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July 1, 2022IM -
On average, most people spend over seven hours a day looking at a screen. All that screen time puts them at risk for digital eye strain (DES), a group of problems that include tired eyes and blurred vision. It’s also a typical complaint of professional musicians. The eyes are not meant to repetitively scan the small text of a music score or a computer screen at a distance of two or three feet for long periods of time. Such intense focusing and repetitive scanning can even lead to “spasms of accommodation,” basically overworked muscles that spasm. When you look up and try to refocus, everything at a distance is blurry because the muscles have temporarily lost the ability to focus.
To Reduce Eye Strain, Think 20/20
Part of the of the problem is that we don’t blink as often as we should. Blinking lubricates the eye—but studies show that blink rate decreases by nearly 70% when using a digital device. Luckily, DES symptoms usually resolve once you power down. Whether it’s screen time, reading music, or both—take a break.
Blink often and use eyedrops. When the cornea becomes dry, it can cause the eye to ache. If you wear contact lenses, you are more susceptible to dry eyes. Make sure you are properly fitted with the right lenses. And this is important: alternate wearing your glasses to gigs or when you rehearse. Like resting your body and your ears from practicing, it’s vital to rest your eyes.
An easy way to relax your eye muscles throughout the day is to practice the 20-20-20 rule: For every 20 minutes of digital screen use or rehearsing look at an object about 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
If you practice with a music stand, be sure to adjust it to eye level or slightly below. Place it where you won’t have to turn your body or crane your neck to see the notes. Some musicians play in chronically asymmetrical positions. Maintaining a neutral head and neck position is key to reducing the occurrence of eye strain. If you share a music stand with another musician and are used to craning your neck to one side, try switching places to create a better balance. The amount of eye movement and head movement when tracking an object, like notes on a page, should be balanced.
Keep It Bright
Whether practicing with an ensemble, an orchestra, or at home, make sure that you’re at a comfortable distance from your music (meaning you can read it easily), you are not craning your neck to see the pages, and that the music is brightly lit. Orchestra pits can be dark so make sure that you have plenty of lighting. Don’t be afraid to consult with the music director or ask the tech crew to add lighting. It may be helpful to make copies of your music in larger print or in a color that stands out.
Get your eyes examined regularly even if you have not had vision problems. Without realizing it, you may be straining to read your sheet music. Ask your eye doctor about task-specific lenses that would work for reading music. Likewise, those who wear corrective lenses and glasses should consult an optometrist or an ophthalmologist about products for their particular performance situation. If possible, take your stand and a page of sheet music to your eye appointment to illustrate the distance at which your eyes must work when playing with the orchestra.
Unique Factors for Wind Musicians
Playing loud and high-pitched notes on wind instruments can double eye pressure. If you have been diagnosed with glaucoma and play a high-resistance wind instrument like the trumpet or oboe, you must be extra vigilant. Even low-resistance wind musicians (flute, clarinet, saxophone, tuba, and trombone) experience a transient rise in their eye pressure while playing.
Glaucoma progression is related to the number of hours of playing. Professional wind instrument players who spend hours a day practicing are subject to repeated eye pressure elevations. This increases the risk of developing glaucoma. Eventually, it may present as visual field damage, and may be classified as normal-tension glaucoma. In such cases, there is a definite correlation between musical instruments and the progression of visual field loss. Be sure to tell your doctor that you play a wind instrument and the number of hours you practice per week.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) suggests that people who are at risk for glaucoma have complete eye exams according to the following schedule:
General Tips for Better Vision