Short-term management – What to do when you notice pain
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 the 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 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 (see Who To See).
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 (see Tips for correct sitting posture) 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.
Tips for rounded shoulders
First of all, make sure your back is corrected (see Tips for correct sitting posture) 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.
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 ison 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 round
Any adjustment you make will feel strange initially. To figure 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 or 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 or 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.