Today I wanted to talk about something that hasn't gotten much mention until recent years; physical pain associated with playing an instrument.
Allow me to give you my personal background regarding the subject. Through most of my time playing the saxophone I had never heard about the possibility of injuring yourself from practice. In 2012, I had just finished up a semester of teaching and had plenty of time to practice since it was the summer. What did I do? I went from practicing 1-2 hours a day during the school year to practicing 5 HOURS A DAY!!! You can probably guess what happened next. After almost two months of this I felt just a little pain in my hands. The problem was that it just wouldn't go away. If I tried to play my hands would feel very weak and achey. I felt awful, ashamed and alone. How could this happen to me? I was only trying to better myself? I went to see a doctor though he did not have much experience with musician's injuries and he prescribed me to medication and said to lay off playing. At this time I did my own research and found out that I was far from alone. I picked up a book by Janet Horvath, a cellist in the Minnesota Symphony, called Playing Less Hurt. It was a great help on my road to recovery.
Back to the point, musical injuries do happen. Should this deter you from playing an instrument? No. There is a growing body of research into injury rehabilitation and prevention. I am certainly no expert on this subject, but I do think it is an important one for musicians and parents of musicians to know about. As musicians, we have to treat ourselves as athletes(if only playing an instrument could count towards my cardio) and take care of our bodies. I began studies at the University of Boulder about a month ago and I was practicing more and noticed a bit of pain in my right hand. I was once again afraid but, fortunately for me, the school has a Musicians' Wellness Program. I scheduled an appointment with the head, Professor James Brody, and he spoke with me about strategies of practicing that could not only alleviate the pain I was feeling, but also make make the time I spent on my instrument more productive. He instructed me to only play for 15 minutes at a time and then take a 3 minute break and repeat. It seemed so simple and at first I wasn't sure it would work. It has been about three weeks of practicing like this and the pain in my hands has vanished. For reference, I practice about 2 hours at a time and will usually practice twice a day. Not only has the pain gone away, I do feel more focused in my practice. The short break keeps me from getting too bogged down when working on something and allows me to clear my head. During the break I will usually listen to recordings of what I am working on. I would recommend practicing like this to anyone regardless if you are injured or not. As well, I will usually ice my hands before I go to bed at night; especially if I have had a particularly rigorous day of practice.
As I mentioned before, I am not an expert but I truly believe that all musicians should gain a basic knowledge regarding the physicality of playing their instrument. If you are not injured, let's keep it that way. If you are, you are not alone and it is not the end. Below, I will list some resources to check out. I hope this has provided some good info. I urge all musicians to do some research on this subject. Like many injured musicians, I had never even considered the possibility of injury. As a teacher, I put a great deal of emphasis on playing the instrument in a healthy manner when I am with students. I believe this should be the responsibility of all music educators. If you have any thoughts or experiences of your own concerning this topic, please leave a comment.
Playing Less Hurt - the book I mentioned by Janet Horvath of the Minnesota Symphony. It goes into great detail about many different ailments specific to musicians and how to recover and "play less hurt." Her website is also a great resource @ playinglesshurt.com
The Complete Guide to the Alexander Technique - The Alexander Technique is a movement that serves to educate about how our bodies work when playing an instrument. This website offers many resources for learning how to minimize the chance of injury when practicing and maximize the effectiveness of practice. Professor Brody, whom I met with, is an instructor of the Alexander Technique at CU-Boulder.