Relieving Tension and Avoiding Injury
When we spend hours doing the same thing over and over and over again, our bodies become prone to injury. Playing an instrument, a skill that requires hours of repetitive motion, makes people susceptible to stress injuries. I have personally dealt with what I call “almost injuries.”
Thankfully, I haven’t been injured in a way that prevented me from playing for an extended period of time or ended my career as a violinist, but I have had to take a couple weeks off before. The biggest “almost injury” I experienced was during my sophomore year of college and I was pushing
hard to the end of the semester with practicing, mock-auditions, concerts, and most of all, juries. For those of you who don’t know what juries are, they are essentially the final exam for musicians; every year in college (or every semester in my case), we have to prepare music to play in front of a panel of faculty in our instrument and related instruments. It can be a very stressful experience, and the preparation is intense!
I made it through my juries that semester, but had been dealing with tension and pain in my left arm while playing. I took almost all of that winter break off of practicing in order to let my body relax and heal. When I was rebuilding and coming back to practicing, I worked to educate myself on injury prevention and tension-free playing. A few of the tips and tricks that I learned during this time have made a huge difference in helping me play with less tension and avoid injury, and I have continued to build on these concepts over the years.
1. Tension is not bad; tension without release is bad!
If we, as musicians, held absolutely zero tension in our bodies while playing, we would not be able to play at all. We would actually just drop our instruments to the floor! We have to tense our muscles to place a finger on the fingerboard, or to hold our violin up on our shoulder or the cello between the legs. We tend to be very good at the tension part, but the release is equally as important, especially when working on healing from or preventing an injury. One specific example of how I implement this thinking is in my left hand. When I contract my muscles in order to put a finger down, I remind myself to counter that tension with a release in my thumb. This has worked very well for me because my “almost injury” was in my left arm and was caused by storing up too much tension in the fingers and thumb.
2. Stretching and “counter-motion” are crucial.
It is very important to build a stretching routine into your morning routine or practicing routine. Especially when it comes to string instruments, it is a very lopsided activity! For us violinists, our head and neck is always turned to the left, our left arm is turned and bent up, and the right arm stays more parallel to the ground while opening and closing. Our right hand fingers are always curved over the bow in the same way, and our left hand is always busy putting down and lifting fingers from the strings - you get the idea!
We must be sure in our stretching routine to counter these motions that we do so often when we play. We must stretch the neck to the right, since it is so often to the left, gently pull the fingers on both hands backwards, since they are so often curved over the bow or fingerboard, curve and hollow out our backs, since they are so often held so straight when we sit or stand to play. I try to incorporate stretches every morning, but even when I forget, I take a few minutes every hour when I am practicing to roll my shoulders back, stretch my arms and hands, and take some deep breaths to provide plenty of oxygen to my muscles.
3. Build in reminders to r-e-l-a-x in your practice time.
This tip is so simple, yet so easy to overlook. When practicing, it is easy to get in the weeds and get working hard to make a passage better, but it is so important to pause, drop your arms to your side, and take a few deep breaths. The way this tip is applied will vary based on practicing styles, but it might look like setting a timer for every 10 or 15 minutes to remind yourself to relax and release pent-up tension from the thumbs, the shoulders, the neck. Maybe it is literally writing “relax” in your music, so as you read or practice through a piece, you read that and are reminded to release tension. Whatever that may look like for you, it is an important thing to build into your practicing routine!
Being proactive with injury prevention is of course the best policy. Incorporating these tips into your practicing as a string player, tailoring them to your specific tendencies, and building them into lasting habits will really help to fend off stress injuries. At StringTime music camps, we practice stretching routines with the students and help them to develop solid technique to promote tension-free playing. We hope to see you at the StringTime Winter Camp for even more tips and practice for sustainable, relaxed and FUN music-making!
Caitlyn Dillard and the StringTime Family