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Pain and injury related to playing a musical instrument like the violin, viola, or cello, or general pain and tension that makes practicing and performing difficult, can be common. Trying to find answers and relief, especially on a musician's budget, can be frustrating and exhausting. My heart breaks to hear of older colleagues having to give up playing or endure costly surgeries without guarantee that the issue will be resolved. Some push through on pain killers and cortisone shots. Others cut back on their activities, lamenting about how they used to be able to play for hours without getting sore and having to take breaks. Some make changes to their lifestyle, but miss the days when they didn't have to exercise regularly, or watch what they ate or drank, or think about their sleep habits. Many long for times when they didn't pay much attention to their posture, yet never felt stiff or achy.
Even though we could do all these things at one point, the issue may not be that we're getting older. Physical playing challenges can happen at any age, and I was inspired to consider this question after seeing a forum post from a 20-something adult beginner. He was wrestling with whether he should put his dreams of playing a musical instrument aside due to pain, or if he should try to push through. He wondered if pain is normal for violinists and something we learn to live with, or if anyone could share the secrets to avoiding it.
It's important to consider whether we're doing all we can to set ourselves up for playing health and longevity from the start. For those of us who are teachers, despite our best efforts to teach proper technique, inevitably, a student will come along who struggles with pain. We spend so much time focusing on how to play music well, and we'd do well to educate ourselves about the health of the body, mind, and spirit that plays our instrument too. Before we actually experience pain or an injury is when we have the chance to make the most difference.
In trying to answer these questions for myself and to help others, I started exploring various movement disciplines and therapies as a teen. In my early 20s I became certified in massage therapy, accupressure, and Trigger Point Therapy, Anusara Yoga, Clinical Hypnotherapy, and Level 3 Acutonics, and have enjoyed experiencing and learning about a variety of additional mind-body healing modalities, including Foundation Training, the Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais, Yoga Nidra and various meditation styles, Neuro-linguistic Programming, EDGU, Qi-Gong, and nutrition. I've appreciated the unique, though complementary ways each modality approaches many of the same questions and problems. Gathering a toolbox of techniques to help myself and my students feel better in our bodies over the years, as well as musician and non-musician clients, has been empowering. However, while improvements can be felt relatively quickly, permanent relief takes time, playing and lifestyle changes, and systemic approaches.
While we can be quick to assume that pain is the result of a specific event (lifting something heavy, bending over in the wrong way, practicing too intensely, or just getting older), pain and injury is often the result of a longer build-up of tensions and habits, over or under-use patterns in the body, creating muscle imbalances, stress, and inflammation. Eventually the body pipes up. Instead of thinking about pain as an end point, it's helpful to recognize it as the body's signal, usually proceeded by a string of more subtle cues, that we need to change our approach. Something is asking for our attention.
There's an intimacy between our body, our mind, and our environment. While we like to separate them, is that even possible? Can a body function without a nervous system, or a brain without a body? To even have the desire to divorce ourselves from a culture or belief system that doesn't suit us, don't we first have to recognize that we're steeped in it? How we perceive our world and our place in it informs our experience, our choices, and the way we think about and move through life. Though much of our conditioning happened before we could remember and learn to make conscious choices, the brain is always remodeling. Neurogenesis is happening every day throughout our lifespan, so there is no reason to believe that we can't change a movement habit or rework a belief system.
While it might seem "new age" to some, there is often a mental/emotional component of discomfort and pain. While we shouldn't assume we can just think ourselves into feeling better, I have seen relief in myself and in some of my students from simply acknowledging pain's message, so to speak - the need to slow down, or let go, or take charge, or speak up, or change course. Who would have thought that we could actually find physical benefit from "befriending" our pain, listening to what it wants to tell us, and discovering how it wants us change how we move through life? Again, these parts of ourselves are intertwined.
I've noticed that beliefs about health and aging, also largely conditioned through family or society before we have a chance to make that choice, also plays a role in our physical experience. Even among my healthy-lifestyle-minded California friends, comments like "well, I am getting older" can readily sneak into conversation. Society seems to assume that pain and decreased mobility are inevitable in the process of aging. This in turn may lead some to not seek help as readily or enthusiastically, decreasing the chance for full recovery. As much as we'd love to feel young again, we may not think that's possible.
