Injury, like performance anxiety, is something musicians tend not to discuss. Admitting to an injury (or anxiety) can be perceived as a sign of weakness, and as most musicians are self-employed, peripatetic and freelance, without the cushion of statutory sick pay or health insurance, injury can mean loss of work, which means loss of income.

Musicians, like sportspeople, put their bodies under a great deal of stress, but unlike with sportspeople, it’s rare to see a musician stretchered off the stage. Musicians go to great lengths to make their playing appear effortless and free, which can put additional strain on one’s body. However, until fairly recently the idea that one should care for one’s body in the manner of an athlete was not discussed nor seriously considered. I think this has a lot to do with a now rather outdated view that musicians are “artists” and don’t need to concern themselves with such prosaic issues as keeping fit. After all, it’s all about the music, isn’t it?

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(photo: lastminutemusicians.com)

But if you’re not fit, you can’t play and make music or make a living from making music. Musicians are prone to a range of injuries from simple aches and pains to more significant problems such as tendonitis, RSI, tenosynovitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and focal dystonia. Many of these injuries are related to posture. In fact, pianists come off relatively lightly – other musicians contort their bodies (violinists, flautists) or carry heavy instruments (French horn, tuba) which can put tremendous strain on ligaments and muscles. Injury can also be caused by bad technique (in part related to posture), insufficient warm up, too much repetition in practising, playing too loudly, suddenly increasing practise time (perhaps to prepare for a recital or audition), poor choice of repertoire. The website Musical Toronto quotes some alarming statistics: “The lifetime prevalence of injury for musicians is 84 percent, and the chance of a musician playing while injured is 50/50, which is much higher than for athletes.” Musicians are playing complex, virtuosic/technically demanding repertoire much younger (mid-teens), which also affects their health.

One’s emotional health can also impact on physical health: psychological stress caused by practising, performing, traveling, financial insecurity, competition can lead to physical problems (last year, for example, I had stress-related tendonitis, which was cured surprisingly easily by making some simple changes to my working life as a musician).

Conservatoires and music colleges are now offering courses in yoga, Pilates, Alexander technique, mindfulness and general well-being for musicians in recognition of the importance of caring for one’s body, and many musicians I know do daily yoga and other keep fit regimes which help both body and mind.

We can, of course, put in place habits which can protect our bodies from injury. I like the term “Pre-hab“, which was coined by Sir Chris Hoy, cyclist, multiple Olympic gold medal winner and a commentator on the track cycling at the Rio Olympics. For the musician, Pre-Hab should include:

  • Adopt the correct posture when playing
  • Do a proper warm up: this can include exercises at the piano or exercises done away from the piano (which I personally prefer)
  • Don’t start your practising session with your most difficult music – work up to it
  • Take regular breaks between practising (c45 mins then a 10 minute break is sensible)
  • Do light stretches between practise sessions to loosen arms, shoulders and neck
  • Take extra care when lifting
  • Practise away from the instrument – this can include memory work, and listening and reading about the music you are working on
  • Take time away from the instrument to unwind and don’t feel guilty about it – allow yourself a social life!
  • Listen to your body and take seriously any pain, tension or tenderness in any part of the body
  • Never play through pain and seek specialist help as soon as possible if you are in pain
  • If recovering from an injury return to playing gradually and don’t practise excessively

 

Musicians’ Health Resources

BAPAM (British Association of Performing Arts Medicine) offers advice and help for musicians and performing artists including physiotherapy, counselling and referrals to specialist medical practitioners

The Healthy Pianist – fact sheet especially for pianists written by Penelope Roskell and Dr Hara Trouli (PDF file)

Other BAPAM fact sheets

Playing Less Hurt

Back to School for Elite Musicians – Musical Toronto article

Recovering from Injury – article by Alicja Fiderkiewicz

 

 

 

 

 

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(picture from Hand Knitted Things)

Cold weather can play havoc with the pianist’s body – and instrument. Hands suffer in the cold, becoming sore and chapped, and limbs take longer to warm up. Always take time to warm up properly before you play. All of my students coming for lessons over the recent spell of freezing weather in the UK have arrived without gloves and consequently their hands are cold and uncomfortable, absolutely not ideal for playing the piano! I have handcream by the piano and I always wear gloves if I am out when it is cold.

Pianos suffer too. If the central heating is on more frequently than usual, pianos will slip out of tune and some notes may develop an unpleasantly shrill “ring” when struck. Always try to site the piano away from a radiator or heat source, but if this is not possible consider using a protective guard. If you have underfloor heating, the piano should be placed on a heat-reflective mat.

