Ideally, pianists should not experience hand injuries as a result of their practice. If you’re practicing regularly and correctly, constantly relaxing your shoulders, elbows and wrists, you should never feel pain, tension or discomfort in your muscles or tendons.
However, I don’t think there is a professional pianist in this world who had not suffered from a certain hand injury at least once in his/her life. No matter how relaxed we play, sometimes the pianistic challenges are too high and so is our desire to overcome them. As a result, tension and stress accumulate not only in our mind, but in our hands as well. Carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis are just two of the many repetitive motion related injuries that pianists may experience during their musical career.
I am not a doctor and I will not overwhelm you with complicated medical terms that will explain scientifically all these conditions. I will just share with you a few simple insights – the result of more than 20 years of hard work – that will help you understand the causes, the symptoms and the prevention measures of practice-related hand injuries. I will also tell you what exactly you should do in order to effectively deal with a muscle strain or a hand injury.
First, let’s analyze together the most common causes of practice related injuries:
1. Tension. Relaxed, heavy arms with flexible elbows and wrists – this is the foundation of an efficient, healthy and enjoyable playing habit. Tension is not only a productivity killer and a sure way of destroying the beauty of your sound. If your arms are tensed when you practice, if your elbows and wrists are rigid and immobile, then you also risk developing a hand injury! Always, no matter what you play, make sure that your posture is correct and there is no tension in your body – especially in your wrists!
2. Irregular practice. I actually call this phenomenon the lazy student syndrome. For many months, most students practice from time to time, without having an organized work schedule. When the exams or the concerts approach, the panic begins. One or two weeks before performance, these students start practicing 5 to 10 hours per day in order to ‘recuperate’ the lost time. They are stressed, they are in a hurry and they ‘skip’ all the necessary practice steps: slow playing, gradual assimilation of the musical material, awareness of the message encoded in each piece, a deep understanding of the emotional structure of the music and its dramatic content.
Unfortunately, this ‘student syndrome’ has a detrimental effect not only on the quality of your playing, but also on your physical and psychological health. The unexpected tension affects your untrained overworked muscles and tendons, leading to pain and other unpleasant manifestations. The panic and the unavoidable psychological discomfort make things even worse, aggravating the symptoms and making it impossible for you to achieve a quality performance.
I personally know many good pianists who gave up on their musical career because of severe hand injuries caused by incorrect irregular practice.
Piano playing is not just art; it’s also a high-performance physical challenge. Think what would happen to the legs of a long-distance runner if he or she would not go to training every day?
3. Playing ‘only with your fingers’. This is another almost fatal mistake that leads not only to bad performance, but also to muscle strain and tension. As we all know, the correct piano technique is based on the involvement of your entire arm – shoulders, elbows, forearms, wrists and fingers. If you play by moving only the fingers, the rest of your arm will be tensed, which will lead to pain and discomfort, not to mention the hammering ‘percussion’ sound.
4. Incorrect posture. A correct piano posture harmonizes the anatomical particularities of the human body with the particularities of the instrument. If your posture is incorrect (slouching, raising your shoulders, positioning the elbows too close or too far from the body, straining your wrist or lowering your knuckles below the wrist level), then you’re dramatically increasing your chances of developing a hand injury.
5. Too much ‘enthusiasm’ in your finger stretching exercises. Did you hear or read about what happened to Robert Schumann? He was a brilliant pianist, but he was seeking perfection in his piano technique, so he invented a ‘device’ that helped him stretch his fingers. Maybe the idea itself was not so bad, but unfortunately Schumann exaggerated with these exercises and he developed an irreversible hand injury. After that, he could never perform in public his own virtuosity pieces, which started to be promoted by his talented wife, Clara Schumann.
Be careful when you do your finger stretching exercises! Your whole body should be relaxed and each stretch should be performed at exhalation – just like in yoga. This way you’ll avoid an accidental strain that could cause a more complicated trauma.
6. Psychological tension, stress and a negative attitude. Even if you practice regularly, even if your posture is correct and you play relaxed, by using the weight of your entire hand behind each note, you still risk getting a muscle pain if your attitude is incorrect. Our state of mind is the fundamental cause of all our problems. A negative attitude will amplify and worsen all our dysfunctions, while a positive one will accelerate the healing process of the most severe traumas.
Now let’s see which are the main symptoms of muscle strain and other ailments related to repetitive motion and constant stress.
- Hand pain and/or wrist pain
- Numbness and weakness in your fingers and arms
- Diffuse pain radiating towards the forearms
- Poor blood circulation and cold hands
- Sore shoulders and/or neck
If you feel any of the above-mentioned symptoms, it means that you have to take urgent measures in order to stop the destructive process before it makes even more damages. The good news is that even the most severe injuries manifest their first symptoms long before the condition becomes irreversible.
Now let’s see what exactly we should do in order to deal with a hand injury effectively.
1. Stop practicing for at least one or two days. Rest and relaxation are the best remedies for tired sore hands. Take your time even if it affects your school schedule, your exams and your concerts. After all, your health is much more important! If you’ll not protect your hands when the first symptoms appear, it will be much harder to heal your injury in the future.
2. Resume your practice routine gradually. After a few days of rest (in a severe case the break should be longer – weeks or even months), begin your practice with several easy exercises. Play slowly some scales or a piece from your repertoire by using the weight of your arm behind each note. Don’t play pp or ff; mf is your main dynamic for the time being. Monitor your wrist, your elbows and your shoulders – they should be relaxed and heavy. Don’t hurry to play fast, the more time you dedicate to this thorough detailed practice method, the better your hands will heal.
3. Practice regularly. It’s better and healthier to practice 1 hour per day EACH DAY than 5 hours per day twice or thrice a week. Regular practice will always keep your arms, your wrists, your hands and your fingers in good shape. When your muscles are trained and prepared for their daily work, it’s impossible to overwork them.
I’ve seen many pianists wearing hand or wrist bandages when they get a muscle strain. I don’t recommend such measures. A tight bandage will decrease the blood circulation, slowing down the healing process. The blood has powerful healing capacities, that’s why we have to allow it to circulate freely, bringing fresh energy where it’s required and washing away the toxins. However, you have to be careful not to expose your hands to a cold environment. Wear something warm and gloves (especially during the cold season).
And let’s not forget that prevention is better than any treatment. No matter how difficult your repertoire is and how little time you have at your disposal for learning it, try to avoid the causes of hand injuries mentioned above. Keep your hands and your mind relaxed while playing, try to enjoy the beauty of the music, to explore its mysteries and understand its message. Don’t play only with your fingers, use your arms like a bird is using its wings – this is the only way to ‘fly’ and conquer new peaks!