3 Things Performing Music and Performing 'Healthy' Have in Common


I am a trombone player. Pre-chronic illness, this was merely one of many activities that filled my life, along with competitive running, skiing, hiking, biking, and climbing. Post-diagnosis, I felt like music was the only thing I had left of my old life. If I couldn’t be an athlete, I thought, I would be a musician.

The more I immersed myself in music performance, though, the more I realized how inhospitable it is to people living with chronic illness or disability. Here are four parallels between the performing arts and putting on a show of “healthy.”

1. The show must go on. Regardless of illness, exhaustion, appointments, or saving spoons, there is this expectation that whatever you are doing is more important than how you are feeling. It’s unacceptable to miss anything ranging from frequent, grueling rehearsals, and late night performances in inaccessible locations. One band director recounted (pointedly) the tale of performing in a marching band mere weeks after he broke his femur, because, “The show must go on.” Eventually I was going to rehearsals after spending the day at the hospital for infusions, playing through the pain and fatigue because I thought I had to. You don’t “have” to do anything. Your health and safety comes first, always.

2. Compete for the best. The music scene, whether school-level, semi-professional, or professional, is very competitive. Musicians compete for auditions, solos, venues, audiences, awards, and recognition. Musicians even compete for the worst “show must go on” experience, like the director’s broken leg ordeal. Being the best also involves looking the best. At one concert I was asked if I could leave my cane backstage so it wouldn’t be in the photos. We must sacrifice time, energy, relationships, and even health for the sake of being the most dedicated and the most talented. Not everything is a contest, especially not illness and injury.

3. Practice for perfection. Unlike other subjects, where 70 percent correct is a passing grade, music demands 100 percent accuracy. Anything less than that is a failure. With chronic illness, hours and hours of practice could be ruined if a “bad day” coincides with the performance, but perfection is the standard regardless. I once tried to explain to a friend and professional musician how my disease had been affecting my playing since myasthenia gravis causes weakness in voluntary muscles (including facial muscles that are important for brass instruments) – I was struggling with some of the music. He responded that I would just have to try harder and that, “It probably doesn’t affect you as much as you think anyway.” Bad days are largely out of your control. And it’s OK not to be perfect.

It’s OK to simply enjoy the music.

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