Repetitive strain injuries plague far too many musicians, and I was one of them. These injuries tend to come at the most stressful times, before big performances and auditions, and last far too long. In my case, I was barely touching my instrument for five months leading up to graduate school auditions. Although problems did not go away immediately after auditions, I learned some valuable lessons that today allow me to play without pain. Here I hope to steer you toward some resources to help you achieve every musician’s goal – playing pain free.
Let me begin by saying that I am not a doctor and am not qualified to give medical advice. Medical professionals such as physical therapists can help you determine steps you can take to avoid drastic measures such as surgery. One of those steps is warming up. My initial conception of warming up for cello was playing scales, and although scales are excellent for opening our ears, they are not enough. Perhaps you have heard musicians compared to “small muscle athletes.” With that in mind, we should warm up the same way athletes warm up, by stretching! I have recently begun to use a variation of these stretches from Kansas City Symphony cellist Allen Probus. Here is a demonstration along with his encouraging story of overcoming injury.
HEALTH & FITNESS
Being unable to do what we love to do for extended periods of time may be the result of physical pain, but such trauma can also result in emotional pain too. Lacking motivation to take care of yourself physically and mentally can result in poor diet and lifestyle choices that set back the already lengthy process of healing. Give your body every chance to heal by eating healthful food, staying hydrated, maintaining fitness without taxing already overstressed muscles, and getting adequate sleep. As I took care of my body I noticed improvement not only physically but also in terms of clear thinking and positive mental outlook.
As much as I hated to admit it at the time, resting was one of the most effective steps I touch to recovering from injury. The advice of medical professionals was a minimum six to eight weeks of rest, in my case. They defined rest not as reducing playing time but as staying away from the instrument completely and avoiding taxing activities for the injured muscles. One professional familiar with musician’s injuries pointed me to a book entitled The Musician’s Survival Manual that included a chart for beginning practice again after an injury. Imagine my surprise upon seeing that the first days of practice consisted of only 10 minutes of practice – two five-minute practice sessions separated by an hour of rest! Now that I practice and perform regularly, I still add times of rest between practice sessions as often as every 15 minutes of practice.
Understandably not everyone has the ability to go without playing for any length of time, especially when they provide their living through performance. I am very grateful for the cooperation my teacher and school with helping me find the road to recovery. Seek the help of professionals in finding the best way to rest in your unique circumstances.
I eventually ended up using a thumb brace which was just what I needed to avoid stressing my injury during daily activities. However not all medical equipment is created equal. I will not post pictures here, but if you so choose, search “thumb brace” online. You will notice that some products correctly orient the pinky is a straight line with the arm, and others align the thumb in a straight line. The second alignment, known as ulnar deviation, will not help in recovery, but rather would stress the body by holding an unnatural position for extended periods of time. Please check with a medical professional to find the right products for you.
Thankfully my journey through a performance injury did not result in the need for surgery, but along the way many types of alternative treatment did help. Chiropractic, electrotherapy, and massage therapy were all helpful in themselves, and along the way I learned better how to care for myself through the advice of therapists and doctors.
In addition, I also discovered Silicone Cupping through the recommendation of a colleague who was working through similar injury issues. Although you may not be familiar with cupping, the technique is becoming more popular in sports. Watch previous summer Olympic games, and you will notice that swimmers especially often have red circles across their bodies. This is the result of cupping. Cupping can be used at home with the guidance of a physical or massage therapist.
Insanity has been defined as “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” No matter how many of the above methods you pursue, if you return to your instrument and play in the same ways that put you in pain in the first place, you will likely find that you return to the exact same results, namely more pain. Instead, be proactive. Seek your teacher’s input and advice and explore body awareness through Alexander Technique, Body Mapping, Feldenkrais, and the like. Only through change of technique did I ultimately find lasting relief.
One size does not fit all!
What works for one person does not necessarily work for another, so seek help from competent medical professionals who are familiar with working with musicians. There is light at the end of the tunnel. I wish you well in your journey to pain-free performance.
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