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 (see Muscle Injury; Tensegrity).
How to Recognise Aches and Pains (see Muscle Injury)
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 (see WHAT TO DO).
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 (see Tensegrity). 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.
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 (see tips for correct sitting) 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).
If the music is new, or you don’t know your fellow musicians, or this performance is in fact an audition for a recording contract/gig etc., 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.