Thankfully, we can find plentiful examples of older people living life to the fullest. American violinist and conductor Ed Simmons conducted right up to his death at 101, while violinist Issac Stern can be seen performing at Carnegie Hall in the video below just a few months before his passing at age 81.
If only we could have, at any age, the deft command of our instrument and acute musical interpretation he exhibits!
A few years ago I learned about Tao Porchon-Lynch, the world's oldest yoga teacher. Here she is sitting in full lotus at 95 and sharing her wisdom in a TED Talk:
We might assume that certain people are simply blessed with better genes, grace, or luck, but Wikipedia gives us some fairly long lists of musicians and conductors who passed away while performing on stage. While some died of sudden heart attacks at fairly young ages, the fact that any of them could keep up a rigorous practice, rehearsal, and performance schedule right up to the end, should give any of us holding beliefs that it's normal to feel pain every day after age 30, or to start slowing down after 40 or 45, or to be stiff with arthritis by our 50s or 60s, great pause. While unproven, some researchers now suggest that the natural lifespan for humans may actually be between 120 and 150 years! If this is true, then as much as dying in our 60s, 70s, or 80s may be abnormally young, it should be quite unusual to spend much of that life in pain. And yet, pain, tension, stiffness, and lack of mobility are rampant.
Thankfully, even when pain does pop up, it doesn't have to mean the end of our playing. But where does one start the process of finding the cause, unraveling the old habits, and getting back to a feeling of ease and joy?
Pain sleuthing starts with basic questions: Where do you feel pain and when did it start? We sometimes forget to actually answer these questions when we're uncomfortable and understandably just want to focus on finding relief as quickly as possible. Most of the time, a student or musician arrives with pain they noticed fairly recently, though once we start digging we often become aware of a gradual build-up of tension and a constriction of motion over many months or years.
For the quickest relief we often start by looking at the specific pain pattern and identifying any trigger points - highly innervated bundles of muscle fibers, called sarcomeres, that become knotted up, holding a sustained, inappropriate contraction rather than sliding past one another as they would normally contract and relax. These points can be quite painful when we find them, but they are not always in the places we might expect, and can refer pain to seemingly unrelated areas of the body. Once we discover key trigger points, we can start to piece together the muscle imbalances and over or under-use patterns that might be contributing to them. Even if temporary, we can usually find relief through targeted movements and self massage within just a few minutes once we find the right spots. I highly recommend The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook to anyone who wants to get ahead of their tension and pain.
To enjoy more lasting relief we often must look deeper into playing and lifestyle habits. We should consider whether anything about our playing, practice, or instrument has changed recently? Are we practicing more difficult material? Practicing for longer periods of time? Are we preparing for a performance or audition that might be stressful? Trying to boost our playing speed? Learning a new technique? Practicing a lot of double stops? Have we changed string gauge, tried a new chin or shoulder rest, or have we switched to a new instrument entirely, perhaps with different action than we're used to?
We run down the list of playing related elements, from instrument and bow hold, to posture and technique. We look at where the student might be using force verses weight, and muscling through rather than using natural balances and mechanics.
A few years ago a young violinist contacted me about neck pain. It had gotten worse all through her teen years, to the point where she could barely practice. She'd taken most of the previous year off from playing and had contacted me as a final effort to see if anything could be done. We got on a video call and I had her show me her violin hold and posture. I noticed her tall shoulder rest setting, yet how far she still had to lower her head to meet her chin rest. I had her grab a tape measure and instructed her about how to measure her neck length. Sure enough, her neck was extremely long, far beyond the point where I would recommend a lifted chin rest. Her chin rest was also a typical Strad which doesn't suit most of us, despite being the chin rest included on almost every violin you can buy. Between her long neck, heart shaped face, and well defined jaw-line, her neck had to twist down to reach her chin rest and clamp to hold the instrument there. Our immediate steps were obvious. We theorized that as she'd physically outgrown her setup as a teen, she'd also encountered harder repertoire and more demanding performance situations, creating a dangerous mix of poor posture, tension, and stress.
