptoms in the neck and shoulders reported minimal to moderate pain, 90% minimal to moderate tension, and 85% minimal to moderate fatigue or weakness.
Arms, Wrists and Hands: 55% of German bow players reported some symptoms. Of those with symptoms, the majority had significantly more issues with the left side than with the right. Left hand, wrist, forearm and upper arm results were all greater than results for the right. Additionally, there were multiple reports of numbness in the left little finger, and some for the left thumb. 85% reported minimal to moderate pain, 75% minimal to moderate tension, and 80% minimal to moderate fatigue or weakness.
Eyes and Jaw: 87% reported no symptoms. Of those with symptoms, most reported eye fatigue and / or clenching of the jaw.
Sit Or Stand
24% of respondents sit, 33% stand, and 43% do both. Of those who both sit and stand, results were similar for how many players sit more than stand, and vice versa. Repertoire styles, performance genres and physical relief from being in one position were sighted as the most common reasons for those who both sit and stand. When assessing the data only according to whether bassists sit or stand, results were less conclusive than for other categories. However, when their primary focus of work was factored in, some patterns of sitting and / or standing did emerge.
Physical Symptoms According To Primary Focus Of Work
The two largest reporting areas of work were Professional: Primarily Orchestral and Professional: Primarily Jazz (33% each). All other categories combined totaled 34%. When assessing data according to primary focus of work, certain traits appeared.
PROFESSIONAL: PRIMARILY ORCHESTRAL
86% of respondents in the Primarily Orchestral category sit most or all of the time. 60% play French bow only, 27% play German bow only, and 15% use both. Players in this category reported the following physical symptoms:
Hips: 84% reported no symptoms. Tension was the most common for those reporting symptoms, primarily in both hips, with slightly more issues in the right hip. Intensity levels were moderate.
Legs and Feet: 78% reported no symptoms. Of those with symptoms, fatigue in both feet was reported most. Intensity levels were minimal to moderate.
Back: 61% reported symptoms: 47% reported tension, 25% pain, 19% fatigue or weakness. Issues were primarily located in the lower back (52%). Pain and tension levels were moderate, fatigue or weakness was minimal to moderate.
Neck and Shoulders: 54% reported symptoms: 46% reported tension, 18% pain, and minimal reports of fatigue. Of those with symptoms, 60% had neck issues, 33% issues in primarily both shoulders. Pain levels were moderate, tension levels moderate to intense, and fatigue minimal to moderate.
Arms, Wrists and Hands: 55% reported symptoms: 24% pain, 28% tension, 32% fatigue or weakness. Of all areas, the right thumb was most symptomatic at 35%. Both hands were next at 23%. Levels of pain, tension and fatigue were all reported as mostly moderate to intense.
Eyes and Jaw: 75% reported no symptoms. Eye fatigue was the greatest factor in this category.
PROFESSIONAL: PRIMARILY JAZZ
90% of respondents in the Primarily Jazz category stand or both sit and stand most of the time. 51% play French bow only, 36% play German bow only, and 13% use both.
Hips: 89% reported no symptoms. Tension in the right hip was reported most often for those with symptoms. Levels were mostly minimal.
Legs and Feet: 33% reported symptoms. Of those with symptoms, fatigue in both feet was reported most, then fatigue in the upper legs. Levels were minimal to moderate.
Back: 60% reported symptoms. 45% reported tension, 22% pain, 15% fatigue or weakness. 47% reported symptoms in the lower back, 29% mid back, and 18% in the upper back. More reported symptoms in the left upper back than in the right. Tension levels were moderate to intense; pain and fatigue were minimal to moderate.
Neck and Shoulders: 56% reported symptoms. 42% reported tension, 23% pain. Of those with symptoms, the neck was the primary location (50%). 35% reported shoulder issues, mostly on the left side. Pain and fatigue levels were minimal to moderate; tension was moderate to intense.
