Music to Their Ears

Violinist Gallia Kastner and Janice Ying over Zoom

USC alumna uses physical therapy to help performing artists get their groove back.

BY MICHELLE MCCARTHY
July 13, 2020

WHEN MOST PEOPLE ENVISION PHYSICAL THERAPY PATIENTS, images come to mind of conventional athletes: runners, football players, weightlifters. But what about musicians?

Professional performing artists can practice their craft from four to six hours a day, often while holding an instrument in a position that doesn’t always allow them to be ergonomically sound. Picture the physicality of violinists who tilt their necks to the side while driving a bow with one hand to and fro in time with a dynamic composition.

“There’s this misconception for musicians, because they regard themselves as artists, which is accurate,” Janice Ying DPT ’10 says. “There’s a debate over whether musicians are athletes or artists, and my thing is: Why can’t they be both?”

Just like the broken leg that prevented NFL legend Joe Theismann from ever stepping foot on the gridiron again, the level of strain musicians experience can lead to career-ending injuries.

It’s a scenario that hits close to home for Ying. A classically trained pianist and violinist who started playing at the age of 4, the Kansas City, Mo.-native earned a bachelor’s degree in music education and piano performance at Pepperdine University. Her dream was to teach piano at a university. But injuries that arose during high school as a result of playing only got worse and led to shoulder surgery after her sophomore year of college.

Mind the Gap

 

As a result of her injuries, Ying realized two things: First, PT sessions didn’t provide a holistic approach to her needs as a musician and secondly, her music teachers didn’t possess enough of a working knowledge of biomechanics to advise her on how to alleviate the pain. “There was a big gap,” she says.

With this knowledge and a lingering injury, Ying decided to switch gears and go back to school to earn her DPT at USC. “I realized I could help so many more people that way,” she says. “It’s a huge passion of mine — not just a job.”

In 2019, she set up her own practice, Opus Physical Therapy and Performance in Los Angeles, which specializes in the treatment of orthopedic conditions among instrumentalists of all levels and abilities. In addition, she’s on contract at the Colburn School – Conservatory of Music, a prestigious college that attracts artists from all over the world.

“I’m trying to help educate musicians about their bodies and which areas they might need to work on improving, whether it’s flexibility or strength, in order to help them best perform on their instruments.”

Strike Up the Band

 

Ying treats all types of musicians, from percussionists to wind and string players to clasically trained to rock ’n’ roll. The vast majority of issues she sees are posture related or due to overuse, which can lead to neck pain, headaches and tendonitis. “Some people can be built a little bit too flexible or hyper mobile, so they might have extra stresses on their joints that cause pain or discomfort as well,” she explains.

For Colburn student and French horn player Elizabeth Linares-Montero, 25, pain from constant practice began when she was a teenager, but she didn’t pay much attention to it. Then while pursuing her undergrad studies in Germany, the pain came back with a fury.

“One day, I was rehearsing and almost dropped my horn because the pain was so bad,” she says. “My entire arm went numb. I started crying. I saw a physical therapist in Germany, but that was my final year.”

Once at Colburn, Linares-Montero went to see Ying and was surprised by what she encountered. “She said, ‘I want to see how you’re breathing.’ I’m like, ‘What does my breathing have to do with my shoulder and my neck?’”

What they discovered was she wasn’t using the right movement to breathe, which was then triggering and overworking other muscles. “That’s why I was so tense,” says Linares-Montero, who would love to one day play in the Berlin Philharmonic. “We worked for three months on my breathing, and it was incredible because I actually — for the first time in years — was like, ‘Oh, Janice, I haven’t had pain in like a week.’”

Janice Ying provides a Zoom consultation for horn player Elizabeth Linares.

Can’t Stop the Music

 

Colburn student Gallia Kastner, 23, had a similar experience with Ying. In 2019, the violinist was sitting in an orchestra and couldn’t feel her right arm. At their first meeting, Ying recorded Kastner playing so she could observe and see if there was a postural issue. “She sat me down and said, ‘This is what’s happening to you. These are the muscles you need to pay attention to, and this is how you can stretch before, during and after practice,’” says Kastner, whose dream is to become a concertmaster of a major symphony. “I still do all the stretches she taught me. Ever since I’ve been doing that, I’ve been feeling really good.”

Ying was just about to start working with Kastner on strengthening when COVID-19 caused students at Colburn to return home and finish the school year via virtual instruction. Kastner is now in the Midwest while Linares-Montero is in North Carolina. Ying is only licensed to practice physical therapy in California, but that didn’t stop her from checking in on her clients.

“I’m always invested in how my patients are doing, not just when they’re my patients,” Ying explains. “They’ll always be my patients, whether they have issues or not. Now that they’re back home and don’t have the structure of school, it’s more about teaching them how to maintain and design their practicing and perforYing in a way that’s going to be helpful for their bodies.”

Linares-Montero says having Ying as her physical therapist has been priceless. So much so, that when the quarantine went into effect, she got nervous. “I said, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do now when I have pain?’ Janice was like, ‘Don’t worry. You’re going to call me whenever you need to. We’re going to figure it out.’ She’s been like a magical person in my career.”

Ying has started seeing a handful of patients in person at their homes, taking every precaution to guarantee everyone’s safety. She credits her time at USC for being ready for any challenges that come her way. “USC gave me a really good foundation of knowledge, but then also showed me other ways to expand upon that,” she says. “Because the foundation was so strong, I feel comfortable being able to branch out and explore other venues.”

Follow Janice Ying on Instagram at @opus_pt.