Photo: James Fraher/Redferns
Play It Safe: How Musicians Can Avoid Repetitive Stress Injuries
It's true, jobs of all types put workers at risk for repetitive stress injury — from construction workers to anyone spending a large amount of time typing — but for musicians, the danger is particularly perilous. Neck tension, shoulder and back pain, stiffness in the hand and fingers, you name it! The physically repetitious nature of practice and performance can escalate from even the smallest discomfort into a major problem.
How can musicians avoid repetitive stress injury? How can they spot signs of this pesky hazard before it grows into a beast? We've identified a few ways to protect yourself from this common hazard for musicians.
Pay Attention To Technique
Drummers, guitarists, horn players, string players, singers — all musicians should be concerned about using proper technique in order to preserve their skills and live to play another day, so to speak. While these techniques vary from instrument to instrument, as does each individual's own style and interpretation, there are a few constants. For instance, musicians should always make sure their performance strokes are relaxed, not forced. Sure, there are fast and dynamic moments in many songs and styles that employ force, but even the fastest players will tell you their speed comes from smoothness, not tension.
That's why the best way to address RSI is to stop it before it starts by identifying bad posture and harmful habits before the long-term damage is done. The nitty-gritty details of technique deal with taking cues from your body's sensations — such as tension, weight, or effort — and using them to inform your muscular control to reduce tension and increase relaxation while playing.
Stretch It Out
Thought stretching was only for competitive athletes? Think again! The muscles you use to perform are just as important as the ones athletes use to compete, so warming up and stretching are key. Take a look at these essential stretching techniques to get you started.
Stretching and proper care of your body can ensure you're always playing your best. Another way to improve your playing and overall health is to exercise regularly outside of music. Using your larger muscle groups by playing sports, running, rowing, yoga, or others forms of working out can help counterbalance the intense use of smaller muscle groups when you play music.
Take It Easy
Just as listening to loud music can be damaging to your ears over time, practicing without a break for too long can hurt you in the end. If you have an extended rehearsal, be sure to step out periodically to rest and rejuvenate. If you're on tour, get plenty of sleep and don't over exert yourself in soundcheck or rehearsal. Even if you only play with a garage band on the weekends, try not to cram in three hours of straight practice. Add a few shorter practices during the week to build strength and take regular breaks during your marathon rehearsals.
Also, the stress of performing in front of an audience can also complicate RSI, so musicians can help themselves by finding ways to relax mentally before big performances. Mindfulness and meditation can be powerful tools for bringing your mental state to the stage with you while allowing you to focus on giving your best efforts to serve the music.
Listen to your body when you play, and if you're in pain, see a doctor. It may seem like strength building, soreness or muscle fatigue are part of the process, but serious RSI can be crippling if you let it go too long without treatment. A doctor visit can help you understand your limits and treat RSI symptoms properly.
But you'll need to be very careful with how you treat the pain associated with RSI, as some doctors may not be experienced in dealing with musicians in this manner, so seek a specialist. Musicians should also be careful with any type of pain medication, as it can not only mask the issue instead of treating it.