music and progressives

Why Can't Musicians Wear Progressives for Music?

My Musicians and Progressives experiment wrapped up just over a week ago. I'm eagerly awaiting my snazzy purple frames, which will return to me as "normal" eyeglasses. Part of me has been mulling over exactly why so many musicians say that that it is impossible to use progressives for music and also, why I am in that 5 - 10% of people who had an adverse reaction to progressive lenses.

To answer that, I reviewed one of my clips from last week. In the span of of 70 seconds, my eyes flitted rapidly back and forth, up and down, left and right 70 times. In those 70 seconds, my eyes were looking at the music and the choir director from all regions of the lenses - top, middle, bottom, the far right and the far left. Peripheral vision was used just as much as looking at my subject head-on.

To do that with progressives resulted in my eyes looking through the long-range, intermediate and up-close reading range and well as the sides of the lenses that are essentially dead space repeatedly. Visual distortion occurred every time I moved my eyes, which is exactly what happened here:

With such rapid eye movement meeting with visual distortion, it's no wonder I got nauseous. Later in this clip, I tried moving my head as many times as my eyes would move normally in the span of a minute. Moving one's head that often in the span of a minute is also a recipe for nausea (and extremely impractical for a musician). I'd say it's also a recipe for whiplash and inexcusably sloppy playing.

That clip was just over one-minute. Ensemble rehearsals run anywhere between 90 minutes to three hours. To extrapolate, a musician's eyes may move rapidly at least 10,800 times in a three-hour rehearsal. Why was my nausea far worse than my music colleagues who have met with some success wearing their progressives in non-musical situations? I think it's because I use my eyes in a similar fashion when doing non-musical things. If I look at my main tasks in a given day, we can extrapolate how often my eyes rapidly flit around:

  1. If my eyes shift 70 times in the span of 70 seconds, we can extrapolate that if read and play music for 60 minutes (my desired minimum, my max seems to be four hours), my eyes will shift 3,600 times in that hour.
  2. I use my eyes in a similar fashion when I work on the computer, doing office studio work, writing, researching, transcribing or editing (text, audio and video). I work on the computer anywhere between three to seven hours a day. If I'm on the computer for five hours a day (my average), my eyes will shift 18, 000 times.
  3. I use my eyes in a similar fashion when I drive. I drive between one to three hours a day. If I drive three hours in day, then my eyes will shift at least 10,800 times.
  4. On average, I teach four hours a day. My vision usage is similar to the aforementioned situations.  My eyes would then shift rapidly 14,400 times in that time span.

By my count, my eyes flit quickly - using all areas of my single-vision lenses and contacts an average of 46,800 times a day. This doesn't even include watching shows or operas with subtitles or playing a video game!

It's no wonder my nausea worsened as I forced myself to wear the progressives for longer periods at a time. It's no wonder I couldn't last a week. However, some of my music friends and colleagues wondered how I lasted as long as I did.

A Progressive Exception

For those of you who have been following my Musicians and Progressives Experiment, you'll be happy to hear that I did go to my optometrist's office today and asked for "normal glasses". I did learn a few interesting things that I can share:

  1. My prescription is correct. Always good to know.
  2. Approximately 5 - 10% of people in my age range (early 40s) do not adapt to progressives. It would appear that I am in that group. 
  3. This number (of patients who can't wear progressives) increases significantly as patients get older. If my memory serves correct, this number goes upwards to 20% for those in their mid-40s.
  4. I seem to know a lot of people who can't wear progressives (oh wait, that's because I know many musicians and other creatives). 
  5. If you can't adapt to progressives, you can explore trifocals, bifocals and different pairs of single-vision lenses and/or contact lenses.
Therefore, my optometrist was being proactive by starting me on progressives early.
He doesn't feel that office progressives will do me any good at this point, as it's mostly for intermediate and up-close vision (at least, that's what I remember of the conversation). That shoots down my wish for progressives that only have long distance and intermediate range lenses (and then I'd use separate reading glasses). Interestingly enough, it's it's my "up-close" range (AKA, the range I hardly use) that's degenerating first (Note to self: exercise that range more). I just heard from another music friend. He's a percussionist/conductor/teacher. His eye doctor is having him try trifocals INSTEAD of progressives. In fact, it was the optometrist who said, "Progressives don't work for musicians."
I remain hopeful that in time, progressive lens that don't severely limit the periphery will be developed. I look forward to the day that one pair of glasses/contacts will serve my and my fellow musicians' aging needs. That there will be a type of lens that I can wear without having to juggle multiple pairs of vision wear. Someday.

