Friday, June 17, 2011

Ouch! - When Playing Hurts

 Written by: Amy Tobin of Fein Violins

We love playing music. It is our passion, our relaxation, our outlet, and, sometimes, our purpose. Some of us devote our lives to it and make our livelihoods from it. But there are times when we feel discomfort, or even pain associated with this.

First of all, if this is happening to you, YOU ARE NOT ALONE!!!
Playing a musical instrument, no matter what it is, is filled with repetitive motion. Couple that with tension and, in many times, awkward playing positions, and you have a recipe for injury. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are suffering and looking for ways to remedy the situation.

The first thing to decide is whether your pain or discomfort is coming from you or your instrument. If you play the violin or the viola, there is a possibility that the instrument is not fitting you properly. By this, I mean that you might have a shoulder rest that is too low, too high, or just not right. An ill fitting shoulder rest can cause a lot of pain with violinists and violists because of the resulting tension in the neck and shoulders. If your shoulder rest is too low, you might be using more tension to physically hold the instrument in place, and if it is too high, you might be straining your muscles in order to create enough space between your chin and your shoulder. I once suffered nearly debilitating headaches during orchestra rehearsals for a month before realizing that they were caused by a new shoulder rest that I had just gotten!

Another consideration is the chin rest on the instrument. I have often found that, when someone comes in looking for a more comfortable shoulder rest, they are actually looking for a more comfortable chin rest. Some are center mounted and allow you to hold the instrument so your chin is positioned over the tailpiece, some are side mounted and require you to hold it so your head tilts to the left slightly. Everyone is different in this regard, and because a chin rest is on the instrument when you get it, it is many times overlooked as an easy fix to a more comfortable experience.

A special note to violists.....there is no standard full sized viola, so you really want to make sure that you have one that fits you and you can play comfortably. Yes, you get more, and usually better, sound with a larger instrument, but don't sacrifice your physical well being in order to achieve this! There are many smaller violas that sound fabulous!

Next, take a look at your music stand when you are practicing. Sometimes pain can be remedied by simply adjusting the height of the stand! If it is too low, and you are having to look down on your music, you create a lot of tension and strain in the back of your neck. The same is true if your stand is too high when you play or practice. Ideally, you want to have your line of sight in line with your playing position and not have to alter that in any way to see your music.

If all of these things are in order, then you might simply be playing with too much tension. Tension is part of what we do....there is simply no getting around it. You need to have a certain amount of tension in order to control your fine and large muscles so you can create the sound you want to create. Sometimes playing passages that are more challenging can be a source of excess tension as well. In fact, most of the time when you need to be extra relaxed in order to do something (fast finger work, certain bowing techniques), you actually tighten up. Focusing on staying relaxed in those instances can help, for sure! Allowing your muscles to do what they know how to do, instead of forcing them to do those things, is a good start. Also, I have actually found that relaxing the opposite hand or arm of the one that is giving you trouble causes the other one to relax. Remember, we are symmetrical creatures. What one side of our body does, the other wants to do as well.

So, what if you are doing all of these things and still having pain. There are many options available today to help assess what is causing it and help remedy it. One really fantastic resource is a book called "Playing (Less) Hurt" by Janet Horvath. Ms. Horvath, who has held the associate principle cellist position with the Minnesota Orchestra for 30 years (!), has become an invaluable resource in the effort to prevent injury as well as alleviating and eliminating pain in musicians when it occurs. In fact, even if you are not having immediate difficulty, I would still suggest getting and reading this book as a sort of preemptive measure. Repetitive motion and tension usually have a cumulative effect, so nipping it in the bud is the best line of defense! (This is such an incredible resource that many musicians I know consider it to be one of their most valuable books!) Here is a link to Ms. Horvath's website, which has a lot of great information: Playing (less) Hurt

Yoga is a great way to learn how to breathe and relax. There have been many people who have found success with yoga in an effort to become more focused, more centered, and to learn how to move effectively. This is an absolutely wonderful way to introduce a calmness to your playing and practicing, while having an elevated perception of any extraneous motion that you might be using with your playing. In fact, Yehudi Menuhin was a great proponent of the practice of yoga in connection with his playing (see our blog post Yehudi Menuhin and His Discovery of Yoga ).

There are also many different schools of study that musicians have found relief with. One of them is the Alexander Technique. This is a process of learning how to use your body in the way that is easiest and most comfortable for you. This usually involves a certified teacher of this studying you while you play. That way, they can assess what you might be doing that might be causing the pain....problems with posture, moving in such a way when you play that everything gets thrown out of whack, positioning yourself more awkwardly than necessary and the like. Then, they get together with you and teach you how to use your body more effectively. I have known many musicians who swear by this method! Here is a link to more information on the Alexander Technique: Alexander Technique

Some musicians have also taken to going to Rolfing sessions. Rolfing is a little more like a visit to the Chiropractor. This method is more hands on and is designed to help realign the connective tissue in your body. Personally, I'd be careful with this one. Make sure to find someone who is certified and comes with good references from people. One wrong move here might cause serious problems!

When I was younger and was suffering from tendinitis, I went to see physical therapist after physical therapist. None of them would take me seriously because I was a musician. They just didn't understand the correlation between playing an instrument and playing baseball, for instance. That was 25 years ago, however, and things have definitely changed! Luckily, most sports therapy clinics have physical therapists who are well versed in dealing with the kinds of repetitive motion injuries that can occur with musicians. They can help alleviate the pain as well as give you different ways to strengthen your muscles in such a way that would not be further injurious to yourself. If you are a professional musician, and you have health insurance, this might even be covered since it is something that affects your livelihood!

Yes, playing an instrument is awkward, without a doubt. When you are beginning, there will be muscles that you discover that you never knew you had! It takes a certain amount of strength, for instance, to hold your arms up, fairly statically, for an extended period of time. This should not hurt, however, and if you have pain (rather than the minor discomfort of doing something new), talk to your teacher. A good teacher can usually watch you to make sure that you are not doing anything that will hurt you, and can also give you some great tips on how to relax and play comfortably.

If you have found success with these methods, other methods, or have any questions, please feel free to comment on this post and let us know. Playing music should be enjoyable, whether you do it for a living or purely for yourself. Let's help keep it that way!

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