One important, often overlooked, topic in piano performance is how to avoid injuring ourselves at our instrument. Piano playing is not a natural process. We are not born with the ability to play the piano…we learn it. Therefore, we can easily suffer from repetitive use injuries if we are not careful. In this article, I’ll lay out 7 tips that I think will help you to avoid injuries when learning to play the piano, practicing or gigging. These tips are geared for the pianist, but also work for other instruments.
Tip 1: Become aware of body signals
For many of you who know me and have followed my teaching, you probably know that I like working out. I will use this as an example. When working out, you obviously need to be aware of your body’s limitations. You do not want to try to lift 300 pounds if you realistically can only lift 150 pounds. If you do this, you will most likely hurt yourself.
We are all guilty of not taking our bodies signals seriously at one time or another. I’m sure that we can all remember a time when we suffered physically or experienced discomfort as a result of our complacency.
Taking the time to stretch before working out in the gym or remembering to bend at the knee in order to lift something heavy are pretty well-known precautions…yet people still forget or neglect to follow them and get injured. In contrast, playing the piano is much more subtle in terms of physical activity than working out.
We all hold some tension in our arms, back, neck, hands and legs. It is easy for us to go over board in our practicing and work our muscles beyond the point of fatigue.
Because every piano player brings a unique set of variables into their practicing, I would be hard pressed to come up with a stretch routine that would universally prevent injury and solve everyone’s piano playing ailments. That is why I am urging you, the piano player, to become aware of your own body signals. The most important thing is to stay loose and not over work your body.
My advice: take a look at the Alexander Technique. This is a technique that I studied right after college because I was playing way too heavy and with too much tension. The Alexander Technique teaches you to send “directionals” to your body. You can try this right now. Have your mind concentrate only on your shoulders. Try and “will” your shoulders with your mind to “widen and drop.” When I say widen I mean it should feel almost like someone is lightly pulling your shoulders apart from one another to create “space” between your shoulder blades.
Ask yourself “Are my shoulders tense?” “What about my arms? Are they tense?” “Where can I release tension?” There is an obvious amount of tension that you need in order to be able to sit up and play. Your goal though, should be to release all unnecessary tension to allow you to freely express yourself on your instrument.
Tip 2: Stretch before and after you practice the piano
I have to admit, I do not always do this myself…but it is a great habit to get into. Here are a couple of basic exercises to try next time you plan to sit down at the piano to practice…
First, you can try soaking your arms under warm water. Or, take a hot shower. This will help to loosen up your muscles and get them ready for playing. You should do this before you practice/play.
Second, if you can not soak, then lightly do some motion exercises. If you are into yoga, a quick “sun salutation” will also do the trick.
Here are some good stretching exercises to take a look at. Rather than go into too much detail myself about stretching and Yoga positions, I’ll just point you in the direction of the experts. The most important thing to remember is: stretch .
Tip 3: Simple piano warm-ups go a long way to help prevent injury!
Do you know what warmup I still enjoy? Simple 5-finger scales. Often when setting up for a gig, I will turn off the sound on my keyboard and just play 5-finger Major or minor scales. This simple exercise is a nice way to get warmed up. Do these in parallel and contrary motion.
After the 5-finger scales, do some simple minor or Dominant 7 arpeggios. Do these slowly with both hands going two octaves. You can also do these in contrary and parallel motion.
Finally, do the chromatic scale going up and down the keyboard. You can play this scale on the same note in both hands spread out by an octave, or different notes (i.e. a major 6th apart, etc…)
While everyone else is noodling around playing their best licks, these simple warmups will help you to get loose and be ready to play your best when it counts!
Tip 4: Practice piano first…then play
I often ask students, “What do you warmup with?” And they’ll tell me that they play songs that they know or just “mess around” at their instrument for a few minutes. This is not good for two reasons:
- The choice to ‘jump right in’ rather than warm up will put more stress on your arms. And,
- You are not enhancing your piano technique. By playing what you already know, you are not practicing…you are playing.
Practice first…then play. Start off your piano practice session with some of the examples in tip #3. This will help you to warmup…and build your technique!
Tip 5: Hit the gym…and be smart!
Working out at the gym is a great way to avoid injury. Even light weight training will help you to build your muscle and give you more balance. However, remember to be smart! Don’t pretend, for any reason, like you KNOW what you are doing if you DON’T know what you are doing. You can really hurt yourself in the gym if you are not careful! But, don’t let this stop you from exercising either.
I find that cardio (running) and weight training has helped me to understand my body more and has helped to “firm up” the smaller muscles. These smaller muscles are used often when playing an instrument. So, exercising really helps…plus you stay fit!
If you have no clue what you are doing in the gym, talk to a trainer or a friend who can help you. You can also do many exercises at home. Point is…exercise helps keep the body in shape for the piano, and for life.
Tip 6: Take a Walk!
The goal of playing piano is to express yourself through your instrument. Expression includes happiness, sadness, anger or a whole range of emotions that, in turn, can be channeled through an instrument and take on a whole new meaning. This expression through your instrument is based on real life. If you spend all your time in a practice room…you’re not living life!
There is another, less known, reasoning behind the “take a walk” idea. Studies have proven that the brain needs time to “digest” what it is learning. This is especially true when dealing with fine motor movements like playing an instrument. Practicing hard for 15-20 minutes then taking a short break gives the brain time to process what you just introduced.
Practicing for hours on end without taking breaks can also lead to injury. So, give your arms and your brain a break by taking a short walk or stepping away from the piano for a few minutes.
Tip 7: Seek professional help
In this article, I’ve given you a few tips that, if followed, might help you to avoid injuring yourself at the piano. Speaking from personal experience, I have dealt with my share of arm injuries. I’ve had to learn to listen to my body and stretch. It doesn’t come easy because I often just want to sit down and play without bothering with warmups.
If, for whatever reason, you sustain an injury that interferes with your piano playing, it is VERY important that you don’t just “work through” it. If you have pain…STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING. Put some thought into why you think you are feeling pain. Are you sitting too high or low? Holding tension? Did you warmup? Is your ‘head in the game’? Self analysis is the most important and valuable way to avoid injury.
If you just can not figure out why you are feeling pain or discomfort then consult your physician or another professional that is knowledgable in bodywork or neuromuscular disorders. Do NOT play through the pain. This approach will likely cause much more pain.