The aim of the Safe Trad project is to support traditional musicians to play at their personal best, and to mind themselves.
HOW THE BODY WORKS
The body is made up of a complex network of structures such as muscles and joints which all work together. If one set of muscles is overstressed, this will have an effect on other muscles and joints. Of course, in playing any musical instrument, we are immediately asking the body to work repeatedly in ways for which it was not specifically designed. This is why we need to pay attention to what our bodies are telling us when they signal (through aches and pains) that we are causing it undue stress.
Playing a musical instrument involves very high technical ability and muscle work. Muscles are asked to perform very exact movements over a period of time, sometimes many hours. The position of the body (arm, back, feet) can affect these muscles. If the traditional musician is in a ‘bad’ position, the muscles will get tired and stressed more easily, and are more likely to get injured.
How to Recognise Aches and Pains
Usual aches and pains disappear quite quickly. If you have walked a few miles for the first time in months, it is likely that you will feel minor pains and aches in your leg muscles the next day. These will disappear and are not something to worry about. Similarly, most aches and pains are linked to specific activities and giving the muscles and joints a rest is usually enough. If, however, you are finding that you are able to play less and less, that the aches and pains are lasting more than a couple of days, or that you are getting pins and needles or numbness in your hands or pains down your arm or leg then it is time to take a break and a hard look at your playing style. If you have pins and needles or numbness in your hands legs or feet, or shooting pains down your arms or legs you may need to go to your GP and get a referral to a physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor. These symptoms often resolve with rest, but sometimes treatment or medication is needed as well. If you consistently get certain aches and pains after playing, and these settle after a few days, making slight changes to your posture can usually prevent or reduce the aches and pains.
Muscles and other structures can get injured quickly when they are damaged by (for example) a sudden movement, or stress, or by a build-up of stress over a long time, which can happen in traditional musicians. Muscle problems usually settle very quickly after injury, often in a day or so, but if they are repeatedly stressed and are not given time to recover, the muscles will get tired, and this forces other muscles to work in a way that they are not designed for. If this continues, the associated joints and other structures also become stressed and can become painful. Muscles can get
injured if they have to do something that’s too much work (either too heavy, or for too long), and if they are in the wrong position, they will get tired and injured more quickly. For example, if a fiddle player has their left wrist bent in towards the neck of the fiddle, this puts an extra stretch on the muscles needed to move the fingers, so they will get tired more easily than if the left wrist is straight. Likewise, if a musician’s back is bent and the head forward this puts a great strain on the neck joints, and the muscles of the neck and shoulder, because the weight of the head is simply too great – it is after all about the same weight as a bowling ball.
SAFE TRAD: IN PLAY
The environment that you play in is very important and encompasses a wide range of factors that make up the performance experience such as the physical environment (light or dark, cramped or spacious, indoors or outdoors, hot or cold, standing or sitting, electronic/technical equipment or not), your personal environment (are you tired or rested, nervous or relaxed) and the music itself (do you know the tunes, how many hours are you expected to play, and at what standard, what else is depending on this performance – e.g. other gigs, a contract etc.).
Sometimes you may be able to make small changes in the physical environment that can prevent or reduce the chance of injury. Correct seating is vital so always bring a scarf or jumper with you so you can roll them up to sit on or put behind your back. If the playing environment is very cramped, can this be changed? Even a couple of inches between you and the next player can make a difference. If the lighting is very poor it will make it difficult to see what other musicians are doing (perhaps you need their cues to help you play?) so that your head will come forward as you peer at others; this again puts your back, neck and shoulders into a bad alignment. The sound you make will change dramatically depending on whether the performance is inside or outside and whether you are using microphones and other technologies. The temperature of the environment will also affect your posture and how well your muscles work. If you are cold (maybe you are busking outside in winter), you will need to spend extra time warming up your muscles and you may need to wear fingerless gloves etc., and it is likely you will not be able to play for as long as usual because your muscles will not be getting the blood supply they need, and will fatigue quicker than normal.
Tiredness, stress, being nervous or anxious are all elements that will increase the risk of muscle injury. It is not always possible to be well rested prior to a performance, but if you are tired, then think about ways to reduce risk by taking more frequent breaks, doing more stretches, and eating properly beforehand (think of yourself as an athlete who is asking their body to do very high level activities, and therefore needs the proper nourishment to do so).
