Practice Pointers for Pain-Free Playing

Serap Bastepe-Grayby Serap Bastepe-Gray, MD, MM, OT

Instrumental musicians have more in common with athletes than many might imagine. Both spend hours of every day striving for improvement, practice sessions which strain both body and mind – sometimes to the point of injury. And so both can benefit from an improved understanding of injury prevention and recovery techniques. But while sports medicine is a booming field that has made such information readily available for athletes, many musicians still avoid the subject. With upwards of 80 percent of instrumental musicians experiencing playing-related pain at some point in their study or career, it’s important for all of us to understand the practice habits that can help avoid injury.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list, here are some basics to think about during your next practice session.

Warm up

Warming up provides a bridge that moves the mind and body of the musician from daily activities to focused practicing. Although increasing blood flow to increase flexibility is one of the objectives of warming up, the primary physiological objective for musicians and athletes alike is actually neural activation, which facilitates the retrieval of motor and perceptual memory and optimizes motor output. Warming up can also act as a psychological anchor: elite musicians and athletes have a warm-up routine which becomes a cue, or trigger, for successful performance.

A good initial routine for musicians warms up the tissues that are going to be used in playing the instrument and activates task specific motor programs. Before picking up the instrument, try spending about 5 minutes practicing gentle movements of the body and arms that increase gradually in range, intensity, and complexity. Warming up on the instrument (for about 10 minutes) involves playing idiomatic, previously mastered material. Begin with sequences of low complexity, such as scales and arpeggios at moderate tempos and in mid-range dynamic levels, and progress towards more complex and high intensity material.

Take breaks

Short periods of rest, about 5 minutes for every half-hour of practice, are important for giving both the brain and musculoskeletal structures time to clear metabolic waste products and replenish nutrients and energy, preparing them for the next session of practice. Longer periods of rest and sleep are essential for allowing the adaptive processes to happen in the brain and in the musculoskeletal system, leading to motor learning and functional conditioning.

Train both body and mind

Mind and body are interconnected in intricate and complex ways and without training the mind, we cannot train the body to command an instrument. In the field of athletics, this connection and interdependency has long been recognized, and mental skills training is an important component in the development of skills for elite athletes. This type of training has yet to become commonplace in music schools, where conversations about mental training usually focus on performance anxiety management. In reality, musicians, just like athletes, require a variety of mental skills to perform at their peak.

One example of a skill that can benefit high-performing musicians and athletes alike is visualization. Also known as mental practice, visualization is a well-studied mental skill in sports. Although more research is needed to determine how to best integrate visualization into the overall training regimen of musicians, it is nevertheless an important mental strategy. Any performance involves an unconscious imagery of the performance that activates and optimizes motor output a split second before the actual notes are sounded. Visualization involves cultivating conscious access to this imagery to trigger the performance in the mind’s eye and ear. The ability to access this imagery becomes more fluent with practice. Studies show that the practice of imagined performances activates similar networks in the brain to those activated by the actual physical performance, with the implication that the more times these networks are activated the more they will strengthen. Research in the rehabilitation field shows that sandwiching mental practice of a short motor action between two actual physical performances of it has the most beneficial aspect in improving the performance; musicians can apply this learning by practicing their repertoire in “chunks.” In addition to facilitating motor learning and enhancing retrieval process, integrating visualization into practice in this way reduces the number of physical repetitions, and can decrease the exposure to playing-related injury in musicians.

Stay hydrated

Musicians, who are sometimes referred to as “small muscle athletes,” need healthy and fit bodies and minds. Studies show that dehydration decreases endurance and performance quality in athletes. Sipping water throughout the day (rather than drinking large amounts of water infrequently) is recommended to maintain hydration. Sports nutrition, a complex science and art, provides some insights for adapting nutritional strategies to support musicians’ practice and performance. In general, protein intake is shown to facilitate recovery after a hard workout session. Complex carbohydrate intake about two hours before a long practice session or performance, together with continued hydration, provides fuel for muscles. While we are still learning how best to translate these sports nutrition strategies to meet musicians’ needs, we know that hydration, nutrition, sleep, and exercise are important factors in maintaining health for all.

Try incorporating these wellness and injury-avoidance strategies into your practice sessions over the coming weeks. While the benefits may seem small at first, over time you will be establishing habits that will enhance both your playing and your overall health, and keep you “in the game.”

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Excerpted and posted with permission from StayThirsty Magazine. Please visit the full interview here.

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