5 – 10% of people in my age range can’t adapt to progressives.I’m one of them. Photo by R-M Arca.

Back to today. I fell back on the non-adapt clasue. Ironically, the new pair is nearly identical in prescription to the single-vision glasses I'm wearing now. They are over four-years old, so they are a little beat up. The old pair will make a great back-up pair. The new pair will make a great dedicated music pair when the time comes to revisit multi-focal lens options. I could have tried bifocals today, but when it comes down to it, I just want normal glasses. 

Quick Links to the Musicians and Progressives Experiment posts:

Post Musicians and Progressives Experiment Musings

This is my third day with my short-corridor progressives firmly closed in their case. It's been heavenly without the nausea. My appetite has returned in full force, I'm back to being my mostly even-keeled self. I've returned to my regular activities. I continue to receive feedback from various sources. Here are some of the comments that I've received from of of my piano students' parents:

  • In one family, the mother adjusted to the progressives but the father did not adapt. The mother actually has to juggle more than one pair - reading glasses and progressives. It sounds like she's even having challenges with her progressives and needs office progressives. The father, who drives trucks, now wears bifocals and I believe uses single-vision wear for driving.
  • Another parent, who learned music as a child, said "NO WAY!" when I told her that I was supposed to use my progressives to read and play music. She also juggles two pairs - office progressives and reading glasses.
  • One of my adult students detests her progressives. Not only can't she read her music but she's having trouble with her other daily activities. She is shopping for a new eye doctor who will work with her to explore other options.
  • Another parent said that the transition between the vision zones should be "seamless". His entire eye exam was computerized, so his readings were extremely accurate. Wow. I want that eye exam!

There is an addendum to my colleague Gwen Richardson Bartek's office progressives success story, "I am lucky with my optometrist. :):) I teach his children piano lessons." That's so convenient! She added, "My "office" progressives work."

What it's boiling down to is that musicians and non-musicians alike aren't asked enough questions at the beginning about their daily vision needs. It's taken several tries for most of them and the ones with progressives still have to juggle another one or two pairs of glasses.>Nor are progressives for everyone.

Hindsight is 20/20. This is what I've learned: If you are told that you need progressives, do not feel pressured (and do not let them pressure you) into ordering them on the spot. Go home and do your research. Come back with questions. Do not place the order for them until:

  1. You actually have the funds to pay for them.
  2. You feel confident that your eye care practitioner understands your daily vision needs.
  3. You are satisfied with the purchase and return policy. 
  4. Ask more questions and do your research.

If you feel that your concerns (and those of your esteemed colleagues) are being dismissed, listen to your gut and go get a second opinion (or try that fully computerized test that my students' father had). If you feel that you need to run an elaborate experiment just to make your daily vision needs understood, there's a huge disjunct.

Gwen's story and my optician-pianist colleague's recommendation of office progressives, namely the NIKON Home & Office Lenses, do give musicians a viable option as far as progressives go. Now, some will find that they must still use single-vision wear for their musical (and driving) needs. It depends on their musical instrument(s) and their playing environment. My colleagues - and my experiment affirms this - that standard and short-corridor progressives do not work for reading and playing music (at least for piano, singing, percussion, conducting and teaching). Those NIKONs may very well work for me. Although they may be passable in everyday situations, I do know that I may still need my current single-vision pair for music and driving; and that my older set of glasses can be used as reading glasses. I do recognize that my prescription has changed and that I may not be able to use my current single-vision lenses for everything.

