Concert halls of the future Spaces of possibility

Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future.
Bar, club, concert hall at once: Hamburg's “resonanzaum” shows a possible way of building event rooms of the future. | Photo (detail): resonanzaum

Musicians’ Diseases The dark side of a dream profession

Badi Assad, famous guitar player suffered for a while from dystonia
Badi Assad, famous guitar player suffered for a while from dystonia | Photo (detail): Ralf Dombrowski

Statistics say that concertgoers are becoming older and older. Initiatives such as 'resonanzraum' in Hamburg counter this with new concepts and lure the younger generation into concerts. A model with prospects.

Before, of course, everything was better and a lot was also easier for the concert organizer. He set a time and a classical program, without outliers from other genres, took care that there were enough subscribers present, and then the music was performed and after the applause someone dutifully switched off the lights. Although things still function this way in many classical concert halls, and although some rising new buildings have the ambition to do it better than the top dogs, one question worries the industry: what should we do and omit today and all the more tomorrow so that we don’t show ourselves to be, out of a pure sense of duty to the tradition, expendable and from yesterday?

Concert halls as spaces of possibility

There is only one way to remain contemporary and relevant in the balancing act between entertainment and serious music: venues must transform themselves into spaces of possibility, away from traditional formats, away from rigid evening slots. For a musical snack a little concert would do as well. Away from stiff subscriptions structures, which smack of compulsory attendance. Away from “chalk and talk” instruction in emotion. Away too from some cherished formulas for concert menus, particularly the now stale sandwich model with the indigestible avant-garde between more popular pieces of music. Instead: use what you have, do as much as you can with the site and the site-specific options. New concepts and longer-term, tailor-made artist residencies.

No other new concert house construction in recent decades has caused so much turmoil as has the Elbe Philharmonic Hall. It can be considered as Hamburg’s attempt consistently to re-group itself and to derive a commitment to musical excellence from its own tradition, from the Gänsemarkt Opera of the Baroque to the beer-showering punks of the Electro / Hip Hop band Deichkind. In the autumn of 2012 a performance of tremendous symbolic power already showed the hanseatic audience how much seductively creative energy can be generated in a place when you exploit its unique character. Ironically, it was not Christoph Lieben-Seutter, the general director of the Laeiszhalle and the the Elbe Philharmonic Hall, but the Hamburg Theatre Festival that imported from the Radialsystem in Berlin Jochen Sandig’s Human Requiem. The music of the Deutsches Requiem by Brahms, a son of Hamburg, staged as a theatral spatialization in the Philharmonic’s so-called plaza. Thirty-seven meters above the Elbe, the Berlin Radio Choir performed the piece, thrice sold out.

Model: resonanzraum

In October 2014 an ambitious alternative concert house experiment was started in Hamburg. With a great deal of luck, bold capital injections and the backing of the Hamburg cultural policy, the Ensemble Resonanz (ER) found a new home in Europe’s largest high-rise bunker in the Feldstraße. The brutally chunky concrete block stands between the Reeperbahn and the trendy quarter Karolinenviertel and the also near Schanzenviertel. It is filled with, among others, creative companies, the studio of the internet radio station ByteFM and the club Uebel & Gefährlich (i.e. Bad and Dangerous). And the resonanzraum (i.e. Resonance Chamber): a mini-concert hall with a well-concealed orchestra infrastructure behind the large swinging doors. Its design is a far cry from noble and classic, and is instead rough and hip, there is a bar directly next to the seats. The resonanzraum is a classic club for a clientele of twenty-somethings and late-thirty-year-olds.

