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Carpal tunnel syndrome prevention, stretching ...

Stretching Exercise ~ Image via Wikipedia

My students, as well as contributors to a piano discussion forum in which I participate, often talk about the same dilemma.  When trying something new, they have physical pain! 

This should not be the case.

People’s first reaction, and I include myself, is that the pain will go away.  It doesn’t.  Don’t ignore pain!

I have encountered pain from time to time.  My hand tires when practicing octaves or a strenuous piece (think Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata).  There are ways to handle this.

Pain is a warning!

Pain is a warning sign, not something that will go away by practicing more in the same way.  Pain is not acceptable, and you should not expect to “get used to it.”  Isn’t your playing more important than plowing ahead no matter what?

Complaints I’ve heard involve:

  • new hand positions
  • unfamiliar chords
  • arpeggios
  • new fingerings
  • unfamiliar articulation
    • staccato
    • marcato
    • octaves
    • repeated notes
    • double thirds

Many of us, myself included, tend to practice until we get it right.  We lose track of time, and have no idea how often we have repeated the same passage.

My suggestions:

  • Look at your practice setup.  Is the bench at a good height for you?  Is there enough light?  Are you away from cold drafts and the air conditioner?
  • Remove yourself from the “I have to get this NOW” mindset.
  • Stay aware of the level of tension in your body.
  • Limit the amount of time you spend on a new passage to a few minutes, not 1/2 hour or more.  (10 to 20 minutes is plenty.)  Set a timer if necessary.
  • If you feel pain, STOP IMMEDIATELY.  You need to stretch* (illustrated above ~ turn forearm over and stretch hand down, too), take a break, have a snack and some water, and either stop for the day or work on something completely different.
    • “Something completely different” means something in an easy hand position, slow practice, playing with the opposite hand, etc.
    • You can always return to the problematic passage later in your practice session (IF there is no pain), or in a day or two.
  • Practice smarter.
    • If your new passage has you crossing one hand over the front of your body, that is a big reach.  You need to relax and experiment with the angle of your hand, arm, and body.  This will take longer than 5 or 10 minutes, but when you do find a comfortable angle, you will no longer be in pain.
    • Slow down.
    • Relax between notes, chords, hand positions.
    • Block everything, playing all notes together, then thumb alone (which pivots your hand to the new position), then another block, then thumb, etc.
    • Mark rather than play.  Or just mime on top of the keys.  You can learn a lot this way!
    • Look at the music away from the piano.
    • Listen to recordings ~ either several of your piece, music of the same composer, or maybe something else to relax your brain.

If you have been trying something new and are experiencing pain, I hope this post provides insight and encourages you to approach new technical requirements differently.

All of us need to be alert to pain, addressing it immediately to avoid injury.

*Stretches should each be done twice, at 85% capacity, for 30 seconds.  The purpose is to return the tendons, stretched in one direction while playing, to normal range of motion.

I do stretches whenever I feel pain, as well as after each practice session.

Have you encountered pain when learning a new technical feat?  How did you handle it? 

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!


Learning a new piece? New program? Heading back to school? Looking for teaching ideas? Then this is the perfect time to read “Goal-oriented Practice: How to Avoid Traps and Become a Confident Performer!”

Goal-oriented Practice

August 2011 review by pianist Robert W. Oliver

When You Buy a Piano

How to Maintain Your Piano

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