Music-related injuries are often caused by preventable problems. There are many steps you can take to ensure safe and efficient music making.
Take practice breaks
Lactic acid is a waste product that forms in muscles after any kind of physical activity. It is what creates the tired and tight feeling following long or intense workouts. Since making music is a physical activity, lactic acid can accumulate in your muscles during practice sessions or rehearsals.
When given enough time to rest between exertions, your body naturally flushes lactic acid from your muscles and they become loose and flexible again. However, if you overuse your muscles or don’t give them enough time to recover, your body won’t be able to keep up with the work you do. Lactic acid will continue to accumulate in your muscles, making them progressively tighter and inflexible. Over time, the excessive strain on these overused muscles could result in serious damage and injury.
Taking regular breaks is potentially the easiest way to minimize your risk of becoming injured. Practice breaks allow your body to momentarily rest and flush the lactic acid from your muscles, and also allow your mind to take a break from strenuous focus.
It is not advisable to practice for over an hour without taking a break. If you do all of your daily practice at once, be sure to allot a sufficient amount of time for practice breaks. You might consider distributing your practice throughout the day if your schedule allows.
It may also be helpful to take one day off from practice every week; many teachers insist on this. A day off allows your body time to recover from the previous week of practice and become rejuvenated for the week to come.
Keep in mind that at times, especially when things are going well in a practice session, you might want to play on and on for hours. While that sort of inspiration and focus is admirable, making this a habit could result in injury over time.
Cultivate body awareness
Our body constantly sends information to our brain, keeping us informed of what we do and how we do it. For instance, if we touch a something hot, we will feel heat; if we overextend our shoulder or freeze our hand into an uncomfortable playing position, we will feel discomfort or maybe even pain. If we have a good awareness of our body we can be better equipped to recognize potential problems that we experience, and we may be able to prevent long-term issues from happening in the first place. Unfortunately, when it comes to playing music, many of us are not as attuned to what our body tells us as we should be.
Take moments while you are playing and while you are resting to notice what your body is telling you: Are you tensed or relaxed? Are you breathing properly, or are you holding your breath? Do you feel discomfort or pain? How is your posture? In these moments, consider what physical motions or ideas may be causing you to do whatever it is that you are doing with your body.
Try to be aware of your body throughout the day, not just during practice and rehearsals. Sometimes activities outside of music like typing and lifting heavy objects are the very things that can cause injuries in the first place.
Consult your teacher with concerns
Your teacher is an excellent resource for helping you learn how to make music in safe and effective ways. If you have any music related concerns, they may be able to help you address them and find possible solutions.
While your teacher can be a great resource, keep in mind that he or she is not a medical doctor. They can offer suggestions and guidance for how to improve your playing but they cannot diagnose problems or prescribe forms of treatment. If your concern turns into a real problem that your teacher cannot comfortably address, they can direct you to other forms of help such as a doctor, therapist or medical professional.
If you experience discomfort, soreness or pain, or are seriously worried about a problem, the safest option is to stop playing right away and tell your teacher. Whether your condition is severe or not, continuing to play through your pain may make matters worse. Stopping early to assess your situation rationally and calmly could save you weeks or months of recovering from a debilitating injury.
Introduce change gradually
As student musicians, we can be impatient to achieve improvements. For instance, we might be tempted to implement a greater amount of time or a new technique into our practice. Doing either of these things too quickly could potentially result in an injury. In order to help reduce these risks, we should introduce any changes into our playing gradually.
Significantly increasing the amount of time you practice on a daily basis is a common way to develop an injury. Similarly, if you go on a vacation or spend an extended time away from your instrument, returning immediately to your former levels of practice could cause an injury. If you want to increase the amount of time you practice every day, start conservatively and gradually increase from there. This gradual increase will give your muscles time to adjust to a more physically demanding schedule.
Practice time is not the only thing that you should introduce gradually. When you purchase a new instrument (or bow) the shape, feel and weight may be different from your old instrument. The foreignness of it may shock your body. Start by breaking it in slowly, then increase your use of it gradually until you can use it all the time.
Secondary instruments should also be introduced gradually. You have conditioned the muscles in your body to play your primary instrument over the course of many years. Secondary instruments may require the same muscles you use for your primary instrument, but in different ways. Gradually becoming accustomed to a secondary instrument can help lessen the shock on your body and may help prevent injury. Talk to your teachers about any concerns you may have regarding your secondary instrument.
Monitor your computer use
As college students, it is hard to escape the use of computers as we rely on them for email, homework and papers. However, computer use can be particularly damaging to muscles and tendons since it requires repeated motions of our fingers. Bad posture while using computers (like slouching, or holding arms and hands at awkward angles) can also impact general physical health and compromise instrumental technique. Limiting computer use and using gentle typing motions may help prevent computer-related injuries.
Take care of yourself
If you aren’t taking proper care of yourself, your risk for developing an injury will probably be higher.
Physically, this means getting enough sleep each night. It means eating healthy, staying hydrated, and properly exercising each week. Taking care of yourself physically may help you feel stronger, more alert and more focused. In turn, feeling good physically can help you feel good emotionally.
Taking care of yourself emotionally means that when you get stressed you can take steps to minimize your anxiety (for instance, taking a break, talking to someone, or making a plan for yourself). It means staying on top of your work and saying “no” when you probably shouldn’t overcommit yourself. It also means finding time to do something for yourself like socializing, taking a walk, or doing something other than homework or practicing.
By taking good care of yourself, you will ideally be making sure that you stay happy, healthy, and are not overstretching yourself. This will likely help you prevent an injury.
Horvath, Janet. Playing (Less) Hurt. Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2010. Print.