Today I am having an operation on my shoulder. It is a subacromial decompression (or acromioplasty) to relieve the impingement that has caused me pain and greatly restricted movement for the past twelve months. When I first visited the physiotherapist he was not the least surprised to hear I was a pianist and piano teacher. He said shoulder injuries are not uncommon in our profession. So that started me thinking about how as creatives, we often don’t adequately look after the physical side of things.
Back up straight, feet flat on the floor, arms at right angles, hands high, fingers curved. We have all heard those instructions many times. Good teachers will establish correct posture at the first lesson and will continue to reinforce it. But we tend to think this is solely for better technique and ease of playing and forget that it also serves to protect our bodies.
Playing the piano is not just a mind-finger-piano activity. It is an holistic experience that incorporates our whole body (along with our mind, spirit and emotions), so we need to look after our body not only to harmonise all these aspects but also to compensate for the hours we spend sitting at our instrument.
As musicians, we use a vast array of muscles to play an instrument, but rarely are we encouraged to exercise these muscles. Hundreds of muscles in our body work together to help achieve the nice tone we produce. The reasons why our arms, hands and fingers are important are the most obvious, but we also rely on other areas. For example, our hips affect how we sit and need to move freely to support our torso as we reach up and down the keyboard.
In not considering the physical strain we are placing on our bodies, we instead tend to abuse them. We lean forward, hunching our shoulders, to peer at the music (particularly when concentrating on a troublesome passage), which causes the back to ache and places undue pressure on the shoulders. We sit in the one place for too long without moving, or we sit incorrectly, creating problems in the back, hips and thighs. The tension of concentrating can create stiffness in the wrists and hands.
So what do we do about this? We need to be aware of the quality of our movement. Are our movements tense or free? Awkward or smooth? Are we at the keyboard in a position where our muscles and ligaments are working for us or working against us? We can train for a better quality of movement by training attention and awareness.
Stretching and exercise are vitally important. Just as an athlete stretches and prepares before and after exercises, so should musicians before and after playing. Significantly, stretching can prevent injury. However, it also helps to strengthen the muscles and if done regularly, can also slightly lengthen them, which leads to them becoming more efficient. Long hours of practise can also cause tension in the muscles, which stretching will help to release.
Muscles that work better are more effectively prepared to perform, so by stretching and exercising, you can more quickly develop skills and move forward. The new-found balance you feel will inevitably reflect in the quality of your performance.
Tara Davidson from All Better Bodies is a stretch specialist and a massage therapist, so she understands the body and how keeping it in top physical shape can affect all areas of our lives. This includes being supple and flexible in the areas that are affected by and used to play the piano.
Stretch classes are run by Tara twice a week in Toronto, NSW; Tuesday mornings (9.15-10.00am) and Thursday nights (6.15-7.15pm). Be sure to ‘like’ her page – All Better Bodies – for more information and ongoing help with health, fitness and nutrition.
Tara has devised and recorded a short stretching routine that is great for any pianist to run through before sitting down at the piano. Give it a try!
If you are considering music lessons for your child or for yourself, please contact me to discuss the options. Piano lessons are conducted at my studio in Wallsend, NSW.