Troubleshooting pain and tension often continues with talking about non-playing related activities, including exercise, hydration, sleep, and nutrition. We must consider whether something has happened in daily life, like a new workout or carrying around a new baby, or an event, like lifting or reaching for something that may have caused a strain? A couple of years ago a student was sure that her pain was violin practice related until we recognized that a major gardening project which involved hauling around dozens of heavy bags of manure was a likely contributor, if not the cause. Either way, a couple of trigger points in the latissimus dorsi had been set off, referring pain all the way down into her forearms and pinkie fingers. For another student, it was an extended camping trip that involved sleeping on an uncomfortable mat for many nights that caused tension and trigger points that only got more irritated when trying to practice for more than 15 minutes.
Depending on our findings as we go down the list, we may need to experiment with our instrument setup, re-think practice habits, rework technique, change something about how we sit, stand, or move through our day, prioritize sleep or better nutrition, or consider implementing some stress management tools, such as Yoga Nidra, Hypnotherapy, or meditation, into our daily routine.
A few months ago, I noticed that a strange skin crawling sensation had been developing in my left upper back, usually coming on towards the end of my teaching days. Though I didn't seem to notice it after practicing or at other times, I was of course concerned that it was playing related and dreaded the fact that I might just be getting older. I tried adjusting my chin and shoulder rests and my instrument angle. I looked for trigger points and ramped up my upper body exercises and stretches. I watched my playing posture for clues, and tried to mix up my movements more frequently throughout the day. Finally, I remembered that I had experienced a similar feeling in the same area several years ago during a time of extensive touring. Rather than connected to all the performing I was doing or all the nights spent sleeping in strange beds, I had discovered that it was caused by leaning my left arm against the door while driving, often for many hours a day. I stopped doing that and the feeling soon went away. Remembering this, I started noticing myself leaning my left elbow against my desk for periods of time as I worked with my online students. I started catching myself in the moment, substituted more healthy, supportive postures, and within a week or two, the feeling was gone once again.
Remember, pain is simply the body telling us to do what we’ve been doing differently. It's not random, and it's certainly not our body "failing us" or "just getting older." We can trace pain back to tension in our playing technique, tension from general stress, from postural issues, or something not directly related to playing, but that might be further aggravated by it, such as holding static postures for too long, or with an injury or overuse situation. Something as simple, yet as far reaching as a deficiency in magnesium, vitamin D, or omega-3 fatty acids, as well as dehydration, can also contribute to joint pain and muscle tension. Futhermore, a decrease in the body's natural enzymes, used to not only break down and absorb the nutrients in our food, but to build, maintain, and repair every cell in the body and clean cellular waste from the blood, can result in a build up of inflammation and pain. While prescription medications can sometimes be necessary, America's current level of opioid addiction suggests it would be cogent to try a range of simple, safe, side-effect free options first.
If a student comes to me in pain, even if we do need to make some adjustments to playing technique, targeted exercises and/or massage techniques away from the instrument are often crucial in resetting the system. A story that always sticks with me was that of an older violin student who worked a desk job. Despite having seen a massage therapist every week for years, his pain seemed to be getting worse, especially while practicing. We explored many elements of his technique and instrument setup, but discovered that it was his tight pectoral muscles and weak trapezius/upper back muscles from too much hunching over the computer. Armed with simple, equipment-free exercises he could do during his daily walk, and a new awareness of the importance of posture and changing positions more frequently at work, he was able to re-awaken and strengthen his upper and mid back and was completely out of pain within a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, once he felt relief, like most of us, he returned to his old habits. Six months later he brought up the issue again in a lesson. When I asked him if he'd been keeping up with the exercises, he embarrassingly admitted that he'd felt so much better he'd completely forgotten about them and the changes he'd made at work. For a change to be permanent, we have to make a permanent change in our habits and lifestyle.