The temperature and relative humidity of the room in which your piano lives is most important to the care and well-being of your instrument. Pianos are made from wood and metal, both materials which expand and contract in relation to moisture and heat/cold. It is worth purchasing a digital hygrometer which will calculate the relative humidity in your home or piano studio. Ideally, it should be no lower than 50% and no higher than 75%. If central heating causes the humidity to drop, you can make a basic humidifier by placing a sponge in a tray of water and inserting this in the case of a grand piano, or in the lower portion of an upright. Or buy an automatic humidifier which sends a light mist into the air and helps regulate the humidity. Keeping houseplants in the same room as the piano can help too. There are also more sophisticated and expensive ways of humidifying your piano, such as the Piano Life Saver.

Look after yourself and your piano and you will both perform better, all year round.

Piano Gloves

DontCrampYourStyle – warm up exercises factsheet from the British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (PDF file)

 

Here’s a helpful post from Gretchen Saathoff’s blog Gretchen’s Pianos for those of us who are feel certain parts of our anatomy need some care & attention.

Any type of pain associated with playing an instrument needs to be addressed.

Let’s talk about neck pain in this post, though, to keep things manageable for readers.

Onset

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?

Possible causes

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.

  • Bench too high or too low?
  • Enough light?
  • Music at a comfortable height?
  • Have you had your eyes checked recently?
  • Body alignment
  • Drafty room
  • Cold room
  • A glare on the music
  • Recent changes in technique
  • Practicing too long without a break
  • Learning a lot of notes all at the same time
  • Sight-reading for hours

A look at some other factors

  • Not getting enough sleep.
  • Not eating regular meals.
  • Being under the weather.
  • Anaemia
  • Virus
  • Having a cold
  • Coming down with something
  • Dental issues

Possible solutions

  • Ask a friend to watch you play
  • Videotape yourself playing
  • Make small changes as indicated above
  • Stretch before and after practice
  • See a doctor who treats musicians
  • Get a massage
  • See a chiropractor
  • Work with a physical therapist or sports trainer to strengthen back and shoulder muscles

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.

Related posts:

Warming up & keeping fit

Piano Pilates

Piano Yoga

 

Piano-Yoga® is a unique method of piano playing, performing and teaching designed for all levels of pianists. It has been created and developed by Russian virtuoso pianist and educator GèNIA.

In Piano-Yoga® we believe that creating an optimal environment which promotes the student’s sense of well-being is the best approach to learning the piano.  When we feel relaxed, think positively and our concentration is at its peak, we can learn more quickly and efficiently. In this state, learning can even feel like having fun, where studying and mastering something new become an effortless and pleasurable experience.

It is true that some of the best educational systems (like the Russian school, for example) are based on a strict, disciplined approach to learning, where competition is the upmost motivation for success and the strongest students are stretched to the maximum.  Such systems have produced amazing results, but the weakest emotionally often give up, unable to progress and develop.

Whilst Piano-Yoga® aims to help students to perfect their technique this is only a tool, as our foremost motivation is to make the piano playing process as enjoyable and pleasurable as possible, within the wider framework of the student’s lifestyle.  In order to do this not only do we instruct students specifically in the Piano-Yoga® technique, but we also show them how to efficiently schedule their practice sessions, and how to take care of their health and their body in order to get the most out of their practice and create a positive mindset.

I like to address this issue by using ideas taken from ancient Indian Ayurvedic philosophy – the traditional Hindu system of medicine, based on the idea of bringing balance to the body using diet, herbal treatments, yogic postures and breathing.  In line with the discipline of Ayurveda we ask students to pay attention to what they eat, ask them to monitor how they feel each day, and if they are not happy with the results we teach them how to change their sense of well-being, correcting it through various exercises, simple posture adjustments and the use of aromatherapy.  We very much encourage our students to create a practice environment full of clean energy, and where the student feels comfortable, safe, private and nurtured.

Would you like to try this for yourself?  Here’s what you can do in just one week:

  • Notice when your energy is at its best and try to practise at that time

Are you a morning person or evening? Is the afternoon the best or the worst time for you? Try to practise when you brain is at its best and your muscles are not stiff.

  • Find out if there is a regular time you can practise and, if possible, stick to it.

Getting into a routine will help the body to feel comfortable in its environment and will enable you to concentrate faster and more acutely.

