This information is not a substitute for medical diagnosis and/or care.
This discussion will be a five-part series (I’ll post one part each week for five weeks) on the subject of avoiding and correcting discomfort and pain related to playing your instrument. It also addresses the causes of awkwardness or lack of agility and control when playing.
Although we hate to admit it, even to ourselves, most musicians at some time experience physical discomfort, pain, or even just lack of agility when playing our instruments. Most musicians just try to ignore the problem when it first arises, thinking it will go away or that we just have to put up with it as the price of playing an instrument. Trouble is, everyone discovers over time that the problem does not go away. It affects our playing physically and/or psychologically, and some even develop chronic (long-term) injuries.
The most important things to know about discomfort, pain, and/or lack of agility related to playing an instrument are that if you don’t address it, it will always be there; but you don’t have to put up with it – you can do something about it.
The issues can be broken down into three categories:
- What happens to your body with and without good ergonomics
- What happens to your hands when you play
- What happens when you’re learning/beginning an instrument
Let’s start with what happens to your body when you play (ergonomics). Musical instruments are designed to produce optimal sound for their design; in other words, an instrument is shaped and constructed with a specific kind of sound in mind. A mandolin has to sound like a mandolin, a guitar like a guitar, etc. For stringed instruments, how they’re built depends on the number of strings, frets, and the range and tone desired. Obviously some attention is paid to the fact that they have to be physically playable by the average person. But in general not enough attention is given to the fact that the average person must hold, and make repetitious movements on, an instrument for hours and hours, day after day.
When someone picks up an instrument, the first thing they tend to do is adjust themselves to it. After all, the body is flexible and the instrument isn’t, right? But after a few hours or a few days or weeks, we start complaining of stiff necks, sore shoulders, wrist pain, back pain, headaches, eyestrain, etc., etc. If you don’t practice a lot you won’t learn, but the price of a lot of practice might be carpal tunnel syndrome, vertebral subluxation, tenosynovitis, tendonitis, and/or some form of chronic neuralgia. Aside from the sore fingertips and such that beginners experience, if we mistake the above problems as just beginner’s pain, we’re in for a rude surprise.
Before it’s too late (when a chronic injury develops that curtails your ability to ever play again), we have to learn to adjust our instruments to ourselves, not ourselves to our instruments. This concept is best known as “ergonomics”. The term ergonomics is bandied about by pretty much everyone these days, mostly without a full understanding of its meaning. So I’m going to go in to detail on exactly what “ergonomics” really means and how its concepts are best applied.
Think of ergonomics as all of these:
- The optimal way to sit or stand
- The optimal way to hold the instrument
- The most stress-free way to use your hands to play
- Optimal ways to move with the music while playing
It is possible to achieve all of the above without compromising the tone and playability of your instruments.
Why is it that when I first say the word “ergonomics”, an entire class will shift in their chairs and sit up ramrod straight? The word “ergonomics” is not synonymous with “posture”. Posture is only part of the equation, but not that stiff military posture most people think of as “correct”. It isn’t.
Military posture is hard on the body; it’s stiff, the chest is out, the back is swayed, and the chin is forced in. If standing, the knees are locked. No wonder so may soldiers faint when standing at attention for long periods. There is nothing good about that posture, whether standing or sitting. Yet most of us use some form of it habitually. For most people its most damaging effect is an exaggerated sway in the lower back, which eventually causes a lot of pain. It’s interesting that when one says, “Stand up straight,” most folks sway their backs. That’s not straight.
True ergonomic posture is called “neutral posture”, a relaxed (but not lazy or sloppy) postition in which no group of muscles works harder than any other group to hold you upright. It causes no pain and can be maintained comfortably for long periods of time. It can feel unfamiliar at first, and some folks resist it for that reason. But it’s well worth forming a new habit. Here’s how to achieve it:
If you sit to play your instrument…
- Choose a chair that is reasonably comfortable, and of a height that puts your knees a bit lower than your hips, or at least the same height as your hips, but your knees should never be higher than your hips (which stresses the hips and lower back, which in turn transfers stress to the upper back as well). A wedge-shaped firm cushion (not a soft pillow) can help.