There are different types of strengthening that a musician needs to be aware of. The first is the strength that is needed to play the instrument and in most instruments this involves different muscles in the shoulders, arms and hands. With practice, these muscles get fitter and stronger. A beginner may have difficulty playing for more than a few minutes, whereas an expert can play for much longer.
The second type is the one that is often forgotten, and that is the strength needed in other parts of the body, especially the trunk. These muscles need to hold the rest of the body steady to allow the arms and hands do their work properly. These are the stability or anti-gravity muscles.
Generally, muscles that are over-worked, get tight and short. Trigger points can also make parts of the muscle short. The short, tired muscles then become even shorter, and more tired and it all becomes a vicious circle. One way to help is to keep your muscles as long as possible. Do not compare yourself to others as we all have different muscle lengths and joint ranges. Roughly speaking, our right sides should be about the same as our left, so your neck muscles on one side should be about the same as the other, and the same for your hand muscles etc. When stretching, it is important to stretch the muscles and the joints, so stretch in different directions.
There is no hard and fast rule for stretching and you will find many different recommendations on different websites. When you stretch, go as far as is comfortable. DO NOT PUSH FARTHER. DO NOT CAUSE PAIN. When you reach the natural end of the muscle and it is on a full stretch, you can hold this position for about 10 to 15 seconds and repeat the stretch and hold about 5 times.
Ultimately, the key message is to:
- Get your spine and body in a good position
- Make the instrument suit your good body position and posture, not the other way around.
Any adjustment you make will feed strange initially. To fissure out whether this strangeness is good or bad, think about the aches and pains you had before the adjustment, and then think about whether THOSE aches and pains have reduced and gone away. If your original problem is reduced or gone, then the strangeness should settle very quickly and is most likely to be muscles getting used to a slightly different way of working of pulling.
Developing self-awareness is a crucial first step in listening to how your body works. Take the time to STOP and DO NOTHING for at least a few minutes every day. In this way, tension or muscular strain can be noticed before it causes any further problems.
If the music is new, or you don’t know your fellow musicians, or this performance is particularly stressful (e.g. for a competition or an exam), then it is likely that you will feel more
stressed and this in turn will make your muscles tense up and increase the risk of injury. In a stressful situation, try and calm your mind and muscles by rehearsing your performance in your head beforehand. This can help the muscles learn what is expected and this ‘mental rehearsing’ is a technique used very successfully by many performers such as athletes, musicians, public speakers etc. Make sure you are warm (but not too hot), have eaten properly, and have time to get accustomed to the environment and those around you. Many professional musicians have an exercise routine they go through prior to a performance. This enables them to do a quick check of all their joints and muscles and they then have confidence in the ability of the body to do the performance. It also gives the muscles a chance to warm-up and get ready for playing. By carrying out some stretches and exercises before playing, the muscles get ready to play. The chances of injury are higher if the muscles and joints are not well-prepared and are asked to play difficult or fast music without a warm-up or in cold and/or cramped conditions.
There are some short-term aids such as a heat pack over the area, massage and stretching exercises which can help ease the muscle immediately after playing. Take frequent RESTS. If you know that you are likely to develop an ache or a pain after an hour of playing, can you take a break at 45 minutes to give your muscles and joints time to rest BEFORE they start complaining? Perhaps you don’t have to play EVERY tune? Sometimes listening can be useful AND give your playing muscles a rest at the same time.
STOP playing and become AWARE of your posture and environment. Check your posture:
- Am I sitting so that my knees are lower than my hips?
- Is my back twisted to the right or left?
- Are my shoulders rounded or braced back?
- Is my chin forward over my legs, or back over my chest?
- Are my shoulders level or is one higher (nearer my ear) than the other?
- Does my posture change over the length of a playing session?
If you notice, during or after playing, that your pain is appearing or worsening, first of all think about the check-list above. Addressing the issues on the check-list should really help in the long-term (see below); however, it takes perseverance and patience and you should allow about 3 months for new postures etc. to feel comfortable.
