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Home » Resources » Health » How to Take Care of Your Eyes

How to Take Care of Your Eyes


EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article is a result of research conducted across a number of health-related Web sites. The AFM does not endorse any specific remedy for eye problems and urges members to consult a medical practitioner before deciding on a course of action.

Eye problems are an often-overlooked health issue for professional musicians. The effort eyes make to read sheet music or follow the conductor while peering around an instrument can lead to a number of common, but treatable, complaints.

Unfortunately, opticians aren’t always sensitive to the specific concerns musicians have with their eyes. For instance, a one-size-fits-all approach to correcting vision may not work when there are so many different tasks eyes perform in an average day. A musician who logs off the computer, drives to work, performs for an evening, then goes home to watch the “Late Show with David Letterman” on TV, before reading in bed, ideally might need different glasses for each task. Fortunately, opticians who are used to treating increasingly widespread computer-related eye disorders suggest their advice can also help working musicians.

A typical complaint of professional musicians is eyestrain. Its cause is similar to that which leads to the same diagnosis in computer users. The eyes just aren’t meant to repetitively scan the small text of a music score or computer screen at a distance of two or three feet for long periods of time. Close focusing and repetitive scanning can even lead to a condition called “spasms of accommodation.” This is when the eyes’ overworked muscles spasm and are no longer able to adjust when a musician looks at something far away. Everything distant becomes blurry because the muscles have lost the ability to focus. Another more serious consequence of eyestrain is ocular migraine, a condition believed to be caused by a spasm of blood vessels brought on by eyestrain and which leads to visual disturbances. Opticians consider eyestrain a form of repetitive stress injury, which takes time to develop and a long time to treat.

Two other eye problems that commonly affect musicians were identified in a study conducted by Dr. Paul Alan Harris and published in a 1988 edition of The Journal of the American Optometric Association. Harris studied orchestra members in situ and found that peculiar working conditions led to diagnoses of astigmatism (abnormal curvature of the lens) and anisometropia (a large difference between the refractive power of the two eyes). Specifically, different vision problems arose depending on which instrument was played and where a musician sat. For instance, Harris found that a bass clarinetist, who habitually tilted his head back to play and looked left to view sheet music and conductor, had a significantly astigmatic right eye.

Whether you wear corrective lenses or not, there are several actions that can be taken to reduce the risk of eye trouble:

  • Wear the correct lenses to play. A pianist’s glasses that are good for reading books might not be suitable for reading a score. She’ll have to have another pair to read the music; if not, she’ll probably find herself leaning forward in order to get the notes in focus. Modern lenses have been developed that can help musicians. Three of these are “progressive bifocal” lenses, “trifocal” lenses, and “variable focus lenses,” sometimes called “computer glasses.” The days when only grandpa wore bifocals might be over; opticians are prescribing these multi-task lenses even for young children these days.
  • Lubricate your eyes. One trick to avoid eye problems is also very simple: blink! Concentrating on a score during a recital might mean a musician forgets to blink, and when the cornea dries out, eyes can start to ache. Musicians who wear contact lenses are prone to dry eyes, especially if seated close to air conditioning ducts in an orchestra pit, so they should either make liberal use of artificial tears, or wear their glasses when performing in the pit.
  • Adjust the music stand correctly. The top of your sheet music should ideally be at or just below eye level to avoid straining. If the stand must be below eye level, it is better to lower the eyes than tilt the head. Avoid eye problems caused by neck rotation by placing the stand directly in front of you. Also, if you have a choice between wearing glasses or contact lenses, the latter might be preferable as they allow for better peripheral vision which in turn can reduce the need for neck movement.
  • Find an optician who understands. A musician’s eyes are arguably as important as his or her hands. If you think you have work-related eye trouble, find an optician who is sensitive to this issue or who works with other musicians. One professional musician suggests going as far as to bring your instrument, music stand, clip light, and sheet music (preferably a complex score with lots of minute instructions) to the clinic so the optician can get to know your working conditions and individual needs.

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