In "The Brain’s Way of Healing: Stories of Remarkable Recoveries and Discoveries" author Norman Doidge examines the principles of The Feldenkrais Method, a somatic education approach developed by Ukrainian-Israeli engineer and physicist Moshe Feldenkrais in the 1940s-50s, in effort to rehabilitate a chronic knee injury. Even without knowing anything about Feldenkrais, these principles can be a nice starting point, reorienting our approach towards movement and learning, empowering us towards better practice and performance, and fostering more natural movement patterns and ease.
The principles are: 1. The mind programs the functioning of the brain: Essentially, each person is born with a brain that must be wired to suit his or her environment, needs, and desires. In 1981, Feldenkrais wrote, "The mind gradually develops and begins to program the functioning of the brain. My way of looking at the mind and body involves a subtle method of rewiring the structure of the entire human being to be functionally well integrated, which means being able to do what the individual wants. Each individual has the choice to wire himself in a special way."
2. A brain cannot think without motor function: The mind and the body are intimately connected. Thought triggers feelings and sensations, and movement or posture changes, even if subtle. Not so subtle might be the universally deflated look of someone who is sad, or the tension and clench fists or someone who is angry.
3. Awareness of movement is the key to improving movement: This one is a particularly useful reminder to not just "go through the motions," expecting our desired results to stick. If we want to move better, whether that's around our instrument, or in daily life, we need to become intimately involved in the process.
4. Differentiation - making the smallest possible sensory distinctions between movements - builds brain maps: Secure shifting and developing good intonation are great examples of how mapping movements and sensations are key to improving our results. No lasting security will come from simply reading the notes on the page and flailing around until we randomly hit the right ones. We need to create a detailed mental image of everything involved - especially the mental sound of each note, and including not just the orientation of the fingertips, but a fingertip to the rest of the hand, arm, shoulder, and body, and where and how the body touches different parts of the instrument.
For most of us, certain areas of the body, like our dominant hand, may be well-mapped, while other parts take considerable effort to focus on. Many times during our musical instrument study we may be asked to engage a muscle or move in a way that we realize we may never have thought about before. It may take considerable effort and we may even feel that making the movement is impossible, like no wiring that can consciously move that muscle or joint in that way even exists in our bodies. For many of us, some body areas may only come into our awareness because of pain.
5. Differentiation is easiest to make when the stimulus is smallest: Imagine your experience walking in shoes versus barefoot. While shoes might be considered more comfortable to most, at least outdoors, it's only because they provide a mostly consistent and "cushy" experience. Barefoot we feel every nuance of the earth - the warm sand or dew kissed grass, but also the sharp rocks and thorns. In shoes, we can sense the shoe itself and a change in the firmness of the surface we're standing on, but our awareness doesn't extend much further. In shoes, our feet exist as a general feeling, rather than a very specific feeling that changes with each step when walking barefoot. We could write at least a paragraph about our experience going barefoot, but maybe only a sentence or two about walking in shoes.
When working with string students on the left hand, particularly when tension and pain patterns are hindering easy, fluid movements, I love watching the breakthrough that often comes through sharing the following exercise exploring changing fingertip pressure: Starting with featherlight placement on any note, though one of the natural harmonics works nicely as a starting point, I'll have the student play a few strokes and very gradually increase the pressure, just up to the point where the airy or raspy type sounds become a full, fundamental pitch. Everyone to date has finished this exercise in shock and the realization that we all can exert far less pressure on our strings than we ever thought. While more pressure can still play a pitch, just a bit less creates a note with the added dimension and resonance of overtones and undertones that largely disappear if we "squash" the sound under heavy fingers.
6. Slowness of movement is the key to awareness, and awareness is the key to learning: When we move quickly we can't possibly focus on all the details of that motion, and may even involve more muscles than necessary. When bowing, many of us unconsciously raise our right shoulder. While there are shoulder muscles involved in bowing, particularly to help us hold up the bow and when playing at the frog, the top of our shoulders don't need to elevate, unless for violinists and violists we are using a very high shoulder rest and trying to play on the lowest strings, or for cellists, we are playing on the highest strings and sitting with the cello parallel to our body rather than angled to the right, both of which are undesirable. At first we need to move as slowly as needed to become aware of all the vibrant details.