Here this age group is quite natural to stop by a concert of the “urban string” series for a cold beer and some late Beethoven. There are drinks and short concerts, DJ sets in between, and the word “subscription” comes from a parallel universe. At the opening ceremony, the members of the ER could hardly believe, after years of roving through the city, how well this 650-square-meter location fit their intentions, much more their target group. First they played Bruckner, then lounge music from a laptop, after that early classical by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In the dim light of the bar a barmaid, with a revolver tattoo on her forearm, stopped serving. She wanted to listen.
“urban string” at resonanzraum, source: Ensemble Resonanz / Youtube

Cooperation instead of demarcation

Since then things have gone well for the ER. The concertgoers are as young as they are consistently excited. There are a dozen “urban string” concerts a year; the percentage of seats sold, with 230 to 250 visitors per evening, is one hundred. And then there are the concert series of other organizsers, including even the public service radio broadcaster NDR. Through a cooperation with ByteFM, the ER has gained a fine little information platform.

The resonanzraum is a “giant step”, thinks the ER manager Tobias Rempe, “for the city, to a whole new audience, to ourselves. The combination of good acoustics for chamber music and the club atmosphere is unique and ensures an overwhelming response. On the basis of this experience, we’re very much looking forward to the next big step: the opening of the Elbe Philharmonic Hall and our residency in its Chamber Music Hall. In the tension between these poles – the residency at the Philharmonic and the home base in St. Pauli – lies a fascinating opportunity for us in the music city Hamburg.”

Can Hamburg in general and the concept of the resonanzraum in particular serve as models? That is a difficult question. After the forbidding planning and cost disaster of the Elbe Philharmonic, municipalities barely still dare to plan new concert halls. The debate about the construction of a concert hall in Munich takes a long time, in spite of purported decisions. The new Music Centre in Bochum contains, as befits a new building, a multifunctional hall; but the decisive thing will be what is done with it.

For the Ensemble Resonanz, on the other hand, this is the beginning of exciting times, because the Chamber Music Hall of the Elbe Philharmonic will become their new home in January 2017. This is a clever move in several ways. On the one hand because it executes an image transfer from an off venue that could give the Elbe Philharmonic, a grave of alleged billions, a good dose of coolness. On the other hand because the string ensemble then will be in the enviable position of being able to tailor-fit even better its offerings and concepts in the dazzling freestyle grey zone between repertoire and risk to the respective venue. A win-win situation for classical music, which could hardly be more classical.

Musicians are stars, shining figures in the firmament of social admiration. Disorders that arise from the often extreme one-sided stress of the body do not therefore belong to the general perception of the profession. But awareness of this dark side is increasing in German orchestras, universities and beyond. An overview of a still new field of research.

The avid music listener is often surprised to learn that such a “pleasant’ job as that of making music has its dark side, which manifests itself in chronic pain, loss of fine motor control, hearing and anxiety disorders. Musicians, like high-performance athletes, work at the limit of their physiological and psychological capacities, since they usually must, and want to, deliver an optimum performance. Even minimal functional disturbances of the physiological system first manifest themselves in performance, and emotional tension can cause an impoverishment of the range of artistic expression.

Moreover, many musical instruments are unfavourably designed from an ergonomic point of view and cause extreme stress on the musculoskeletal system. The present form of the violin, for example, was developed at the end of the sixteenth century, a period when the lower positions were played predominantly in a comfortable posture for short spaces of time and no one thought of hours-long practicing of technical difficulties such as those presented by Paganini Caprices.
Especially the violin is unfavourably designed from an ergonomic point of view and cause extreme stress on the musculoskeletal system. Especially the violin is unfavourably designed from an ergonomic point of view and cause extreme stress on the musculoskeletal system. | Photo: HMTM / Eckart Altenmüller

Stress beyond art

The often very complex and rapid sequence of movements in musical performance are specified down to the smallest detail both in their temporal and their spatial coordinates. And there is probably hardly another profession in which quality of performance is so constantly checked. Colleagues, conductors and the audience are stern judges in an increasingly intense competition. Health-related performance deficits threaten professional status and career. Ill musicians therefore suffer from severe psychological stress: they have usually begun their professional training in childhood, define themselves largely in terms of their musical skills and continue in most cases to enjoy performing music even well into old age. Disorders that affect the playing of instruments are consequently often accompanied by diminished self-esteem and cause great anxiety.

