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Ergonomic instruments have been invented and improved for more than ten years!  But even if you are playing with pain, you may not be aware of this.

Don Ehrlich of San Francisco with his ergonomic viola

Don Ehrlich of San Francisco with his ergonomic viola.

This article about Don Ehrlich, a violist in San Francisco, appeared in The New York Times in 1997.  It surprised me then, and continues to be extremely relevant.

My surprise centered around others’ surprise at seeing an ergonomic instrument being played in an orchestra rehearsal.  And, since I’m a pianist who plays occasionally in orchestras but not every day, it was an education to read about a player’s discomfort in an orchestral situation.

Some time later, when providing information for a doctor who wanted to publish on musicians, avoiding injury, and ergonomic issues (he had treated me in the 90’s), I did a search for “ergo viola.”  What a wonderful thing to come across Don Ehrlich’s photo with his ergonomic viola!  That’s progress!  Ergonomic instruments were being accepted!

Don Ehrlich’s bio provides further information.  Come back soon… he has agreed to be a guest blogger!

If you are playing with pain, there is something you can do.  Ergonomic  instruments are significantly more available than they were in 1997.  Instruments can be altered as well:  flutes and bassoons are two I’ve heard of.  (Extensions can be added to the keys, for example, making them easier to reach.  Not all hands stretch the same way!)

Someone who knows instruments and ergonomics can watch you play.  Even changing the angle of your hand by only 1/4″ can make a huge difference.

During my recovery from computer injuries, one such person Xeroxed a computer keyboard, literally, so I could practice.  He turned the keyboard upside down, copied it in 2 parts, and taped the 2 sheets together.   He and my doctor also watched me play, making suggestions that saved my playing.

The same can be done with a bassoon keyboard, for example.  Copy the fingerboard.  Then the paper can be folded so the finger holes are closer together.  This allows the player to practice, in a way, with greatly reduced strain.  Frustrating, yes, but far better than nothing.

One more thought:  the single best thing you can do to protect your hands is something I’ve been thinking about all week.

When you use your hands, are they free?  Or are you holding other objects, say, when you enter a phone number?  If you’re holding a pencil, put it down before you use the phone.  Need proof?  Try it both ways.  Holding a pencil, even though it’s so light, strains your hand by pulling your fingers out of alignment.

Now let’s go into the kitchen to look at something that happens every day.  How do you open the refrigerator?  Sometimes I have groceries in my arms, opening the refrigerator door with… one finger.  The door is heavy, requiring strength to open.  Putting all that stress on one finger is to be avoided!  Set down whatever you’re carrying first.  Then use your hand, arm, shoulder, and back.