Music medicine can be fun!

… although one might need a slightly twisted view of things to find it so. An article in the September 2010 edition of Medical Problems of Performing Musicians shows us how:

…in 1935, trumpeter Louis Armstrong hurt his lips from too much playing and had to lay down his horn for a year. His condition was diagnosed as a rupture of the orbicularis oris muscle and was referred to as “Satchmo’s syndrome.” Other musicians’ ailments soon followed, affecting string, woodwind, brass, and percussion players alike, ascribed to the vagaries of the various musical instruments. But perhaps the envelope was pushed a bit too far by Curtis, who wrote a letter to the BMJ in 1974 describing three cases of cystic mastitis occurring in adolescent girls learning to play classical guitar, presumably from pressure on the breast from the edge of the sound-box, a condition he termed “guitar nipple.”

Enter Dr. Elaine Murphy, at the time a young registrar in psychiatry, and her husband John, a businessman, both avid readers of the BMJ, and both of whom doubted the authenticity of guitar nipple. So they decided to perform a public service by sending their own spoof in to the BMJ that same year, which they entitled “cello scrotum,” claiming to have seen a cellist patient with chronic groin irritation due to long hours of scrotal contact with the vibrating body of his instrument.’ Dr. Murphy later explained, “We cooked all this up after reading this letter about guitar nipple. John used to read the BMJ too, and after dinner one night, I guess after a glass or two of wine, we composed this letter.” To their surprise, the BMJ published the letter, and wire services reported the phenomenon worldwide. Musicians unions in both the United Kingdom and Soviet Union lobbied to have the condition declared an industrial disease. Reportedly, an entire Russian symphony orchestra cello section was afflicted.

Cello scrotum would be referenced at least a dozen times in the peer-reviewed medical literature over the next 35 years, although skeptics questioned how the body of the cello could contact the scrotum if the instrument were properly played…one wag suggested that the affected cellists were moonlighting as chimney-sweeps.

I’m glad it was a hoax; I’d hate to think what disorders the course of such a disease might lead to.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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