- Sit toward the front edge of the chair.
- Be sure your feet are both firmly on the floor, with a little weight on them.
- Raise the sternum (breastbone)gently so you’re not slouching, and then relax the lower back so the top of the pelvic bone does NOT tip forward. With your fingertips, feel your spine at the lumbar area (lower back); if it feels like the spine is in a valley between two muscles, your back is too swayed. Roll the pelvis back a little more until the valley flattens out – now your back is actually straight. (Many people think at this point that they are slouching, but a mirror will show you that your back is truly straight. )
- The raised sternum and the relaxed pelvis will stretch your spine a bit, allowing better circulation and room for discs to function properly. It should feel pleasant, even if it’s unfamiliar at first.
- You will probably feel that the abdominal muscles are engaged more than you’re accustomed to. That’s because they are now doing half the job of keeping you upright, instead of putting the entire burden on the back muscles.
- Tilt your head forward and back until you find a “weightless” spot, where it’s balanced.
- If you feel reasonably comfortable, you have now achieved neutral posture. can move around while playing, of course, but this is the posture to which you can aim to keep returning every few seconds, as the base from which all your movement happens.
- Don’t forget to breathe.
- If you stand with your instrument, start with #3, being sure your back isn’t swayed and your shoulders aren’t hunched.
This is the posture to which an instrument can be introduced and adjusted. Don’t lose it when you grab your instrument! Adjust the instrument to it, not vice versa. Specifically:
- Fiddles, which are usually played in such a way that the right shoulder works too hard, and the arms are too high, can be held with the strings facing forward instead of upward, so the right arm is lower and the bowing action is vertical instead of horizontal; or the fiddle can be held against the armpit rather than on the shoulder, which allows the arms to be lower. I know these seem weird, but there’s successful precedence for both of these positions.
- For guitarists, there are boosters that attach to the bottom of the guitar to hold it higher on the lap. For expertise on guitar ergonomics please contact Flip Breskin – her website is http://flip.breskin.com . Some guitarists use foot stools, which make your lap higher, but they also compromise circulation in the legs; that’s not a great idea. Straps are good when you’re standing up, but for most of us they don’t work very well when sitting down. So have a look at what Flip sells and listen to what she recommends.
- Harpists, don’t lean the harp back too far (most harpers do); it only needs to lean just enough so it won’t bounce forward when you pluck the strings. The idea that the strings must be perpendicular to the floor is a myth. Lean the harp on your right thigh or knee, never your shoulder. It’s OK for your shoulder to touch the harp, but no weight should be there. When hands are placed on the strings that are in the middle and lower ranges of the harp, they should be lower than the heart; it’s OK to place lower than the mid-point of the string. Also, you can angle the harp to see the strings, rather than holding it perpendicular to the body. For complete and detailed information, see the Harper’s Manual, available at www.laurieriley.com )
- Mandolinists and banjo players, use a strap so the hand that frets the strings doesn’t also have to hold the weight of the instrument. Keep the neck high so your left wrist doesn’t have to bend around too far to reach the fretboard.
- Singers, take voice lessons. Your exact posture makes a world of difference in how your voice sounds and whether or not it feels good to sing. Trying to guess or figure it out yourself may or may not produce good results.
- Some flute players who have developed shoulder and neck problems have had special stocks made which bend at a right angle so the flute can be played with the arms relaxed. Below is a flute with a right-angle stock that does not change the tone of the flute:
For more detail on all of the above, please see the book and/or video You Are Your Instrument by Julie Lyon Lieberman, available at http://julielyonn.com/frames.php?page=books&menu=corne .
In the next five weeks I’ll discuss specific types of discomfort and why they occur, exercises for injury prevention, a discussion on hands, and more. If you have specific questions, I can do Skype lessons one-on-one with you. My e-mail is email@example.com .
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