Practice Routines to Prevent and Manage Pain

By Travis Fisher

As I was practicing a piece some years ago, I suddenly lost strength and dexterity in my right hand pinky. It was a subtle change, but playing the piano requires rather subtle motions and it's not hard to tell if something is off. The pain continued subtly and gradually over weeks and months to spread to my arm and shoulder and back and eventually seemingly throughout my whole body. "Whyyyyyy!" I would moan, with narrowed brows and a sad face, massaging the tension in my arm and neck after having to stop playing piano.

Well, the pain persists to an extent and while I still don't have a perfect answer to why, I feel I may have arrived, through reading and experimenting, at some techniques for dealing with it that work for me. These suggestions may be of interest to those already experiencing pain, but also as preventative measures for those who are relatively pain-free and wish to remain so. I encourage students of all ages, whether in pain or not, to implement the following into their practice routines:

1) Stretch Before:
Stretching before playing loosens the muscles and prevents strain. Ideally one should get their blood flowing a bit before stretching. Do some jumping-jacks or run up and down the stairs! Flail around and wiggle even! Once your blood is flowing start stretching out your fingers, wrists, arms, shoulders, even your hamstrings if you've got time. (Stretches are basic stretches that apply to all sorts of activities so resources abound!)

2) Prepare Mentally and Physically
When we are out of tune with our bodies, it is easier to slip into awkward positions that might cause strain. Before playing, sit with your instrument in silence and feel your body. Now play (or sing, if the voice is your instrument!) just one note. How does your body feel? Play two notes. Try three, or five. How do those notes feel? Try to be aware of your body as a whole and beautiful music-making organism. Feel the connection between the tip of your finger to your elbow, to your shoulder. Approaching practice with this mindset feels better not only physically, but the quality and effectiveness of practice tends to improve greatly also.

3) Stretch Afterward
Stretching afterward is equally as important as stretching before! Make sure to give yourself at least a few minutes to loosen up those music-making muscles and tendons.

4) Practice Away from the Instrument
Finally, an excellent way to prevent and/or manage pain is to practice away from the instrument. Allowing yourself a quiet space in which to lay and practice mentally can be just as effective as physically practicing. Mental practice may perhaps be difficult for younger, beginning students so I don't stress it as much, but I do like to mention it and have them be aware of the concept, which I think will become more and more useful the longer they pursue their studies. The ability to practice away from the instrument is a special technique that requires practice itself, and will be discussed in further detail in a future post. For now, think about how the mere thought of biting into a lemon can make your mouth salivate! Mind-power! The same power can be applied to mental practice.

So, some techniques for preventing and managing pain: Stretch before, prepare physically and mentally, stretch after, and practice away from the instrument