Arms, Wrists and Hands: 60% reported symptoms. 37% reported tension, 32% fatigue or weakness, 29% pain. Symptoms were reported in both hands (31%). The next most common locations were all on the left: hand, thumb, wrist, forearm and upper arm. Tension levels were moderate to intense; pain and fatigue were minimal to moderate. Specific mention was made by some of increased sensitivity in the right hand due to extensive pizzicato.
Eyes and Jaw: 86% reported no symptoms. For those with symptoms, clenching of the jaw was most prominent, with eye fatigue close behind.
PROFESSIONAL: PRIMARILY HIGHER EDUCATION
Respondents were even across the board in two categories: using French, German or both bows, and sitting, standing or both. In general, physical symptoms were highest in the back (40%) and neck (53%). Moderate levels of pain, tension and fatigue were reported in the back, primarily in the lower back. Tension was the most common issue in the neck, with moderate levels reported.
81% either stand or both sit and stand. 57% play French bow only, 25% play German bow only, and 18% use both. Symptoms were most often reported in the right hip, lower back (53%), upper back (37%) and neck and shoulders (47%). Moderate to intense levels of pain were reported in the back, and moderate levels of tension were reported in the neck and shoulders. Symptoms of tension and weakness were reported for both hands.
Most respondents both sit and stand, with standing being more common. Slightly more amateurs play only French bow than only German, and 17% use both. 70% reported symptoms in the back, with almost all of those symptoms primarily in the lower back. 38% reported neck and shoulder symptoms. Tension in the right wrist was also one of the most reported symptoms. Overall, pain levels were minimal to moderate, tension levels were moderate, and fatigue or weakness was moderate to intense.
Hips, Legs and Feet: 13% of respondents reported moderate tension in the hips, primarily on the right. 40% reported minimal to moderate levels of tension in the feet and legs.
Back: 90% reported symptoms. Of those with symptoms (nearly all students), 50% reported moderate pain, 74% reported moderate tension, and 34% reported minimal to moderate fatigue or weakness.
Neck and Shoulders: 70% reported symptoms. The most common symptom was tension (63%), then pain (20%) and fatigue (15%). Symptoms were reported primarily in the neck and right shoulder. Levels of tension were reported as moderate to extreme, levels of pain were moderate, and levels of fatigue were minimal to moderate.
Arms, Wrists and Hands: 78% reported problems. Most symptoms were reported for the right thumb. Next were both hands and forearms, followed by the right wrist and right upper arm. 48% reported tension and fatigue or weakness, 40% reported pain. Levels of pain and tension were reported as moderate to extreme; levels of fatigue were moderate.
Eyes and Jaw: 15% reported intense symptoms, mostly of tension in the jaw.
MIDDLE SCHOOL/HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS
80% of respondents in this category reported symptoms in the back, primarily minimal tension in the lower back. 63% reported issues in the neck, shoulders and chest, primarily minimal to moderate levels of weakness and tension. 92% of respondents reported symptoms in the forearms, wrists, hands and left thumb. 71% reported moderate to extreme levels of pain, tension and fatigue.
Change In Regard To Physical Symptoms
When asked if one thing could change regarding physical symptoms, respondents were extremely forthcoming. Generally, respondents wished for no pain, to be more relaxed while playing, and to increase stamina and reduce fatigue. Respondents also wished to increase fluidity of movement while playing, to improve posture, and to stretch and exercise more effortlessly to reduce pain. One respondent replied, 'Oh, to have my own roadie!'
Injuries and Relief Of Physical Symptoms
19% of respondents are playing with diagnosed injuries. 77% described their injuries as chronic, 23% as acute. Some injuries were not related to playing the bass, such as joint replacements, sports-related injuries and bone fractures. Some diagnoses included arthritis, tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, thoracic outlet syndrome, and lateral epicondylitis. A notable response from more than one experienced bassist mentioned hearing loss, and recommended hearing testing to the bass community.
