I have to admit, I love finding this stuff: recent medical research has uncovered a relationship between chronic back problems and… straight posture:

Aching Back? Sitting Up Straight Could Be The Culprit

Science Daily Researchers are using a new form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show that sitting in an upright position places unnecessary strain on your back, leading to potentially chronic pain problems if you spend long hours sitting. The study, conducted at Woodend Hospital in Aberdeen, Scotland, was presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

OK, so now my ears are peeled: what will be the reaction of music teachers to this news?

This is spinal tap Astor bandoleon BW

If you’re like me, you’ve probably had some experience with music teachers. You may have come across at some point a teacher (or two), who can only be described as a “correct posture nazi”.

In my case, unhappily, it was my first music teacher, a catholic nun. As a ten year-old learning the violin, I found the orthodox stance for the instrument highly straining on neck and arms. My teacher, unsympathetic to my growing and adaption pains, used stark methods to ensure I maintained the “correct position” at all times. She would tape any fingers straying from the bow back onto the bow, and violently pull out my elbow anytime she saw me slouch an inch.

The whole process of practicing and lessons became full of dread and tension. As a result of my teachers well-intended but tyrannical methods, I had quit playing the violin within three years.

Out With the Old, In With the New

Happily, times have changed, and teachers of this ilk are now a dying minority. Due to the spate of career-destroying injuries in the music world, postural issues have become a focal point of recent medical attention in performing arts medicine. With the addition of the Alexander technique, the Feldenkrais method and Yoga to conventional musical training, it is now common practice to match the appropriate battery of techniques to the unique physique and instrument choice of each musician.

And so with this research find on back posture, it’s looking like nail-on-the-coffin time for the Old Guard of traditional music pedagogy. No longer will generations of mere mortals have to endure watching slouching musical geniuses performing miracles on their instruments, all the while keeping a ruler-straight back for hours under the spell of the metronome on the practice front.

We’re all going to be virtuosos now, and play by our own rules 😉
Gould slouch

Of course, I expect there will be the nay-sayers to the research, who will insist on a single correct posture for playing a musical instrument. To these I will relate the following advice:

Get off the dogma, bud. To each his own scientists.

Which brings us to the issue of…

The Politics of Research

Now, there’s nothing I enjoy more than a good mudslinging science battle. You know how it goes: key findings in a given domain completely contradict one another. And so opposing research gangs start to get vicious, as in: “your researchers are corrupted with money, ours are pure and disinterested”. And mudslingers are especially sanctimonious if their funding originates from the public trough, instead of corporate deep pockets.

researcher hand

I came across a fun example of this while on a research gig for a TV documentary on urban legends.

It’s about exposure to sunshine and the risks of skin cancer. Common wisdom would have it that prolonged exposure to sunlight without adequate skin protection will increase one’s risk in developing a malignant skin cancer. While doing research for the doc, I stumbled on newspaper headlines claiming the contrary: that insufficient exposure to “raw sunlight” would increase one’s risk of developing many types of cancers.

You can imagine the confusion such findings create, considering the sound advice that’s been drilled into our heads from chilhood onwards, on the necessity of putting on sun cream when we’re out enjoying the sun.

But I was intrigued by the polemics that followed in the wake of these articles. In letters to the editor, indignant MD’s who would accuse the reseachers of being highly irresponsible, and of not-so-subtly promoting a corporate agenda (of course, many of those same MD’s uncritically push pills on a regular basis). The researchers’ response, published in the days that followed, was to point out that the cosmetics industry had played a large part in determining the findings on the harms of exposure to the sun.

So the whole affair became a war between the Vitamin Trust (Vitamin D is the answer) and the Cosmetics Trust (sunscreen is the answer). Hilarious.
Solgar Vitamin D Estée Lauder Sun Screen
As this was a documentary series on urban legends, my role was to uncover research and claims that “bordered on the folkloric”. But from this controversy, I quickly saw the flip side of the coin: the very premise of the series could serve as a powerful way to dismiss new controversial findings, and reify the status quo.

Result: no shortage of MD’s now who acknowledge the existence of the new findings, but continue recommending the use of sunscreen and of Vitamin D pills – both supplied by the pharmaceutical trust – as preventative measures against various cancers.

In other words, seems like “common sense preventative approaches to cancer” may have benefited from a series of well-funded, highly successful PR campaigns for their dissemination.

Sigh. I can’t help but think: why can’t the lab-coats just get off their horse and confess to the world that scientific knowledge isn’t truth, but method. On this ground we’d always be able to discuss the stuff of knowledge, and agree on the best course of research for desired outcomes.

Alas, every age has its brand of idolatry. Ours is “unimpeachable facts”.

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