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This post is for musicians and computer users.

“Keyboard user” is a conscious decision for inclusion in the title (rather than “keyboard player”) because  computer operators need to stretch.  So do organists, harpsichordists, pianists, electronic keyboardists, and others who use the small structures of their hands and arms in repetitive fashion.

Keyboard users move their hands and arms (and backs and shoulders and necks and heads) primarily in one direction, often for long periods of time.  Work, music, and play can become mesmerizing.  We forget to take breaks, or postpone them to do “one more page.”  And then, an hour later, we’re still at it.

We have all seen athletes stretch.  That makes sense, right?  We are also athletes.  We use smaller structures that are not built for the amount of stress we put on them.  Stretching helps address the problem.

New discussion

A discussion of stretches recently came up on Facebook.  This link takes you to a new article on the subject.

I am delighted to see ongoing interest in stretching.  Everyone benefits by having the topic back at the top of their “to do” lists and reading about others’ experiences.

My friend Michael Meltzer and I continued the discussion.  Michael said:

My last teacher was the late Louise Curcio in New Jersey, who began every lesson with about ten minutes of stretches. She explained, “We are creatures of habit. When you are not properly stretched, you’ll begin your practice in slightly incorrect or imprecise arm & finger positions and configurations. Your brain will remember those incorrect lineups and unconsciously seek to recreate them, interfering with learning and mastering your pieces.”

… looking at it carefully, I think the exact words SHE would have used would have been “arm and finger postures” instead of finger positions & configurations (my words).

Used by permission. Thank you, Michael!

Why stretch?

When playing or using a computer, our muscles and tendons adjust to accommodate our repetitive, uni-directional motions.  The muscles and tendons on the top of the forearm and hand lengthen, while on the underside, they shorten.

This results in an imbalance which can result in injury.

The stretches we need to do help things return to normal.  We need to stretch in the opposite direction from the way we have been moving while playing an instrument or using a computer.

The following comes from a previous post about ergonomics as applied to keyboard use.  As school revs up and we all become busier, combating stress and tension are even more important.

We can maintain our ability to play an instrument or use a computer for decades by being aware and looking for variety as we proceed.

Awareness of warning signs is important to avoid injury.  Once someone incurs an injury, s/he becomes more vulnerable to further injury in the future.  So even if you think it could never happen to you, please read on.

Be aware

  • If you feel numbness, tingling, or pain, you need to take a break.
  • If anything hurts, even a stiff neck, you need to look at that.
  • Practicing mindlessly for hours on end without a break is never a good idea.

Incorporate variety

What’s your plan?  How do you practice?

Going at something as fast and loudly as possible will get you injured in no time.

Here are a few ideas about staying safe.

You can practice:

  • hands alone
  • slower than performance tempo
  • loud/soft
  • changing range on the keyboard
  • alternating difficult passages with less stressful ones
  • mixing up a stint of staccato practicing with legato (use your body in different ways)
  • for leaps and glissandi, measuring distances and calculating timing by faking it (above the keyboard ~ no need to play all that often)
  • feeling chord shapes in your hands, also above the keyboard
  • more carefully when you’re tired

You can:

  • alternate practicing and gripping activities with passive activities, such as reading or taking a walk, talking on the speakerphone.  For example, lifting weights and practicing are both stressing your body, thus making you more vulnerable to injury.  Your body needs a break in between.
  • play with your hands and arms in a natural position (you don’t have to be exactly lined up with the keys!)
  • look at your practice setup ~ lighting, chair height, your distance from the keyboard (do you have room to navigate?)
  • always use healthy body alignment (feet on the floor, supporting your body ~ no slumping forward, no legs wrapped around chair legs, no feet on chair rungs, no head on hand on elbow resting on the piano)
  • look at the music away from the piano
  • conduct, sing, walk the rhythm, clap, speak the text in rhythm, try dynamic changes out with your voice
  • take a 10-min. break every hour
  • practice in more than one chunk of time during the day
  • eat 3 healthy meals every day (don’t skip a meal in order to practice!)
  • exercise!
  • stretch your body and warm up your hands before practicing (5 min.)
  • stretch your arms, shoulders, and back after practicing (5 more min.)

Computer use

The same awareness is important here.  Look at your setup, use good body alignment (don’t lie on your bed, resting on your elbows).  Take breaks.  Move your arms, shoulders, and back when you type, like you would on an old manual typewriter with tiered keys.  Stretch before and after computer work.

Computers probably demand more fast work without breaks than practicing an instrument.  No one talks about good body alignment in workplaces.  Deadlines are much more important.  (Fed-Ex leaves in 5 minutes!  Are you done yet?)  And, unless you’re self-employed, you’re likely to have someone who wants you to produce more, faster than you need to be going.  Pressure means vulnerability to injury.

Why not take a look at your usual approach to the computer during your time off, at home?  Try looking at yourself in the mirror, or ask a friend to help.

At work, you can set your phone alarm to alert you once an hour.  Stand up, walk around, stretch, breathe, and something relaxing.  Take a break!  The up side of leaving your work where it is for a few minutes is, you won’t turn into a pretzel!

What do you think?  What is your approach to practice and computer use?  Do you have certain ways of going about it that work particularly well for you?  Do you take breaks?

Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below!

You can read more articles on this blog about ergonomics here.

Also, while you’re here, please take a look at my E-book!

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