7. Reduce the effort whenever possible: We should never force a movement, or push through pain. Especially when playing a bowed stringed instrument, technique should work with your body's natural mechanics. There will be times when a motion needs to be quick and decisive, but all too often we add tension in effort to accomplish it. A common example might be vibrato. We try to force the movement through tensing up and "shivering" our hand or arm. With vibrato and in other areas of our playing and life, we can learn to move quickly without any force at all.
For example, raise your arms out to your sides at shoulder height. Now lower them, but take at least a minute for them to reach your sides. To the observer it might look like you aren't even moving unless they blink or look away a few times. Along the way, notice all the tiny micro movements. You might feel tensions coming and going. Breathe deeply and soften into the gradual decent. It might be very difficult to stay focused on the sensations. It might even appear that you can't feel anything at some point and your mind may wander off. Once you've reached your sides, notice how much more aware you are of your arms, perhaps similar to how aware you are of your feet after walking barefoot outside.
Now, raise your arms again, and after holding them for a moment, let them drop quickly to your sides. Let gravity completely take them. Notice how we give the arms the signal that it's okay to drop, we let go, and everything else flows without our conscious awareness until we feel and hear our hands slap on our thighs. All the little muscles that were necessary to hold up and stabilize our arms for the slow decent are no longer needed. Even our mental effort is reduced. We can let our arms fall so easily because it's a natural movement and we know it's safe to do this, a feeling of security that's only possible with experience. We learn to stand before we can walk, and we walk before we can run.
9. Errors are essential, and there is no right way to move, only better ways: We can calibrate our movements, gain skill on our instrument, and overcome unhealthy patterns through exploration. With exploration comes error. Learn to embrace it. Lean into it. Without it we wouldn't be compelled to make a change. Studies show that on the edge of error is where synapses fire and our brains have the chance to grow.
I've mentioned it before in the Violin Geek Podcast and here on the blog, but I think I learned the most about bowing technique through my preparation for the troubleshooting video in my Strings magazine guide "Improve Your Bowing Technique." Rather than the tone, bowing technique, martelé and spiccato I was practicing for all the other videos, I suddenly had to spend some time making horrible sounds, consciously practicing mistakes in order to be ready to go into the recording session and demo them on the spot. I'd never tried to make all those squeaks and scratches before. Sure, I'd heard them by accident, but in knowing and feeling exactly how I could make them, under countless different circumstances, I become even more sensitized to how I could better produce all the sounds I did want to make.
If something doesn't feel right, whether it's a violin technique or pain in your body, keep moving towards what feels better. Be curious and recalibrate frequently. There are no one-size-fits-all prescriptions.
10. Random movements provide variation that leads to developmental breakthroughs: I've always considered my practice room and teaching studio a laboratory and it's interesting to explore the unique potential of each person who comes my way. We can easily get into a rut with our movement patterns, just as we can with our thoughts, leading us to assume, especially when things aren't going so well, that if we just practice longer and harder we'll somehow push through and reach our goal. The fact that we can describe a certain posture or way of playing that's particular to a certain person, demonstrates how varied getting to that goal actually is.
I remember being a teenager, standing in front of the bathroom mirror one day while I practiced. I loved the concert-hall acoustics and it helped me check my posture and technique. I decided to try imagining I was one of the violinists I admired, like Anne-Sophie Mutter or Sarah Chang. Mimicking their stance, technical approach, vibrato style, bow hold, etc. I could feel and hear my playing change. I didn't become them or sound exactly like them, but I felt more confident in trying their confidence on for size, and I learned something about myself and my own playing - it and I am not static. Just because we are used to doing something one way doesn't mean there isn't room for experimentation, deeper learning, and greater awareness.
11. Even the smallest movement in one part of the body involves the entire body: The nervous system connects our entire body. While we might move a finger, just the thought of making that movement involves our whole body and mind. That thought is connected to a feeling, sensation, or desire. Maybe it's that we want to flick away the fly we felt land on our finger, or move to a new note on the fingerboard. Also very tangible is the fact that we have fascia, a thin sheath of connective tissue, surrounding every organ, blood vessel, bone, nerve fiber, and muscle. Especially when it comes to relieving pain, or feeling more connected and inspired by the music we're creating, recognize that physically, mentally, and emotionally, everything is connected. If we want to move better, play better, or get out of pain, our approach needs to be holistic.
