When we are young, we usually assume that we are indestructible. We take risks, live life on the edge and have a carefree attitude to our overall physical health. We may sit in orchestras alongside players more senior than us that seem to be plagued by aches and pains, but in our minds, we will never end up that way. Muscle aches, bad backs, tendonitis – why on earth should we worry about that at our stage of life and playing? But the sad fact is that you are never going to be too young to get physically hurt from playing a string instrument incorrectly.
Dangers of over practising
In fact, Music students often complain about various physical pains. These are often caused by long hours of practising, overuse of muscles and the repetitiveness of many of the movements involved in our craft. This can be aggravated further by the sheer numbness that sets in with fatigue, leading inability to recognise the pain being felt. Therefore, for many, the more you practise the worse the situation becomes and the less you recognise what you are actually doing to your body until it is too late!
Why we should warm up
One of the biggest issues players face is that they simply do not warm up adequately. In their minds, they are not sportsmen pushing their body to its physical limits, but just musicians. Yet warming up muscles properly before playing is essential. If we were to analyse the demands that we place on our body properly, we would find that they are massive. So warm up those muscles and loosen those tendons before even picking up your instrument.
One major contributing factor is lack of time. We live very full lives and have to squeeze in practising between so many other activities, but neglecting our warm-ups will only end up being counterproductive with time needing to be taken out from playing to allow a damaged body to heal properly.
The responsibility of the teacher
Teachers have a responsibility to their students to encourage them to warm up thoroughly. But how many teachers play in pain themselves, in some ways accepting that it is just part of their chosen profession and that it is inevitable. That may have been more excusable in days gone by, but these days the general knowledge about anatomy and physical health is so great that no teacher has the excuse to avoid guiding their students to play in a physically healthy way, including the essential routine of warming up.
Further damage can be caused by over practising when in panic mode, perhaps as a recital or examination looms ominously on the horizon. Again, the teacher can be held to account. With better forward planning and structure to progression in the lessons, along with a better practice regime set in place, last minute ‘cramming’ can be avoided.
A healthy body
Healthy playing really needs a healthy body, and in developing our general body health we can avoid many of the common physical ailments that befall so many musicians. As string players, swimming can be an excellent form of exercise to develop the right kinds of muscle suppleness and strength, along with the stamina we need for playing. Remember that to play we need longer and flexible muscles, rather than the short and thicker muscle fibres of a weightlifter.
Another issue is posture, particularly with young players. As a teacher, we can set their posture correctly to start with and perhaps neglect to keep on checking it, but young players tend to grow at an alarming rate at certain stages. Every week their limb lengths may be different, so it is the duty of the teacher to be vigilant and constantly guide the student towards better playing habits. Often legs and arms will grow way faster than a student’s trunk, leaving far less core strength. This core strength is essential for good posture and back health. One way we can aid students in making the most of the strength they do have is by helping them to warm up their muscles before even picking up their instruments. A few stretches alongside them may be all it needs, and it will do you, the teacher, the world of good too. Remember that you need to be warm before you start to stretch those muscles though, so encourage the student may be to walk briskly to their lesson venue, or do a few starts jumps with them to get the blood circulating!
A good teacher will then work at a good posture for playing, both standing and seated In the case of upper string players. They will also check the general set up and sizing of the instrument as being appropriate for the student, remembering that it is better for muscles if the instrument is slightly too small rather than too large. They will also take a student’s breathing into account, as without adequate oxygen to feed them, muscles will start to seize up and work against the student’s playing abilities.
Movements when playing
Then come the actual physical movements of playing. A good bow hold and left-hand shape are just the beginnings. Any teacher should have a basic knowledge of anatomy and how the muscles and tendons work in each action we are demanding of the body when playing. They should also understand about the assertion and conservation of energies that are appropriate for each movement. The middle range of energies is much healthier than overexertion, which not only leads to a more forced sound quality but also faster muscle fatigue with all its inherent faults as touched on briefly earlier in this writing. Movements should be smooth and flowing, not aggressive and angular – think curves and round shapes rather than squares and triangles!
Rest those muscles!
The next thing is to physically rest enough during a practice session, or even lesson! Generally, a ten-minute break for every hour of work is essential, but resting briefly, stretching and realigning physical posture frequently throughout a practice session can only lead to better playing techniques and health in the long term.
A really inspired teacher may consult a sports physio, or study practices such as Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais – and encourage their students too as well. Yoga and Pilates can also be of great benefit.
If you do develop pains, don’t ignore them! Talk to your teacher, your doctor or another professional and do as they advise, even if that involves taking a rest from arduous practice routines, but best of all try to avoid the situation in the first place by thinking about body health from the outset.
Feel free to reach out to us for any assistance.