Don’t Hurt Yourself!

by Leon Waters, March 23, 2015

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Few things bring as much pleasure, comfort, and joy as playing music does. Whether you’re holding down a beat, dealing out a spicy solo, providing background accompaniment or taking the lead as the star of the show, there’s plenty of fun to be had. When playing music, we can get lost in something bigger than ourselves and never want it to end.

If music making is one big party (and when done right, it is), injuries are the smelly, dirty, cantankerous killjoys hell-bent on spoiling it all. Tendonitis, tinnitus, carpal tunnel syndrome, pulled and strained muscles, and even hearing loss can stop you in your tracks like nothing else. Whatever stage you’re at on your journey through the world of music, injuries can strike at any time. Injuries do not discriminate between beginners and experts.

Nobody likes injuries. We all want to keep them at bay for as long as possible, and keep the party going on far into the future. In this post, we’re going to help you keep practicing, performing, and rocking out without being forced to sit on the sidelines.

Before we get started, it’s important to acknowledge that sometimes, discomfort is part of the deal when learning to play music – especially if you’re a beginner. For instance, if you pick up an electric guitar for the first time, you’re going to quickly find those unforgiving steel strings taking their toll on your  fingertips. Over time, calluses will develop and any discomfort you initially felt will slowly recede, eventually becoming a distant memory.

It’s when discomfort gives way to pain that things get bad.

Let’s go through a simple exercise that will help you become aware of any potential problems. Lie down on the floor, or on your bed, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing – and nothing else – until your body slowly begins to relax. Next, turn your attention away from the breath and onto other parts of the body.

Start with your toes. If you play sitting down – at the keyboard, for instance – you might be curling your toes without realising it, causing a lot of tension in your feet. If this is the case, you’ll know about it pretty quickly; try imagining your breath running down from your nostrils into the feet, and carrying that tension away as the breath moves out of the body again. Focus on this as single-mindedly as you can, as an experiment, and see if it helps.

Next, move your attention from one body part to the next. Try moving it – slowly – from one toe to the next, into the soles of the feet, then the tops of the feet, the heel, and the ankles. You never know where tension and discomfort might be hiding! Perhaps you tap or stomp one foot as you play, shifting your weight onto the other leg – and as you continue with this exercise you’re likely to experience the physical consequences first-hand! If you notice any discomfort or tension, just introduce the breath to that area and watch it all leave, just as you did before.

Move your attention through your legs. Feel the calf, with the muscles at the back and the bone at the front, the knees and the knee joint, and the thighs. Feel your pelvis and hips; your stomach and lower back; your chest and upper back. If you hunch over your instrument, these parts will have taken some serious punishment – especially your back!

Pay special attention to the back muscles and, as your attention moves higher, the shoulders. You will be surprised how much tension gets lodged in the shoulders! The shoulders especially are veritable reservoirs of stress and tension. If you’re a guitarist or bass player, think about how much stress your shoulders are put under as they deal with the weight of your instrument and the positioning of its strap, as well as the way it moves around as you play. If you’re a vocalist, think about the way you position your shoulders as you hold that microphone and belt your heart out.

After the shoulders, move your attention into the arms. First, focus on the point where your shoulders meet your arms. Feel the joint; maybe flex it, and see how much movement it is capable of. Try standing up, letting your arms dangle by your sides, and feel their weight. Consider how much strength is needed just to lift them!

If you’re a drummer, your arms may well be feeling the strain of endless practice sessions, rudiments, and general skin beating. There might be a lot of fatigue in the upper arms, forearms, wrists, hands, and even fingers. Whatever your chosen instrument, let your attention continue down the upper arms to the elbow, feel the hinged joint of the elbow, and pass into the forearms, wrists, and hands.

For most musicians, this is where all the magic happens! The hands are key to almost everything in music – although as players such as the one-handed guitarist John Denner have proven, they aren’t always as necessary as we might expect. If you’re lucky enough to have your full complement of hands and fingers, pay your respects by paying extremely close attention to them now.

For guitarists, tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome can be terrifying, as legendary neoclassical shredder Yngwie Malmsteen and Incubus guitarist Mike Einziger have found out first-hand. Whatever your instrument, if your hands or fingers are painful, weak, numb, or swollen – or you experience pins and needles or any other kind of discomfort that concerns you – take a brief break from playing and consult your doctor immediately. Ignoring even the earliest symptoms of a serious problem will only ever end badly. Without appropriate treatment, you’ll be in even bigger trouble when the condition becomes more severe.

To complete the body scan exercise, head to the head. Pay attention to your neck, especially if you play in a metal band – all that headbanging can cause a lot of issues if you don’t take the time to stretch your neck between Kerry King impressions! Again, look for and respect any discomfort or tension, and if you feel worried about what you find, talk to a medical professional. Don’t Google your symptoms – talk to a doctor.

Feel the muscles and bones that make up your face. If you sing, your jaw might be sore. Pay attention to your lips, cheeks, tongue, throat, your eyes and the area around the eyes, your temples, the eyebrows, the forehead (another tension hotspot), and the cranium. Like the shoulders, you will most likely find a lot of tension in at least some of these areas. If you do, breathe in, imagine the breath permeating the affected area, and breathe out again, imagining that tension leaving the body through the breath.

Finally, find a quiet place to sit in peace, and just listen. If you hear a ringing in your ears (even occasionally), or a roaring, buzzing, hissing, or whizzing noise – or any other kind of odd noise that isn’t coming from the outside world – consult a medical professional immediately. These are all potential symptoms of tinnitus – something no musician wants to experience.

Again, this cannot be stressed enough: If you experience absolutely any worrying symptoms, consult your doctor immediately. Seeking medical advice from Google can be worse than useless; it can be extremely dangerous! Always get the opinion of a qualified and experienced medical professional before doing anything else.

In our next post, we’re going to look at ways to prevent worrying symptoms and crippling problems from occurring in the first place. See you then!

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