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Please email me with any questions at gsbook121 [at] gmail.com
Bulk rates also available.
For purchasing information, click on the link below:
“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.
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!
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.
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:
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?
You can read more articles on this blog about ergonomics here.
Also, while you’re here, please take a look at my E-book!
Let’s talk about neck pain in this post, though, to keep things manageable for readers.
When and how did your neck pain start? What were you doing at the time?
What do you do when not playing the piano? For example, do you drive long distances? Work at a desk? Use a computer for long periods of time?
Your work setup, car seat, steering wheel angle, different mattress, different pillow, bicycle handlebars, even not wearing sunglasses outdoors can all be factors.
Look at your practice setup.
- Having a cold
- Coming down with something
- Dental issues
Letting pain continue while proceeding as usual is not a solution, but will exacerbate the problem. Even if you are busy, have several performances coming up, or can think of a list of reasons not to address the pain, you must. Your longevity as a musician depends on it.
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Enjoy at your own pace, see immediate, steady, ongoing improvement in your playing.
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Read a review by Dr. Gail Fischler, Eastern Arizona College.
Read a review by pianist Catherine Shefski.
Read a review by jazz musician Tom Saul.
“Great advice and really works.”
“Can hear themes and voices so clearly! That alone was worth the price!”
“An excellent new resource for practice techniques.”
“Such an important topic. Vital. Your tips are spot on on and your writing is encouraging.”
“Thanks for this wonderful contribution to our literature – it’s a real jewel!”
“…there’s lot of insight in [your book] that applies nicely to other life endeavors besides practicing the piano, and that was apparent just from my first partial reading of it.”
“Students could download [your book], keep it, and refer to it again and again.”
“I just read your e-book, and it is AMAZING. All I could think about was, “why did our teachers never teach us how to practice?” Sure, they would suggest not always starting at the beginning of the piece, but I really think we needed a much more systematic, disciplined approach. Can’t believe all those wasted hours in the practice room.”
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Many thanks to all who contributed their expertise and support to make this possible:
to Sean, for assembling all the pieces into one PDF file;
to Charles, for his wonderful feedback and encouragement;
to Louise, Irene, Lauren, and Jane for their support;
to everyone who wrote terrific reviews (see links above);
and to my Facebook and Twitter friends for their ongoing presence.
I couldn’t have done this without you!
On days when I practice for a long time and/or use a computer, I stretch when I’m done.
(OK, I stretch every day. It’s easy, it works, and it doesn’t take long.)
We have all seen people’s necks set forward, head in front of their shoulders. Often the shoulders are rounded, even in young people.
We find ourselves hunching forward at times to read the music in bad light or to read small print.
Well, no. It doesn’t have to.
Stretching is one way to counteract the problem.
Don’t overdo it. Stretching to 85% of your maximum range is fine. You will notice that you can stretch further after about 20 seconds. 3 reps will take care of it.
You can always repeat the stretches a few more times during the day.
Arm and hand stretches serve a different purpose, and are covered in a previous post. They, too, are extremely important to our longevity as well as for preventing injury.
Any time! Ideally, stretching immediately after playing/typing would be wonderful. But sometimes we all have other things to do.
I find myself stretching while waiting in line somewhere, waiting for a bus, using the microwave, or in the shower. Stretching also helps following a long car/bus/train ride. Stretching more than once a day is very helpful.
Performance injuries are not discussed nearly often enough, so I’m hoping we can get something going here. Prevention requires awareness. Most people don’t “go there” until they are injured themselves. And lack of information equals more serious injury. Once someone is on that path, the slide into serious injury doesn’t take long at all.
Ragarding the massage device, I respectfully disagree. In my opinion, if someone feels a need to use the device mentioned in the blog post indicated above, then they have most likely allowed pain to progress. Massage will not make it go away while someone is still playing day and night.
Instead, what is needed is more awareness. Taking breaks, alternating hands, supporting everything the arms are involved in throughout the day, and stretching in the opposite direction of the playing are all elements of good playing health.
Similar activities need to be alternated with less stressful ones. For example, practicing followed by weight-lifting or vice-versa would cause continuous stress on the arms, hands, shoulders, back, and neck. Why not take a walk, wash the dishes, or read an article or two after whichever activity you do first? (FYI, practicing before weight-lifting protects the small hand muscles best. After lifting weights, it can be hard to feel your fingers. Doing things in that order affects my playing.)
Other things we do all day long can be altered, too. Small changes make an enormous difference. Using plastic dishes rather than pottery saves carrying weight across the kitchen. Alternating hands helps a lot.
Using not just the hands, but also incorporating the arms, shoulders, and back means that bigger muscles are taking the stress.
Supporting the elbows at the waist (just press your arms into your body gently) means that healthy angles are being used. That translates into less stress.
Body alignment is always a factor. Do you keep your feet on the floor when you practice, supporting your body? It’s more fun to perch them on the rungs of the chair, but that will affect your comfort sooner than you may realize.