Whether or not I try the Home & Office progressives really depends on if it costs me extra to get them (or to switch to non-adapts if even those do not work) and how my appointment goes. Otherwise, like I said before, I'd rather just get my non-adapts and be done with this.

Musicians and Progressives Experiment - Day 6 Part 2

Continuing on with where I left on in Day 6 of my Musicians and Progressives Experiment... (5:00 - 6:15 PM) Noticed that if I did everything at "granny speed", no nausea. Even nodding and shaking my head at normal speed was an issue as far as nausea goes.

(6:30 PM) Took advantage of a non-nauseated moment to eat supper. Soup and rice - AGAIN! Have I mentioned how tired I am of eating nothing but soup & rice?

A good friend makes you a barf bag when your glasses make you sick. Photo by R-M Arca.

(7:25 PM) Friend is driving us to choir practice. If I close my eyes, I don't feel like throwing up. Great, so now I can't even be a passenger with progressives on?

(7:50 PM) I start the rehearsal with the progressives on. Warm-ups are difficult. It's the same feeling I got when driving. Although I can play these without looking at the keys, I must look directly at Eugenia, our conductor, to be in focus. In doing so, I kink my vocal chords, which is a recipe for injury as far as singing goes.

In this clip, I start by having my eyes move naturally (for a musician). Eyes on the music, looking through the peripheral for cues from the conductor and taking quick peeks as needed at the keyboard. Not good. Nausea is really ramping up at this point.

Then, I try moving my head so that whatever I want to focus on, is in focus. That is just as bad. You may want a barf bag handy to watch that part.

In both cases, too many compromises were made: dropped notes, dropped beats, that feeling of not being completely in sync with the ensemble.

(8:15 PM) Now that I've adjusted to having my "normal" glasses on, I can play normally. With quick peeks down through the periphery, with a slight adjustment of my head so I can view Eugenia, the music and the keyboard with one glance. You can see that I don't need to move my head as much. I can keep my vocal chords aligned and sing while playing. No visual distortion. Ain't life grand.



Have I sufficiently demonstrated why so many musicians say that "progressives are useless" for reading and playing music? The distortion is in our periphery makes it impossible to function as a successful (even passable) working musician. We need our periphery to be without distortion. Period. I think I've also proven that I'm certainly NOT adapting to progressives. There is a positive correlation between the nausea I feel and the time I wear them for. Things are definitely becoming progressively worse with each passing day, pun intended. I can't drive. I can't teach properly. Nor can I read and play music successfully. Nor can I do computer work. I can't do Tai Chi. I can't even take a splinter out with them on. I'm limited to digestive cookies, soup and rice. Quality of life is severely diminished. I don't even want to try another type of progressive. I can't afford it - on any level. I'm not just talking about financially. I mean, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually as well. I'd much rather have single-vision lenses and just accept that my distance vision isn't going to be as good as it was 20 years ago. I want my peripheral vision to be non-distorted. I want to eat normally. I want things to go back to being normal. At this point, I close the experiment. I refuse to wear my progressives. I'm tired of torturing myself. I want my "non-adapt" lenses. Appointment is on Monday. It can't come soon enough. *** Special thanks to my friends in the 10:45 St. Patrick's Choir for their help!

Musicans and Progressives Experiment - Day 6 Part 1

(11:15 AM) A pattern is starting to emerge but for me to be certain, I need to test it. It would seem that there is a positive correlation between the severity of my nausea to the length of time I wear the progressives for. I will test this by trying to wear these progressive lenses for as long as possible today. I've only told two people at this point, two who will not colour the experiment in progress. I don't want external opinions and suggestions to influence the day. My dear colleagues have been hankering for me to return the glasses for several days now.

You may ask, "Why are you doing this?" Well, two reasons. First,  you need at least three recurrences to really show that there is a pattern. The second time could be a fluke but if something recurs three or more times, then you know there's something. Second, I feel that I need to show that I really am trying.