What disorders does the musician’s doctor see?

Pain syndromes are by far the most common medical disorders of musicians. About forty-five percent of the musicians suffer or have suffered pain disorders for a period of more than six weeks. The symptoms typically appear in those regions of the body that are stressed by posture maintenance strain in forced positions or by prolonged repetitive movements. Thus typical for players of high-held string instruments are left shoulder pains and neck pains, for pianists and organists pains in the forearms (“tendonitis”) and in the lumbar spine. For clarinettists and oboists pains may appear in the area of the right thumb due to the strain of holding the thumb rest. Most often the pains occur after extreme stress and are confined to the time actually playing the instrument. Daily activities are often not affected. Typical triggers are prolonged playing times in preparation for major concerts, auditions and competitions. The rehearsal of new movement sequences, the change of instrument and newly introduced physical activities (for example, additional work at the PC) are also triggering factors.

In second place are the anxiety disorders. It is estimated that forty percent of all musicians and seventy percent of music students suffer from performance anxiety, which often leads to terminating their careers. Compared with the general population, anxiety symptoms occur about three times as often in musicians.

In third place come the neurological disorders, and here musicians’ dystonia is especially disastrous. This involves loss of fine motor control due to involuntary muscle spasms. The movement disorder is task-specific, occurs during playing of the instrument and is usually painless. It can occur as hand dystonia at the piano (for example, involuntary furling of the fingers) or as embouchure dystonia with wind instruments (loss of tone control when blowing) and affects an estimated two percent of professional musicians. Finally, we should mention the hearing disturbances triggered by music, which are currently the object of intense preventive measures in occupational medicine.

Health care for musicians: a social challenge

The prevalence of health problems amongst musicians makes clear that especially prevention is urgently needed. This is also apparent from polls, according to which only seventeen percent of orchestra musicians believe their educational institutions prepared them sufficiently for their daily work routine. The German Association for Music Physiology and Musicians’ Medicine (DGfMM) seeks to establish a comprehensive specialty for “the principles of health for musicians”. Educational institutions would address the treatment of professional stressors and of the musician’s body and offer practical courses in these subjects. Many universities and conservatories have now set up such lectureships. Advanced training for doctors as “specialists for musicians” would also be desirable.

Under the auspices of the DGfMM, doctors, psychologists and therapists from all over Germany who are interested in an evidence-based medicine for musicians have joined together. In addition, it is important to provide a scientific basis for the specialty of medicine for musicians. This would be best achieved by founding further institutes for the subject. So far facilities where musicians can receive competent medical consultation and treatment exist at the University for Music, Theatre and Media in Hanover and the music academies of Berlin, Detmold, Dresden, Freiburg, and Cologne.

Research centres for medicine for musicians exist in the areas of neurology in Hanover and in the areas of psychosomatic and phoniatric disorders in Freiburg. Research in the area of voice care and kinesiology is being conducted at the Music Academy in Dresden. There is still no special medical designation such as “musicians’ medicine”, but there is additional professional training under the name of “Music Physiology in Everyday Artistic Life”, which is organised by the music academies in Berlin and Hanover. The already mentioned DGfMM also organises annual symposia on topics of medicine for musicians.

Selected bibliography

Altenmüller, E, Wiesendanger M, . Kesselring J.: Music, Motor Control, and the Brain. Oxford University Press, 2006

Altenmüller E, Rode-Breymann S.: Krankheiten grosser Musiker und Musikerinnen: Reflexionen am Schnittpunkt von Musikwissenschaft und Medizin. Olms-Verlag Hildesheim, 2009

Spahn, C., Richter B. Altenmüller E.: Musikermedizin. Schattauer-Verlag Stuttgart 2011

Klöppel, R., Altenmüller E.: Die Kunst des Musizierens. Schott-Verlag, Mainz 2013