Thoughts on Healthy Musicianship: Special Guest Q&A with Carla Salas-Ruiz

This week we invited our followers to submit questions for Carla Salas-Ruiz about healthy musicianship. Today, Carla is answering those questions in advance of our facilitated discussion event next week (Thursday, November 17 at 11am ET) that will focus on Carla’s article in the Autumn 2022 issue of Piano Magazine, My Journey to Healthy Musicianship: Practical Ideas for Exploration and Self-Reflection in the Piano Studio.

We encourage you to join us for this lively, interactive discussion event. You can RSVP by clicking here.

Join us on social media for the opportunity to have your questions on a variety of interesting topics answered by additional experts in the coming weeks.

Carla Salas-Ruiz

I feel silly to ask, but what is “healthy musicianship” exactly?

It is not a silly question at all! It is not common to find the concept of “healthy musicianship” in research literature. Some authors use it as an umbrella term referring to injury prevention and general physical and/or emotional wellness from a holistic standpoint. Usually, research literature focuses on how teachers can instill habits of healthy physical technique in their students. Additionally, some scholars concentrate on how music teachers might improve their students’ mental health, which could encompass stress, burnout, and performance anxiety.

How did you first become interested in healthy musicianship?

I first became aware of healthy musicianship in one of my classes in college. Here was a topic that finally put my thoughts into words. It helped me understand my journey! I began a research study on preservice music teachers’ perspectives on healthy musicianship with my colleagues, and then, for my doctoral examination, I wrote an essay on healthy musicianship practices in the piano studio. Preparing that paper helped me to further understand my journey and provided me with more tools to effectively support my students’ journeys.

What would you say to a teacher who has never thought about intentionally incorporating healthy musicianship before? Where do I start?

Start by revisiting your teaching philosophy and studio policies, and question all the why’s behind them. Then, I would suggest exploring these books: The Mindful Musician by Vanessa Cornett, The Perfect Wrong Note by William Westney, Teaching the Whole Musician by Paola Savvidou, and Teaching Healthy Musicianship: The Music Educator’s Guide to Injury Prevention and Wellness. Finally, spend some time thinking about what healthy musicianship means to you and how it looks in your piano studio: studio policy, physical space, technique, and performance.

What aspects of your teaching do you feel shifted the most after your harrowing recital experience?

The biggest thing for me was related to my awareness of students’ technical, physical, and emotional needs. After understanding those needs, I am better equipped to react with effective instructional methods. I needed training on piano pedagogy and piano performance to address my students’ needs with professionalism. I want to support my students to the best of my capabilities, so I committed myself to improve my playing as well to offer a diverse set of strategies for them to feel comfortable when playing, both physically and emotionally.

What would you say to a college student in the same position? How would you encourage them to push forward and not give up a career in music?

I would encourage this student to remember why they chose to pursue a career in music and to keep those reasons close to their heart and mind. Experiencing failure is a key part of the learning process. Encourage this student to use failure as an opportunity to explore their passion for music and examine some strategies that would advance that passion. Connect with friends and music teachers who will listen and offer advice without judgment or criticism. Then, consider therapy to elevate a sense of wellness. Practically, making a list of your musical and personal needs can help in making an actionable plan. 

How do you advise teachers to approach their students after a poor performance?

Our students need us to be supportive. They will likely be very vulnerable, and our reactions will impact them for life. We can meet the student to carefully listen to their thoughts, analyze the situation together, and create a plan to move forward. Finally, I think it is important to discuss the experience of “failure” and how important its role is in the learning process.

Are there specific activities you recommend, or is healthy musicianship more of a philosophy or perspective?

This is a great question! It is a combination of both. To intentionally include healthy musicianship in our piano studio, we need to make it a priority in order to put it into action. Therefore, it is key to first reflect on what healthy musicianship means for us, engage in the literature, and then create activities that truly represent those beliefs.

How do you consider teaching healthy musicianship to be different than applying it to personal practice and performance?

I think that they are closely related to and will influence each other. I would encourage anyone to think about what healthy musicianship means to you and how it looks in your personal practice and performance. Then, consider how those practices influence your teaching.

What are your favorite ways to incorporate healthy musicianship from the first lesson?

I remain very attentive to what the students bring to the first lesson; the physical, cognitive, and emotional aspects. During the first lesson, I listen carefully to what their expectations are regarding piano and create a plan that helps us both to meet those expectations. I also openly use the concept of healthy musicianship as soon as I can. I engage in modeling and discussing the why’s behind each technical and musical adjustment, practice strategy, or physical gesture.

How do I know I’m teaching my students to practice healthy musicianship? At some point is it too late? 

It is NEVER too late! I am a great example of this! My undergraduate years were not the healthiest years of my life, but now I have had fantastic mentors who have helped me explore healthy musicianship practices that work for me and for my technical needs. If your students seem physically and emotionally comfortable when playing and retain their love of music and playing, you’ll know that you are teaching them healthy musicianship practices. Your students will understand why addressing and exploring gestures is key to conveying a beautiful musical message. They will be happy and willing to take risks with you, and their curiosity for learning will gradually increase. 

Don’t forget! RSVP for next week’s discussion event on healthy musicianship by clicking here.

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