Time Length Goal: Minimum 8 hours or until I can no longer carry out my tasks for the day/night Time Length Progressives Worn: 11:05 AM - 8ish PM (9 hours) Tasks: Chores, cooking and eating, computer work, Tai Chi, teaching music, choir rehearsal Part of the Lenses Used: All three areas but am using my eyes as normally as possible.

By the way, I should also say I needed two drowsy Gravol before bed last night. Here's the first part of my day:

(12:21 PM) Light nausea. Not enough to pop a Gravol. Will eat cookies instead.

(12:30 PM) Got a splinter putting a soup can in recycling. Tried to use the "fine-print" vision range. Found that it was too blurry. I could see the splinter so clearly when I relied on my own near-sightedness (i.e., sans glasses).

(12:45 PM) Headache is starting in occipital lobe region. Starting to wind its way forward around my head.

(2:00 PM) Just finished teaching a one-hour lesson. Floaty head. Lovely.

(2:45 PM) Head in forehead is starting to hurt. This makes computer work truly lovely.

(3:02 PM) Perfect! Nausea is steadily increasing as I continue to work on the computer. Time for two Gravol and a much needed break to fortify myself to teach.

(3:33 PM) Need another two Gravol. Nausea continues to worsen. Eyes flitting at music, hands, student and studio cameras, which is standard fare. I'm not even done teaching second student of the day!

(4:20 PM) Just finished teaching Student #3. Was just about to vomit over the piano while demonstrating a new piece to a student. I'm still shaking.

On one hand, I'm not impressed. On the other hand, I'm happy to see that my original hypothesis of whether progressives could be used for music, is being proven correct. Gloriously so. Will force another two Arrowroot-type cookies down and try to pace the Gravol. Either way, overdosing on Gravol or cookies isn't something I want to do for the long-term.

At this rate, I should ask my friend to pack me a barf bag for choir practice. I'm also thinking that instead of doing the rehearsal with the progressives on, I'll show how musicians' eyes move in normal (read: single-vision lens) situations. It all depends upon how the last two lessons go.

Click here for Part 2.

Musicians and Progressives Experiment - Day 5

Normally, I'm a fairly even-keeled person (or so I'd like to think I am). In the span of five days, I've become increasingly nauseated, emotional and downright snarly. I'm eating the bare minimum because I can't stomach a lot of food. I've probably dropped a dress size. Today, I gave those progressives six hours and six Gravol. I finally broke down and cried. Not just a couple of tears trickling down, but the kind of cry that goes on and on and on. I've wanted to do that since Day 3 What part of "You'll get used to it and it will feel natural," is this?  Time Length Goal: 12 hours minimum Time Length Progressives Worn: 9:57 AM - 2:57 PM (6 hours) Tasks: Chores, cooking and eating, computer work, Tai Chi Part of the Lenses Used:  48% Intermediate distance, 48% Long Distance, 4% Near "Fine-Print" Distance (accidental) There was a touch of nausea as I practiced Tai Chi. If I feel nausea from practicing a slow martial art, I'd hate to imagine what I'd feel when practicing my sword cuts and Iaido footwork. The nausea increased steadily as I began my computer work. I'm looking at several things to complete my tasks - straight-ahead at the screen, down to the right on my desk to view my student list and quick peeks to the keys to make sure I'm hitting the "CTRL" and "ALT" keys (each of my keyboards are a little different). My eyes moved very quickly from one spot on my desk to the next. I'm sorry. I just can't bring myself to put those progressives on again to teach or practice any of my musical instruments today. I can at least share with you some of the feedback I've received from some of my colleagues with regards to progressives:

