Hamburg Steinway D-274Image via Wikipedia

Lately I’ve been thinking about how I want to be able to perform for the rest of my (hopefully long) life. After all, Horszowski played a recital @ Carnegie Hall when he was 99!

Maintaining the facility to be able to play for life requires awareness now. A lack of information can lead to habits that cause injury or exacerbate arthritis. Everyone who practices w/repetitive motions as often as we do is at greater risk for injury than others. We are all overusing vulnerable muscles & tendons, & it’s not a given that we can continue doing that forever.

So, what’s important?

The way you sit or stand when practicing is easily taken for granted, but awareness is crucial to your future health. Is your lower body supporting your back, shoulders, arms, & hands? Are your feet planted on the floor? No crossing legs or resting feet on chair rungs. No heads on hands w/elbows on knees, either. It’s more fun, but also takes essential support away from your upper body, putting much greater strain on the small muscles that are working so hard.

Angles are important. (The more bends there are, the less efficient the playing.) Are your arms supported? If your elbows are splaying out, they’re not supported. The way you approach the instrument needs to be comfortable. You could be too far away from the keyboard, or too close, too high or too low. It is entirely possible that you still have the posture you learned as a child. (A violinist I know was not aware of this. His teacher @ Juilliard opened everything up ~ consider that he was playing a larger instrument now ~ and, in addition to him becoming more aware & more comfortable, his whole sound changed.)

Incorporating a variety of tempi, dynamics, & stretches into your practicing can help avoid injury. In other words, don’t do all your most difficult pieces one after the other. Try for a balanced approach. If you’ve been playing double octaves for an hour, it might be prudent to switch to triads or scales.

And I know you have a computer. You’re reading this! Do you have a healthy setup? Try looking at OSHA’s recommendations here.

Maintaining good circulation to your fingers prevents injury. The small muscles aren’t made for all that work. With that in mind, it’s best to keep the computer keyboard flat (or use an ergo keyboard) & skip the wrist rest (cuts off circulation). Also, make sure not to rest your wrists on the edge of the desk (same reason). And experiment w/the way you type. Do you use your whole arm, shoulders & back? Or are you reaching w/your fingers instead? Remember the old typewriters w/rows of keys in tiers? You had to move in order to type. And you had to STOP to use the carriage return! Throughout the rest of the day, you do things like open doors w/your hand, arm, shoulder & back. So why should typing be any different?

How many hours do you practice w/o taking a break? Do you lose track of time, working on a passage til you “get it” or feel determined to finish a piece before you stop? Taking a break is more important! It’s even more important than that deadline. The muscles & tendons need to relax. I know it’s hard to stop ~ I have the same problem.
You’ll be an active musician a lot longer if you listen to your body.

If anything hurts, tingles, or becomes numb while you’re practicing, STOP immediately! After you’ve figured out whether you were doing something at a bad angle, or were sitting there for hours, or may be coming down w/a cold, then you can go back, carefully.

If any of those things happen after your practice session, they are all signals that something needs to be addressed. Get a massage. Use ice on the spots that feel uncomfortable. Practice the other hand for a while. Slow down.

If you are wearing a wrist support, something is wrong. Please don’t let that go. The problem doesn’t magically go away. The support may feel like it’s helping, but the muscles are not working on their own or becoming stronger when you wear it.

A few thoughts about not getting to the point of pain in the first place: do you warm up every day? After you’ve practiced, do something different. Not computer work ~ that’s still repetitive. Maybe do the dishes first, take a walk, take a shower, make a phone call, do some reading.

Stretching helps a great deal. Two stretches in particular are useful to counteract using your hands in the same direction all the time. Click here, then scroll down to see “Forearm stretch with pronation” and “forearm stretch with supination.” Stretching to 85% of capacity is plenty ~ don’t force it. I also stretch w/my hands & arms behind my back, head back too. The reason stretching is so important is that, when playing an instrument or using a computer, your hands work in one direction. The result is that the tendons shorten on one side of the arm, & need to be returned to their normal state.

Aerobic exercise keeps circulation going. You don’t have to go to the gym for hours ~ taking a walk would be very effective. Weight lifting is good for staying in shape, too ~ and it isn’t necessary to be a body builder in order to benefit. 5 lb. dumbbells provide enough weight to strengthen the arm muscles. (But if you’re not used to it, start w/lighter weights, i.e., 2 or 3 lbs.)

What are you eating? I don’t want to sound like your mother, but that’s important, too. If you want to perform when you’re 99, first you’ll need to be alive. You will also feel better, practice better, & perform better along the way when you maintain your health to the extent that it’s under your control.

So, see if you can become aware of your stance while playing, know the warning signals for trouble & LISTEN to your body! Musicians tend to check out of reality & hunker down. But ignoring your body leads to problems, some surfacing years after the start of the causative factors. You don’t want to have to take months off from playing, so take care of things as they occur.

Be smart about ergonomic products (keyboards, chairs, desks, mice, mouse pads, & on & on). There are lots of catalogs out there. Just because a product says it’s “ergonomic” doesn’t mean that it is. It’s a hot word that sells products. Physical therapists are good people to talk to about this (& so am I!).

If you need a couple of great books on the subject of overuse, email me. And if you are currently in pain and need to see a doctor, email me too. By all means, see someone who has treated musicians! Going to a large city would be well worth it, even if you could only afford one or two visits.

‘Nuff said. Happy practicing!

Oh! Today I practiced 2 Bach preludes & fugues, 4 Messiaen preludes, & Gershwin’s “Sleepless Night” (true). Total time: 2 hrs. And I took a break in the middle!

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