  • Try not to practise on an empty stomach, but also not on a full one.  According to how you feel we recommend using the main principles of Ayurveda

According to Ayurvedic principles a person can either be TAMASIC (sluggish/slow), RAJASIC (hyperactive/fast) or SATTVIC (balanced) depending on their current state of mind.  If you are feeling unsettled you will most certainly be feeling either Tamasic or Rajasic and therefore should aim to bring yourself back into a Sattvic (balanced) state.

Decide how you are feeling at this present moment: TAMASIC or RAJASIC?

For people in TAMASIC (sluggish/slow) state I recommend:

Going for a brisk walk before practice, if possible.

Playing the piano at a moderate or fast tempo but not too slowly!

Eating a moderate amount of RAJASIC foods before practice to induce more energy into your system (chocolate, tea, coffee (but not too much of these, otherwise you may find yourself in a rajasic state) as well as fish, eggs, chilli peppers and strongly-flavored herbs and spices to help bring yourself into a state of balance. Do some physical exercise. Yoga is excellent as long as it is a vinyasa sequence (dynamic flowing yoga practice).  This encourages better blood circulation and warms up the muscles.

For people in a RAJASIC (hyperactive/nervous) state I would recommend:

Going for a slow walk or doing some simple slow stretches, mainly with forward bends (make sure that you do not have any back issues and know how to do stretches safely).

Playing everything on the piano slower then usual. Eat some TAMASIC food before the practice time to induce a calming effect on the body (i.e. meat, cooked vegetables, mushrooms, dried, tinned and frozen fruit).

Practising slow, deep breathing as it has an excellent calming effect on the body. (The yogic breath technique of Ujjayi is particularly good if you are familiar with it – otherwise I would recommend initial guidance from a qualified yoga teacher).

Trying to meditate and rest more between short practice sessions.

  • Make sure that you feel comfortable in your environment

In the morning have plenty of fresh air in the room (no dust, as not only is it bad for your health, but it is terrible for the energy of the place).  In the evening make sure that the room is warm and well lit, but that the lights are not too bright, as this can make you feel tired.

  • Do some physical exercises before your piano practice

Doing some physical work can do wonders for your body and mind. Either walking, running, yoga, pilates or swimming: anything that keeps your body alive, well toned and oxygenated. 10–15 minutes of exercise before your piano practice can dramatically improve your playing and your ability to concentrate!

  • Have some fluids by your side

Preferably have some water (ideally at room temperature, unless you feel hot) or some tea (herbal would be the best, but if you are feeling tired sometimes black tea or coffee can help – make sure that these do not make you too over-active).

  • Use aromatherapy as this can do wonders from your practice

Before embarking on the use of aromatherapy, I strongly suggest that you do some homework, find out what oils and smells you like and how they make you feel. The oils could either be applied to your skin as a cream or used as a room spray or in oil burners. You really need to know what products you are using and which method is the most effective for you, as it can create a very strong effect and this can really elevate your mood, improve your concentration or simply make you feel happier!

I use room sprays the most, and these days create my own fragrances by mixing various oils.  It is so simple: fill a glass bottle with water and add various oils that you like; they usually change with seasons, the time of day and my mood, hence I have many different bottles. Use a diffuser to spray these out.  My favorite morning mix at the moment is a combination of cypress, lemon grass, peppermint and lime.

Below are a few examples of how different oils can help you, but really you need to check out yourself what works for you.  There are endless possibilities for creating various smells.

    • Bergamot helps to fight anxiety, confusion, depression, relieve headaches, and reduce irritability and stress.
    • Pepper is great for fighting apathy, relieving colds, cramps, flu, muscle ache, shock, creating calm and boosting energy.
    • Ylang-ylang helps to fight depression, stress, improve sleep and enhance mood.
    • Rose helps with anxiety, depression and fear, creating nurturing and positive feelings.
    • Clary Sage helps to fight hyperactivity, improve sleep, avoid panic attacks, and induce peace of mind.

Try to pay attention to these few ideas and see how they can improve your practice!

Having said all this, it is important to have a clear goal (know what you would like to achieve from each practice session) and maintain a planned practice process. Try to be undisturbed during your sessions.  And always approach your practice thinking constructively: don’t see problems, only solutions!

Here is a little video about our Piano-Yoga® Retreat in Cyprus, which we have created as the ultimate holistic approach to piano learning.  It includes piano masterclasses and seminars, yoga exercises, food tasting, wonderful sightseeing excursions and communication with inspiring, like-minded people!

Enjoy!

Further information:

GeNIA’s biography

Piano-Yoga®