In addition, aerobic exercise is crucial. Our fingers need good circulation, because the muscles are so small. They are not built for all that work.
Staying on top of one’s general health and eating habits needs attention. If your metabolism is down, for instance, that will affect your playing as well as your stress tolerance. The potato chip diet really doesn’t work, either.
I was injured while working at an intense law firm job. That was several years ago. Following the injury, I was very fortunate to be treated by doctors and physical therapists at the top of the field. Now I know the triggers and warning signs, and have been successful in handling the situation.
This is how things proceeded: Even when I knew things were serious (i.e., I was typing with pain), I didn’t stop because I was afraid I would lose my job. The pain got so bad, I was typing letters with one hand.
I kept working until I could get a doctor’s appointment a month later.
Big mistake. I then had to stop completely for 6 months. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
Restarting practicing was also so hard I wanted to cry. The allowable time at the beginning was one minute with 1/2 hr. off. Repeat. What, exactly, can you “practice” in one minute? That’s about enough time for 4 whole notes!
After a week or two of near-total frustration, I made a pact with myself. I wrote down the time I started and turned the clock around. The iron clad rule was that I had to stop immediately when I felt anything like an inkling of pain.
It worked. The total time I was able to play ended up being 45 minutes. So then I could increase slowly from there.
One of the doctors who treated me in NY now works in the Occupational Health department at Mt. Sinai. (The other, now retired, has written two definitive books on the subject, both available in paperback.) The Mt. Sinai doctor told me that, due to experiencing the injuries I did and subsequently obtaining treatment and retraining (someone watched me play, for which I am very grateful), I know as much concerning this type of injury as someone who has completed a year of physical therapy school. I appreciate what he said, but also w0uld not want that to be my only claim to fame!
A coworker at the law firm, a very talented painter, was injured so badly she was forced to change fields for life. She is now a psychotherapist.
This link will take you to several posts on this blog concerning injury, health, longevity, and injury prevention.
As you can tell, this is a volatile topic for me!
So yes! Get a massage. But don’t use massage to avoid other changes you need to make. If you truly need massage because you are in pain, then it’s time to look at what you do every day. No “Band-aid” temporary solutions.
And stay aware. Then you’ll circumvent injury in the first place. Believe me, you don’t want to go there.
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Last night I didn’t get enough sleep. But I got up early anyway in order to practice & to complete a large mailing project.
Being tired makes you & me good candidates for tendonitis. So I knew I wanted to be careful to avoid too much repetition of any one activity.
Here are a few precautions I took:
First, I made several necessary business calls. Grasping the handset is a potential trigger for tendonitis. You can change your hand position so your thumb is right next to your fingers.
That might seem strange if you’re not used to it, but when you try it, you’ll notice much less strain on your thumb.
Stretching my hands in between calls helped.
On the final call, the wait time was 25 min. So I used the speaker phone while working on the mailing.
Practicing w/awareness of possible hand strain was also important today. So I went for a variety of approaches: slow practice, isolating riffs to learn fingering, practicing hands alone, & taking stretch breaks every so often.
Assembling the mailing required writing letters, stuffing envelopes, pasting labels, paper clipping pages together in sets, & sealing envelopes. That can be very stressful for your hands, & needs your attention if you want to maintain your health & career longevity.
My way of dealing today was to alternate writing & stuffing, writing & pasting. Each of these is done @ a different angle.
Rest breaks, changing angles, & changing tasks frequently all help a great deal. It’s the frequent repetition of exactly the same motion that can get you into trouble.
Being tired, coming down w/a cold or the flu, cold temperatures (such as sitting near an air-conditioner), & overuse are some other factors.
Women who are in peri-menopause are particularly susceptible for some reason.
This is how I tried to practice w/variety: I practiced 1 Liszt piece, the coda of which is improving, but I think I’m probably rushing the entire tempo. I’ll try a slower tempo tomorrow. (Didn’t try that today, in order to move on to something different.)
Then I worked on a Stravinsky piece. I need to find a recording or a narrative about this piece, because I think one of the metronome markings must be a misprint. (Likewise. Moved on.)
After that, I worked on 3 preludes by Charles Turner, using a variety of approaches, since this music is all new to me (so it isn’t “in my hands” yet, therefore causes more stress on them).
In the 1st, I concentrated on playing expressively; in the 2nd, I worked on rhythms, conducted & sang, used metronome & sang, then played the piece @ performance tempo.
In the 3rd piece, I wrote in fingerings w/o playing much. (You can play a series of notes together as a tone cluster, putting in fingerings that way.)
The last piece today was a Bach fugue. In hearing it after 8 days (wow! didn’t realize it had been that long.), I didn’t like the way I played it, & am considering a faster tempo. (And that was a good place to stop.) Total time: 2 hrs. 10 min.
I hope this helps if you, too, need to be proactive in avoiding tendonitis. Being aware of how you’re feeling is crucial!
Musicians tend to hunker down & toil away until they’ve solved whatever it is. Computer users do, too. They check out. I’m very good @ doing just that unless I consciously DON’T.
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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!