12. Many movement problems, and the pain that goes with them, are caused by learned habit, not by abnormal structure: In the end, our Feldenkrais principles return us to the beginning. The mind and body are not separate organisms. If we discover that our sore back is caused by poor posture, or our pain is caused by gripping the neck of our instrument too tightly for too long, we can employ our most versatile and precious tool, the mind, to unravel the habit and create a new one. Of course, the mind is not always easy to wrangle, and congenital issues and accidents do occur, causing challenges we may feel we have no control over. Still, we can always make choices towards a healthier way of moving through and being in the world, one day at a time.
As the second Feldenkrais principle states: A brain cannot think without motor function. We've all felt how stress leads quickly to tension in the body - we feel that something or someone we're dealing with is a "pain in the neck," or we feel that our anxiety is making our shoulders hike up to our ears. Pain often follows. Though stress may not be the complete cause of pain, it is usually a major player. In my experience, it's much more common for a student to injure herself while preparing for something big - practicing for an audition or competition, spending long hours at the computer typing out her dissertation, but only if she's nervous about the outcome and feels pressed for time. With anxiety she's more apt to use her body inefficiently and unnaturally, to use too much force and effort, or to stay in the same posture for too long. Sometimes, pain can be an almost welcome reason to stop, sometimes permanently, after so much stress has sucked the joy out of the pursuit anyway.
In these circumstances it would be ideal if we could step back, examine where our stress is coming from, and re-orient with tools to help us more effectively deal with deadlines and the need to prepare and perform well. The stress itself isn't the problem - there are plenty of people who enjoy the rush of a challenge, the feeling of accomplishment after pushing their body and mind to the edge. Some may even play better in front of an audience or jury than in the comfort of their bedroom. Sometimes, just considering that it's possible to have a different experience with something we may have previously thought of as stressful can be enough to start the change towards a healthier way of moving through life.
While people experiencing serious anxiety, stress, and depression should seek professional help, I'm always reminded of studies that suggest that the simple act of smiling, as well as laughing and exercising, releases endorphins that help people feel happier and more relaxed. It's no wonder that we feel so stressed, when modern life has us staring at computer screens all day for school or work, doomscrolling social media and news articles as we slump with our devices once we get home, and furrowing our brows as we try to squeeze in some practice time on our instruments. How much of us ever take the time to smile, just for the sake of smiling? Perhaps this was the meaning behind the old saying to "grin and bear it"? Life, including the most difficult passages in our pieces, doesn't seem quite so bad with a smile, even if we have to fake it.
It's reasonable to consider that many of the pain patterns that plague society - back pain, neck pain, hip and knee pain, carpal tunnel, and frozen shoulders, may stem from simply losing our natural attunement to our bodies' needs. I had a menagerie of pet birds growing up and was amazed to notice that all birds seem to have a standard stretching routine, instinctively built in, which they practice several times a day. Often after preening their feathers, birds will stand on one leg and extend the opposite wing and foot behind them. They'll take this arabesque to the other side, moving slowly and savoring the moment. Then they'll raise what we might consider their shoulders up behind them while bobbing their head forward and down. The later looks like a swift chiropractic adjustment. They sometimes leave it there, or finish with a full body fluff of the feathers, a coordinated shaking that spirals up their body, reordering their feathers and likely wringing out tensions from tail to beak. It's not a coincidence that the yoga and Qi-Gong traditions have named many of their postures and exercises after animals, from "Downward Facing Dog" and "Cat-Cow," to "Phoenix Washes its Feathers" and "Constant Bear." Animals know how to move in ways that are natural and healthy for their anatomy, and take time each day stretching and shaking their bodies to release tension and stay fit.
