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Playing Less Hurt Review

Playing Less Hurt Review published on

I’ve just finished soaking up the information in Janet Horvath’s book Playing Less Hurt – an Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians and have come like a sponge to wring myself out before you all. Although she’s a cellist, not a doctor, her information is sound and clear. In the first few pages you’ll find a hand surgeon (who is also an amateur violinist) vouching for the overall accuracy of this work.

I read with the intent to gather useful knowledge and entertain different perspectives. It keeps me coming back. This one was my 90th book of the year and I’m going strong. I can’t seem to dampen up my curiosity so I will probably be scouring books for a long time to come!

These are some of the things I’ve gleaned. They don’t reflect the structure of the book; rather they represent the topography of what stood out to me.

  • This book reconfirmed some of my personal conclusions that I discussed in my earlier article. Get thee to a doctor and don’t let an over-inflated view of what you know land you in deeper trouble!
  • Warming up is not optional. It revs up your circulation, bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the extremities and carrying away waste more efficiently. Increased body heat loosens the tendons, fascia, and surrounding tissues to be suppler. Warmups are not to be confused with technical exercises! Just as one does not simply walk into the gym and start a set of chin-ups, one does not simply start off in scales at a breakneck tempo. Start slowly and easily and work up from there. Remember, we don’t play piano with our hands; we play piano with our entire bodies. Warming up away from your instrument is also valuable.
  • TAKE BREAKS. You must take breaks. I read this from all manners of credible sources and every time I will for it to sink into my thick head.
  • Be easier on yourself even when your body is not responding how you want it to. Yes we’re talking to you.
  • This book also contains a wealth of stretches. For these alone it’s worth picking up a copy. I love the compendium of stretches that can be done in a shower. Handy! She also provides a great list of stretches that can be done surreptitiously onstage or in a pit even during a performance. Invaluable.
  • Janet Horvath is the only person who has been able to give an answer my question about splinting during playing. I have roamed the net to no avail on the topic. My doctor who admits she’s inexperienced in the RSI category recommended I splint while playing anyhow so that it can keep my wrists in a neutral position. In her mind, it can’t hurt, but my playing suffers because they make me clumsy. Nevertheless I have been doing so faithfully until now. I’m reconsidering because Horvath says one ought not splint while practicing. Because my hand posture is not bad at the piano, I may forgo it after some more thought on the matter. My hands stay in neutral position of their own accord when I play. The dangers of over-splinting are muscle atrophy if you wear them constantly or loss of flexibility if you don’t continue to stretch. The virtues of splinting are mainly during sleep, that they ensure the freest circulation of fluids to heal the tissue. I’m pretty sure that until I started sleeping with splints, I would curl my wrists up. I know because it feels weird to not do so. That could be where the nerve compression creeped in from.
  • One solution that some smaller-handed pianists are beginning to implement to counter the strain caused by finger abduction is smaller keyboards. The idea that a piano could be ergonomically scaled to your hand size is a cool one. THINK OF ALL THE GREAT STUFF I COULD PLAY! In fact, it is entirely possible that male dominance in keyboard playing is partially explainable by the fact that hand size is larger on average in men compared to women, and thus the limitations on repertoire. I feel it. There are numerous gems of Rachmaninoff that I have shied away from because I know they pain they’d induce. Let’s remember that key size was determined by what worked best for a select group of European men. I guess it made sense at the time but now we have plenty of people trying to fit a mould developed for someone else. Deviating from standard piano key size does raise some questions though. Would getting comfortable on your personalized piano make you less accurate on standard pianos or limit your venue options? We’re not talking about portable, personal instruments like violins or guitars, and who wants to lug a keyboard around with them if the venue has a lovely acoustic? Although there are plenty of logistical obstacles to deal with, I do drool a little bit inside when I think of the voicing I have always lusted after that I see other people playing. LH finger 5 on root, 2 on the seven and thumb on the three. Everything you need!
  • Lastly, no book is complete without a recommended reading section. My reading list has had its equilibrium punctuated with yet another phase of expansion. Joyous times we live in!

I highly recommend this book. After the dozens I’ve read on the topic, there was still plenty of new and applicable information. Cellists and bass players may benefit the most of all but there is quite a wealth of help for keyboardists and other instrumentalists too.

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Handling Health-Related Despair

Handling Health-Related Despair published on

Injuries are unfortunately common among musicians. As I have been facing some of these issues lately, numerous stories have emerged from my fellow musicians. Far more people than I’ve known about have at some point busted themselves up a little. Yesterday a colleague of mine remarked that “pretty much all bass players are pain”. That’s sad, but it tells us there’s an underlying problem of too many musicians ignoring their health.

I’ve had to get creative about dealing with the angst of feeling that my true love and career are on the line. This is my strategy for keeping my chin up. I’m sure it is just one of many ways to get through the problem. You can adopt it, modify it, and make it your own.

  1. Any efforts to get through mental anguish will be futile and Sisyphean if we do not first address the physical situation. Doctors and specialists exist for a reason. Let professionals do their job and don’t just soldier through things. This is a big one for me. It’s easy to see some glamour in pain but there is none. Being in discomfort at the end of a practice session is NOT a good practice session. It doesn’t mean you’ve learned anything! So first, form a plan to attend to your body and then you will be prepared for the mental half of the equation. This book is a good resource outlining both traditional and alternative steps that can be taken. It’s one of the best I’ve read on the topic.
  2. It’s easy to stop there after taking the common sense physical steps to recovery, but there is farther to go in order to reinforce after our mental health as well. Identify the source of the suffering. The source is not pain itself but the perceived implications of pain. I’ll give you an example: exercise often causes a certain amount of pain and muscle soreness, yet we leave the gym with feelings of triumph, endorphins, and vibrancy. Knowing that despite the pain you are building your body up creates a sense of empowerment and strength, compared to fear and uncertainty about your condition driving you deeper into the dark night of the soul. So it is catastrophic thinking that is at the root of the despair.
  3. Reinterpret the feelings of physical pain that you encounter with a new set of thoughts. Divert your mind from thinking of worst-case scenarios by adopting some of the following:
    • My body is reminding me to pay attention to it. Take a break, stretch, and see that step one is underway.
    •  This is an opportunity to cultivate self-care and resilience. It may sound funny to you but it works for me.
    • This is a moment to reinvent my strategy for what I want to achieve. For me this means looking at a more holistic picture of the musician I am evolving into and devoting more attention to other aspects that put less strain on my body  like studying harmonic concepts and refining my aural skills.

There can be upsides to everything. It’s up to us to create them. It can be done. Have courage and have strategy!

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