by Janet Horvath, author of Playing (Less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians available at musicdispatch.com
Editor’s Note: In this article Janet Horvath suggests some stretches she devised to help musicians alleviate body stress. Always check with a physician before trying stretches, especially if you have an injury. Always stop any movement that causes pain.
When I was a young student I was criticized for moving too much when I played. “Don’t beat your foot! Don’t wiggle! It’s too distracting,” said my teachers. Unfortunately, these mantras were more important than just limiting comfort and self-expression. Although playing music is expressive and creative, we sought to quell the tendency to move and flow with the music. We were admonished to never “stick out.” As a result, we often sit like statues.
Studies today indicate that humans are born to move. Being static, still, and motionless is detrimental to our health. Static effort, or holding a position, is also much more strenuous on the body. Muscles tighten, blood flow is constricted, oxygen is not replenished, and waste products are not flushed out. Static positions make us tire sooner, and then we hurt. On the other hand, we can engage in a dynamic movement for a long time because blood is replenished with fresh oxygen.
There are unobtrusive ways to reduce tension build up and give our bodies mini breaks. I have devised a series of moves I call Onstage Tricks™ to alleviate tension even while performing. The essential guiding factor is to do the opposite motion of the positions we are required to hold while we play.
Sitting properly is the first step. Make sure that you are sitting in the optimum position for your height and instrument. Your chair should be high enough so that your knees are lower than your hips. If you are diminutive, sit forward so your feet don’t dangle. Your weight should be forward with a slight lumbar curve in your spine and feet flat on the ground. Keep your shoulders down and facing forward. Avoid turning or twisting your torso, leaning left or right.
Starting with those targeting the top of the body, try some of the following moves during practice or performance, or whenever you have a few bars of rest. These exercises are effective even if you only have time to do them once. However, if you are able to do them more than once, it’s all the better.
The following are stretches that every musician should do before playing
For the neck:
- Keep your head erect and tuck in your chin gently. This is a very small movement.
- Tuck your chin as above. Keeping your shoulders relaxed and down, slowly turn your head to the right and look over your right shoulder; return to looking forward. Repeat, turning your head left, looking over your left shoulder.
- Again, start with a chin tuck. With shoulders relaxed and down, slowly tilt your head so the right ear is over the right shoulder. Return to neutral. Repeat on the left side.
For shoulders and pectorals:
- Do one big shoulder shrug bringing the shoulders toward the ears, while taking a deep breath. Relax, release your shoulders, and breathe out.
- Do one big shoulder circle. Bring your shoulders forward, then up toward your ears, then back opening your chest, and relax bringing your shoulders to normal. Repeat, reversing the direction of the circle.
- While keeping your shoulders down, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Clasp your hands behind your back, and while keeping your elbows straight, but not locked, pull your shoulders gently backwards.
For the arms:
- Let your arms uncurl often and hang by your sides. (If you must hold your instrument, do one arm at a time.) While keeping your elbows fairly straight, but not locked, turn your palms outward, with your thumbs pointing away from your body. Moving slowly, reach gently backward.
- Place your hand palm down on the chair behind you. While keeping your elbow fairly straight, but not locked, lean gently onto your hand, stretching the inner arm. Repeat with the other arm.
For the back, spine, and pelvis:
- Take a deep breath in and then empty your lungs. Now, contract your abdomen. Imagine pulling your belly button inward. Release.
- Roll your pelvis forward and back, putting your back into a “C” curve. Momentarily press your lumbar spine backward and then return to neutral. This is a very small movement. Rock from one gluteus to the other, side to side.
- Squeeze your buttocks and release. This can be done while standing or seated.
For the hips:
- Keep your feet on the floor and turn one knee inward as you sit, rotating the hip joint. Repeat with the other leg.
- Adjust the position of your feet often.
For healthy overall circulation:
- Keep your heels on the floor and lift your toes. Then, keep your toes on the floor and lift your heels. Do circles with your ankles.
- If you are able to, alternate playing seated and standing. While standing, avoid locking your knees; keep them slightly bent with feet apart. Avoid overarching your back and crouching or slumping forward. Keep your head and torso erect and face forward with shoulders down.
Awareness is the key to injury prevention. These and many more “moves” for musicians are displayed in my book. Make up some of your own as well, with the goal of maintaining fluidity and ease, while avoiding tightness and tension. You’ll feel better and you’ll play better too.