Treatments and ways to alleviate physical symptoms included physical therapy, ultrasound, yoga, electrotherapy, splinting, exercise, massage, chiropractic, Alexander Technique, Pilates, martial arts, acupuncture and prescribed medications. 61% of respondents reported definite positive results with treatment, 28% somewhat, and 11% reported that treatment was not helping.
Data in this category was assessed according to primary focus of work.
General stress levels were highest among students (moderate to extreme, with most reporting intense levels). Those in the Primarily Orchestral category were next, reporting moderate to intense levels. Those in Professional: Other reported minimal to moderate to intense levels of general stress. Those in the Primarily Jazz and in Higher Education reported minimal to moderate levels. Stress levels in work and school situations became elevated for all categories except Primarily Jazz.
For those in the Primarily Orchestral category, more respondents reported intense to extreme levels of stress (21%) in work situations. Causes were sighted as follows: 47% performance anxiety, 44% economic (including job security), 44% emotional well-being (including morale on the job), 42% interactions with colleagues, 37% job satisfaction, 32% personal/family.
For those in the Primarily Jazz category, causes of stress were as follows: 50% economic (including job security), 41% personal/family, 33% job satisfaction, 30% performance anxiety, 30% emotional well-being.
For those in Higher Education, causes of stress were as follows: 37% economic (including job security), 35% job satisfaction, 33% emotional well-being, 33% interactions with colleagues, 30% personal/family.
For those in the Professional: Other and Amateur categories, causes were sighted as follows: 54% economic (including job security), 47% emotional well-being, 39% interactions with colleagues, 38% job satisfaction, 36% personal/family, 34% performance anxiety.
For College Students, causes were as follows: 63% performance anxiety, 52% personal/family, 42% emotional well-being, 39% interactions with colleagues, 34% economic, 34% job/school satisfaction.
For Middle School and High School Students, 62% reported stress from school, college preparations, and the ability to afford college, 44% performance anxiety, and 37% emotional well-being.
Many respondents made note of particular stresses: family, time management, extensive travel, and physical injury. Students made note of additional factors: double major, working while in school, and auditions.
Change In Regard To Mental/Emotional Symptoms
When asked if one thing could be changed regarding mental and / or emotional symptoms, respondents were generous and expressive. Across the board, respondents wished to reduce economic stress, relax more, and sleep better. Those in the Primarily Orchestral category's top wish for change was in regard to music directors, conductors and colleagues. Higher artistic standards and more satisfying performance situations were mentioned in all professional categories. Less performance anxiety, being able to quit a day job, and improving family and health issues were also frequently mentioned. One respondent wished 'to see the bigger picture when it comes to stress about individual performances'. Increased trust and faith were mentioned, as was 'not sweating the small stuff'. Some respondents wished to learn more about stress-reducing activities. More than one respondent in the College Student category wished for people to treat each other with more respect and love.
Many respondents also noted minimal levels of stress. Some made particular mention of feeling generally positive, being excited to play concerts, and enjoying life.
Relief of Mental/Emotional Stress
The great majority of respondents found spending time with family and / or friends to be the main relief of stress (66%). Moderate exercise was next (48%), followed by mind/body practices (37%). Playing and listening to music, other forms of exercise or relaxation, prayer and meditation, good food and beverage, and being in nature were also listed.
Endpin: Some respondents use more than one kind of endpin. 90% of respondents use a straight endpin, 10% bent endpin, 3% adjustable angle.
Moving the bass: Most respondents use more than one mode of moving the bass, depending on logistics: 57% use a wheel, 41% carry the bass to the side (both with and without a shoulder strap), 22% carry the bass in front of the body, 6% other. Other ways of moving the bass include: double trolley, wheels built into a case, and backpack straps. Backpack usage was common among college students.
Instrument size and shape: Many players reported using multiple instruments. A wide variety of sizes and shapes were described for upright basses. Some players made note of using both 4- and 5-stringed instruments. 25% of instruments have extensions. Electric basses, acoustic bass guitars, baroque basses and other instruments were also described.