  • Ivea Mark, a Calgary piano teacher, pianist and organist, liked her first pair of progressives, but not her second. "My first optometrist went to great lengths to find out all my daily needs in order to fit the lenses," she shared. Sadly, that optometrist is no longer available. "The second person did no such thing," she continued. "One question was asked: do you want to see further or closer? And that was it. I now have problems seeing things up close, like reading. Everything is done at arm's length. My peripheral is also limited with this new lens but not in the old pair."
  • Another piano teacher hates her progressives. In her words: "They limit my field of vision too much and were a complete waste of money."
  • Gwendolyn Richardson Bartek, a piano teacher from Wembley, Alberta, had some hopeful feedback: "I have progressives that are called "office" glasses - They are wonderful. Most of the lens is intermediate range. They are originally designed for working at desks with computer terminals. They have multiple levels, so you can see anything from up close to about 10 feet away just by changing the angle you are looking at it with. I LOVE them!" 
  • One member from choir wrote, "I've had progressives since I started taking piano lessons and have always had trouble reading the music. Also, because I work so much on a computer, I've been told that I should have a different Rx for my screen work, which, to my mind is much the same thing."
  • (Addendum) Another piano teacher writes, "I have progressives as well. I find they're useless for reading music and for teaching. I need to use single vision glasses for reading music and another pair of single vision glasses for teaching, seeing my students hands etc."
  • (Addendum) My colleague, Dan Starr in Arizona told me that he juggles between three pairs of glasses. He happens to teach piano to his optometrist, so his optometrist had a keen understanding of Dan's needs.
  • (Addendum) One of my university buddies (a piano accompanist) told me that his optometrist recommended just digging out an older (weaker) prescription to use as reading classes. I have since found my glasses from six years ago. I can report that threading a needle is a piece of cake with my old glasses on.

I've saved the best tidbit for last. One of the ladies who used to play piano in our choir is a licensed optician. She said, "In my professional opinion you are correct," (as far as using standard and short-corridor progressives to read and play music) However, she does mention a different type of progressive lens, called Home & Office by NIKON. "This lens has wide intermediate and reading with a small distance portion...It wouldn't work as your only pair of glasses but it should work in the musical world."


Since I was unable to do anything musical with the progressives on, I used the opportunity to test the in-camera on my smartphone. The phone is holding my music up, so it actually gives you the best view of how a musician's eyes move when they are reading through music in a solo situation:

Really, what it's coming down to is that office progressives are a more suitable choice for musicians. However, at this point, I don't even know if I can even stomach any type of progressive. Literally.  

Musicians and Progressives Experiment - Day 4

When I bought more Gravol today, I took a close look (with my intermediate range vision) at the dosage instructions on the box. It says not to exceed six lozenges a day. Gravol - a necessity while trying to adapt to progressive lenses.Photo by R-M Arca.

Since I've started taking the Gravol at 4:38 AM Saturday morning, I've polished off a box of 20. That's 10 a day, not including the two drowsy Gravol pills I took before bed. Something is definitely wrong with this picture.

These were today's goals for my progressive glasses: Time Length Goal: 6 hours minimum Time Length Progressives Worn: 12:23 PM - 8ish PM (almost or just about 8 hours). Tasks: Chores, driving, studio-related errands, cooking and eating, computer work Part of the Lenses Used:  49% Intermediate distance, 49% Long Distance, 2% Near "Fine-Print" Distance (accidental) Progressives and chores aren't too bad. Better than Day 3. Wearing progressives while driving, however, was challenging. Shoulder checking and turns were difficult. For someone who relies on her peripheral vision extensively for musical and non-musical tasks, the distortion in those areas is aggravating.

The guitarist in our choir mentioned that he cannot drive with his progressives on. He has a dedicated pair for driving. I can see why. I'm afraid to try driving again with progressives on, especially since I could have caused an accident here:


I will try again after I have several days of "mostly progressives" days, which will start...tomorrow. I'm not sure if I'll be able to wear them for more than 12 hours, but I'll try. Our choir director has given the go-ahead to film a small part of this week's rehearsal with and without progressives for the experiment.  I'm so glad I spoke to my father about progressives. His pair sounds more do-able by each passing non-nauseated second. Not sure how well they'd work for music and driving, though.

I'm also curious as to how professional athletes deal with this issue. I imagine their vision focus needs are similar to musicians. Feelings and Symptoms Felt: Fine for the first three hours. A mild headache in the occipital lobe area, which gradually spread across my entire head in a circle as it increased in intensity. It was worst above my eyes. Nausea worsened while driving and reached the point of wanting to assume the fetal position and cry or run for the nearest washroom.