heather o'donnell                                                 



Injury Prevention / Rehabilitation *


"If you know what you are doing you can do what you want."
                                                        Moshé Feldenkrais

I am a pianist and specialist in injury prevention and recovery. I work as a consultant and teacher with injured pianists, as well as with pianists who are confronting difficulties and a sense of stagnation in their progress. In lessons we examine these kinds of issues:

• locating (potential) source(s) of injury or blockages
• increasing awareness of pianistic movement through image/metaphor/analysis/movement exercises
• identifying and relieving overburdened compensatory elements in the playing mechanism
• optimized practicing and mental practicing (visualization) techniques
• recommendations for physiotherapeutic treatment or somatic education
• discussing role of tension and relaxation in playing
• reviewing assumptions and habits about playing in order to find alternative solutions
• improving imaginative abilities for tone color, movement patterns, and variety of touch, articulation, usage of pedal, etc.
• understanding historical developments in keyboard technique spanning the 17th to 20th centuries

I take into consideration the personal history of each pianist, their physiology, habits, and psychological tendencies, and develop - together with the student - artistically-driven solutions to pianistic challenges.

My work with pianists suffering from injuries, as well as students with neurological illnesses or dysfunction (i.e. stroke patients, individuals with Parkinson’s disease, tremor, MS, autism, dementia) stems out of my own experience with an auto-immune disease that caused a complex network of problems in my general health and playing mechanism. The disease was only identified after several years of addressing various symptoms (aching hands, weakness in fingers, loss of fine-motor control). Throughout the years before the disease was diagnosed, I visited a myriad of specialists in the field of Music Medicine: physiotherapists, osteopaths, neurologists, orthopedists, kinesiologists, nutritionists, practitioners of Alexander and Feldenkrais techniques, as well as pianists specialised in injury rehabilitation and prevention. These treatments, though they were addressing symptoms rather that the cause, were effective in forestalling the worst effects of the disease, and were invaluable in gathering insights into components of the playing mechanism. In 2007, due to an ill-timed treatment that targeted overburdened compensatory muscle groups, my fine-motoric coordination was severely compromised, making it impossible to control even simple pianistic movements over the span of several months. Following this experience, I was forced to reconstitute a technical basis, working intensively during this time with various music-medicine practitioners. This process of re-building a strong technical foundation was extremely useful in reviewing, understanding and intensively experiencing the various components of playing the piano in a relatively short time-span, and with the reflective capabilities of an adult. The experience enabled me to develop a body of visual and metaphor-based explanations for internal processes involved in piano playing that are helpful for pianists struggling with injury.

In addition to this experience, I have recently completed a degree in Psychology (BS, Freie Universität), specializing in neurological dysfunction and its effects on learning, memory, and motor control, as well as chronic pain. I have also taken courses in Music Physiology at the Kurt Singer Institute (Zertifikatkurs, UdK Berlin), and participated in a conference in music psychology: Musik-Lernen-Emotionen (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) and presented talks at the Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA) Symposium at Weill-Medical Center in New York, and the World Piano Conference Novi Sad. I’ve also conducted my own research, for example through a certificate course offered online by Duke University: Medical Neuroscience, and through an extensive review of literature in the field of Music Medicine on topics including Focal Dystonia, rehabilitation of stroke patients through music instruction, rehabilitation of musicians affected with neurological disorders, and the effects of psychosomatic afflictions on a musician’s playing ability.

It is important for me to stress that music medicine is an interdisciplinary field that operates under the principles of the "Biopsychosocial Model", meaning that an injury can be traced back to a myriad of causes including biological dysfunction, psychological stress, and adverse working/living environments. One practitioner in this field most often cannot achieve satisfying results alone, but can serve as a component in a system of multiple therapeutic interventions. I strive to serve as an intermediary presence between medical fields and music practitioners, bringing extensive experience of a performing and teaching musician together with a strong knowledge of neurology, physiology, and psychology. Very often I might suggest work with a particular expert in another field, either in conjunction with the work we do at the piano, or as a subsequent step in the therapeutic process.


* Rehabilitation, def.:

"The center of the word constellation rehabilitation is from the Latin habere, which is a fit state or condition within which we can dwell. The process of neurorehabilitation is concerned with returning us to those performances of our bodies within which we dwell and recognize ourselves; where we feel at home in our bodies." David Aldridge, Chair for Qualitative Research in Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Witten-Herdecke

"Unlike treatment, which is given to a patient, rehabilitation is a process in which the patient takes an active part. Professionals work together with the disabled person to achieve an optimum level of physical, social, psychological, and vocational functioning." Barbara A. Wilson, neuropsychologist, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge



Please find a curriculum for a university-level course on injury prevention → here.

Please find a lecture I gave on neurological dysfunction in pianists at the World Piano Conference, Novi Sad, Serbia, June 2015 → here.

       a teaching assistant