Age: At the time of the survey: 45% 41-60; 26% 25-40; 16% 18-24; 8% 61-70; 5% 70+; 3% 12-17
Sex: 83% male, 17% female
Height: 47% are 5'11" or more; 43% 5'5"-5'10"; 10% 5'4" or less. 72% of respondents felt that height was not a factor in playing their particular bass. 20% felt that height was somewhat a factor, and 8% felt that height was definitely a factor.
Focus of work: 33% primarily orchestral, 33% primarily jazz, 16% primarily higher education, 18% students, 14% other professional and amateur. Some respondents work in more than one field; some respondents whose primary field was not a main survey option include country/western, rock, pop, bluegrass and others.
Regarding primary bow usage, French bow players had more symptoms primarily on the right side of the body, with the exception of the upper left portion of the back. Symptoms in the right arm, wrist and hand were significant; levels were moderate to intense. German bow players had more symptoms on the left side of the body, with the exception of the upper right portion of the back. Symptoms in the left arm, wrist and hand were significant; levels were minimal to moderate. French bow players reported more symptoms in the neck, and higher intensity levels of symptoms in the neck and shoulders than German bow players.
Regarding primary focus of work, players in the Primarily Jazz category had greater symptoms of fatigue in the feet and upper legs than players in the Primarily Orchestral category (90% of Primarily Jazz players stand or sit and stand). Both of these two main categories showed high rates of symptoms in the back (especially lower) at 60%, and in the neck at 55%. Both categories showed high rates of symptoms in the arms, wrists and hands: 55% for Orchestral, 60% for Jazz. Orchestral players had more symptoms in the right thumb and both hands, while Jazz players had more symptoms in the left arm, wrist and hand. For back, neck, arms, wrists and hands, intensity levels were moderate to intense.
Most disturbing may be the data collected from students. 70 – 90% of college, middle school and high school students reported symptoms in the back, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists and hands. Moderate to extreme intensity levels of pain and tension were reported by 50 – 70%. Students also reported high rates of mental and emotional stress. On the opposite end of the spectrum, students also reported extensively and creatively on activities that helped relieve stress. One student replied, 'it is unfortunate that colleges do not provide instrumentalists with body awareness classes…I think solidifying good postural and body use habits immediately is essential.'
Future columns will look at what some of these results mean physically, and will offer potential solutions and suggestions to help alleviate symptoms. Definitions of diagnosed conditions will be presented in future columns, as will an overview of various forms of mind/body practices and alternative therapies. In conclusion, thank you again for your enthusiastic participation in this survey.
Oboist Linda Gilbert is a Fulbright scholar and recipient of the University of Michigan's prestigious Albert A. Stanley Medal. She received her doctorate in Oboe Performance from the University of Southern California with highest honors. Linda has performed with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Pacific and Houston Symphonies, Los Angeles Bach Festival, L.A. Mozart Orchestra, the L.A. Music Center, Long Beach and Houston Grand Operas, and Houston Ballet. She performs each summer as a member of the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra. She is an active freelance musician, performing regularly with ensembles including the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet and Mercury Baroque Ensemble.
A student of yoga and various healing arts for over 20 years, Linda is certified nationally as a yoga therapist, yoga instructor and rehabilitative exercise specialist. She is the author of The Practice Handbook: A Musician's Guide to Positive Results in the Practice Room. She teaches yoga privately and at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music, where she teaches a yoga-based Musicians' Wellness class. Linda brings the physical and mental benefits of yoga and yoga-based therapies to musicians, from high school students to professionals. She also works with clients with a wide range of conditions, including Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's, Cerebral Palsy, severe osteoporosis, and individuals recovering from injury and surgery. She has presented Yoga for Musicians seminars at institutions and conventions around the country, including several ISB conventions, the Texas Music Festival, Aspen Music Festival, National Youth Orchestra Festival, Rice University, University of Houston, and the Colburn School of Music.
Linda is available for individual consultations and for group sessions. Please contact the ISB office if you wish to contact her regarding consultations and seminars.