To address problems in a long-term way, it is likely that you will need to change the way you are playing. Your current way of playing is causing problems and this needs to be addressed in order to get to the root of the problem. First of all, think about the check-list, and see which of the points you need to address. There are some tips below. If none of these help, then you may need to seek more expert help.
Tips for correct sitting posture
The change that often helps the most, is to help your back keep a good posture by changing:
- the tilt of the chair
- adding a cushion to sit on
- putting a small cushion behind the back.
This changes the amount of work that the smaller neck and arm muscles need to do, so they are less likely to get injured.
Tips for head and neck
First of all, make sure your back is corrected as this is fundamental to everything from your back to your head and arm. If one ear is closer to your shoulder than the other:
- lower your shoulder
- lift your head so your neck is straight, and not tilted to one side or the other, and not bent forwards.
Can you play in this position? If so, great. This may work well for flute players, and musicians who hold their instrument in their lap (e.g. Accordion players, concertina players, bodhran players).
If you cannot play in this position (perhaps you’re a fiddle player, and need to hold the fiddle with your chin/jaw against your shoulder), then you may need to put something under the instrument in order to bring it up to your jaw so as to avoid your head tilting down to the instrument, or your shoulder rising up too high. There are many different items on the market. Try using a folded scarf initially, and try scarves of different thicknesses (silk, wool etc.) to get an idea of what height of a pad or rest you might need. Some people manage very well with a folded square of fabric, others prefer an adjustable shoulder rest that clips on to the fiddle. It is worth trying out a variety of these to get the one that suits you the most. It is also essential, should you choose to use such a support, that you adjust it to properly fit yourself and your instrument.
Tips for rounded shoulders
First of all, make sure your back is corrected as this is fundamental to everything from your back to your head and arm. If your shoulders are rounded and curved forwards as in a hug, then:
- brace them back making sure to keep your shoulder blades down and your neck nice and long.
It probably feels weird, but bear with it for a bit. Can you play in this position? If so, great. It will take time for your muscles to get used to this, but keeping your head over your shoulders, rather than bent and forward, will help. If you cannot play, then try bringing the instrument up towards your shoulders, rather than allowing your shoulders bend and slouch towards the instrument. Perhaps a small pillow or folded scarf will make all the difference. Try different sizes to see what suits best.
SAFE TRAD: AFTER PLAY
The time spent playing your instrument is NOT the problem. What you do need to consider is doing something different to balance this out when you are not playing. Get out of your playing position and do the exact opposite – so stand up and move if you were sitting, stretch out your whole body if you were bent over your instrument).
People are designed to move. However, we know that in order to play and to play well, we need to spend prolonged periods in relatively static positions, at practice, The best playing position is that in which you are most comfortable and that which allows you to play at your personal best. Some trade-off will be needed, so make sure to allocate time after playing to counter-balance your playing position.
Exercise is key. Any form of aerobic exercise is worthwhile (150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week is recommended*)
Have you tried strength training to increase muscle capacity?
Other lifestyle guidelines to consider:
- Getting adequate sleep
- Managing stress (including performance anxiety)
- Looking after your mental health
- Developing good nutrition habits
*American College of Sport Medicine (www.acsm.org)
Have you tried an ice pack over the affect area? Massage? Stretching exercises?
Remember to take regular breaks when playing – set that clock to remind yourself.
Long term management
awareness is a crucial first step in listening to how your body works. Most aches and pains will go away after a short time, whenever the stress is removed. If, however, the stress is repeated over and over again, then more long-term problems can occur. The first step is always to try and see whether you can reduce the problem yourself, and this website has some handy tips. If you think you need some extra help, then there are a variety of health professionals who can guide you.
Who to See?
Physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths, along with certain trained individuals such as Alexander technique, yoga and Pilates experts, all have the ability to address muscle issues such as pain, shortening, weakness, trigger points etc. and alignment issues such as posture correction. They do this in different ways, and some may suit you better than others. Massage therapists can help with muscle pains and trigger points. When you make an appointment, see if the person has treated a musician before. If the health professional has an understanding of the lifestyle and pressures associated with being a musician, they are likely to be particularly helpful. Doctors and pharmacists can also play a role. Pharmacists can recommend suitable medication and topical gels and creams that can be massaged into the painful area. Doctors can prescribe medications and can refer you to specialists as they deem necessary.