Young children have a natural instinct to move and explore a variety of body postures, like our ancestors did before the invention of sitting on chairs and couches. Kids squat - a natural resting posture for humans, and great for stretching and decompressing the low back, improving digestion and elimination, and making sure the ankle, knee, and hip joints maintain their natural range of motion. Kids also walk, run, tumble, somersault, hang, swing their arms, crawl, roll, back-bend, flop, and lay on their bellies with their upper bodies propped up on their elbows, all the while helping to ensure that their spine and joints retain strength and natural mobility. Kids might lie on their back with their fingers interlaced behind their head, or on their side with an arm curled up under their head for a pillow. Both are great for ensuring the shoulders and upper back stay flexible and free.
However, once school starts, unless it's time for recess or PE class, we soon learn that reward in the classroom comes from sitting still. Brains might be learning, but the hours spent sitting at a desk is undoubtedly setting us up for pain patterns we won't experience for a few decades, if we're lucky. As adults we might only find such postures and take our joints' through their full range of motion in an exercise class, often accompanied by a lot of striving and feelings that we should be doing it, rather than simply doing it because moving in a variety of ways is natural and feels good once we regain our mobility.
Thankfully, we can learn to notice our body's needs again, and get ahead of pain before it overwhelms us. About six months into the pandemic I started experiencing a lot of shoulder tension while hiking, yet never while running. On many occasions I might have walked 5, 6, 7 miles, all the while feeling great in my lower body, yet the tops of my shoulders would be stiff and achy by the end of the hike. It made no sense. Finally, I noticed that I wasn't letting my arms swing. Somehow I had become an Irish step-dancer of sorts on the local hiking trails, inexplicably holding my arms close to my body as I bounded up to my favorite vistas. And of course the tension wasn't creeping in if I was running because there it is virtually impossible to divorce the movement of the upper body from the lower body.
Midway through a hike, armed with a great new theory, I let my arms swing again. Almost immediately I felt more relaxed. Moments later, faint body memories of being a child and the freedom of summer started washing over me. Then, came a renewed sense of confidence. Of course! Women are often told to swing our arms when walking alone to help avoid being the target of assault. One looks and feels more assertive and in charge. My mind started wandering to new possibilities. A little melody popped into my head. All this new sensation, emotion, memory, and creativity from simply letting my arms do what they should be doing naturally while walking! I was amazed. Then I tried holding my arms stiff again, and suddenly I could feel the tension start to return. How did I miss it before? My best theory is that with the pandemic lock-downs and the need to physically distance, I'd unconsciously also felt the need to shrink down the physical space I occupy.
More recently I had a bout of thumb pain, in both hands, but only when using them in ways that stretched them away from the rest of my fingers, like opening jars or carrying large containers. At first I thought it might be related to cello playing - could the bigger neck and the need to shift around more be causing excess tension or an overstretch? But I wasn't actually experiencing pain while playing any of my instruments, even in higher positions where my thumb is anchored and the rest of my hand is stretching. I finally started noticing that the pain was more noticeable after marathon cooking days. To prepare for busy days spent teaching or traveling and performing, I'll often spend a few hours once or twice a week preparing several meals to have on hand. I started catching myself carrying heavy pots and casserole dishes with my thumbs on top, or sometimes just one thumb, leveraging and stabilizing the entire weight of the dish. Then I noticed myself also carrying my computer and heavy binders of sheet music around in similarly taxing ways for my poor thumbs. So much of the time we just reach for something without even thinking. I suddenly had to became very aware of exactly how I picked things up and carried them around, and make a conscious choice to do so differently. Within a few weeks, my pain was gone, but I know I'll have to keep up my new habit to ensure it doesn't return.
It can be overwhelming and frustrating to experience pain while playing our instrument, something that is supposed to fill us with joy, but if we’re curious and methodical, it’s possible to find the cause and make the necessary changes. While some issues may require medical interventions, like surgery, and anyone experiencing chronic pain should consult their doctor to rule out a major issue or disease, many can find lasting relief through simple, non-invasive and drug-free interventions at home. It's empowering to know that in many cases, we can heal ourselves.
To help get you started, I'll be releasing a series of videos throughout the summer, targeting different areas of the body where we commonly experience pain or tension. Please enjoy this first video focusing on the arms and hands:
To listen to this post, please click the play button below: