In the September 2010 cover story of Classical Guitar, the exceptional Russian guitarist Irina Kulikova shared with writer Guy Traviss how an injury helped shape her attitudes toward physical, mental, and emotional health. Kulikova has continued on her upward career trajectory, traveling the world and releasing CDs (her most recent was Reminiscences of Russia), so her approach seems to be working. Here’s an excerpt from that interview.

At 19, I broke my left arm, leaving me unable to play for 18 months. This gave me time to think—a bit more than I would have liked, but in that period my determination to continue with music grew even stronger. At that time, I was studying at the Gnessin Academy in Moscow. I obviously missed guitar lessons, but I also missed lessons in piano and conducting. Fortunately, there were a lot of different modules you could take, such as theory and historical studies. During this period, I disappeared into a lot of literature, medical books in particular. I developed an interest in the relationship between music and health: How to stay healthy as a musician, and how music can serve as medicine. Five years later, I wrote my master’s thesis on this topic at the Mozarteum [in Vienna]: The Mystery of Sound and Wholeness of the Artist: A Multidisciplinary Introduction to a Better Stage Performance.

The paper is about dealing with physical and mental blocks, to be free and open in our stage performances. My interest in the subject was inspired by Ilsa Safarova, a Russian pianist who works with musicians struggling with physical or mental problems. She helped me when my arm was broken. After the long pause from concert life, I was afraid of going back on stage. But thanks to her treatment, I found my way again. Through personal experience and meeting so many other musicians who at some time suffered from blocks on stage, I became very much involved with this theme.

[As a treatment, Safarova] gave a special kind of massage and taught me to concentrate on energy flows through the body. She helped me to be more conscious about the way I practice and the way I live life in general. The intensity with which we work on a piece, the books we read, music we listen to, movies we see, people we meet, and all kinds of other daily rituals have a special meaning to us: [All of this] settles somewhere in our subconscious.

On the night of the concert, the body remembers everything that has happened in the months before, only twenty times stronger. To be able to transmit music with all its meaning and full intensity, musicians need to be whole themselves. This is what Safarova made me aware of. If your hands are trembling onstage, or if your memory is failing you, you have built up blocks somewhere. You can’t take these blocks away by focusing on the night of the concert alone. You need to make changes in life generally. For example, be open to experiment with tai chi or qigong. Get some good massages or go to an acupuncturist. Learn to concentrate on your breathing and movement. Try different kinds of mental and physical training. Create a special atmosphere while you’re practicing at home. All these things help to create a sense of inner harmony that you bring to the stage.

I know that music education is for a large part about discovering technical aspects of our instrument and developing a broad knowledge of music. But it is also about the whole of our physical, emotional, intellectual, intuitive, and spiritual development. That’s why I work with my students on more than technique and musical interpretation alone. I encourage them to open their imagination to any piece they play, to find out what inspired the composer. But also to find their own way in a spiritual direction. I’m sure this helps to become more whole as a person; to open up more of our gifts and unite them in beautiful music.