STRETCHING IS THE KEY TO A LONG LIFE OF PLAYING
by Linda Hickey, Massage Therapist and Cello Student
I have the double joy of playing the cello, my first love, and working at something else I love. I am a professional massage therapist with a practice that includes (along with pregnant mothers and their families) musicians. I have read with interest and a knowing nod the ICS dialog discussing how long we can expect to be playing and how to cope with the wear and tear on our bodies.
I am a recent student of the cello. I began to play at age 40 and remember well those early months of painful neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists, wondering if it was worth it because in spite of all the sweat, stress and pain, my music still sounded awful!
I'm glad to say now that I have more experience and having spent some time pouring over my anatomy books and watching myself practice in a mirror, my pain is gone.
Learning to play a musical instrument is a major investment -- of time spent in practice and of money spent in lessons, instruments and music. It IS possible to play long into our years if we are also willing to invest time in caring for our bodies, particularly the muscles used in playing.
By including some simple stretching exercises into your practice routine and by becoming more aware of your posture and your muscles you can prevent injury and strain from occurring and feel the early warning signs of problems as they begin.
Playing the cello is an act of flexion, or the body curling in toward itself. While playing, the joints and muscles of the fingers, wrist, elbows, shoulder girdle, neck and even jaw are working together and with intense concentration, hopefully in harmony.
When we are learning new music or spending more time in practice prior to examinations or performance, the stress in our playing can lead to more strain on the performing muscles, tendons that attach muscle to bone and in turn the joints and overall posture. Repetitive stressed movement of muscle and in the joint can lead to overuse symptoms of inflammation, pain and conditions such as tendinitis or bursitis. Continued playing can lead to chronic pain and restricted mobility and potentially forced early retirement from your cello.
The key to avoiding these dire consequences is stretching - moving your muscles and joints in the opposite directions and positions than those used in playing. To work through the various muscle groups in a pre-practice stretch, pretend that you are holding your cello ready to play.
1. Look at your fingers. They are curved around your bow and the finger board in a flexed position. To stretch, fully extend or straighten them using your other hand to gently coax them back. Hold them there for a few seconds and slowly release. Now stretch in flexion (toward your palm). Open and close your fingers in rapid succession a few times to get the blood flowing.
2. Now your wrists. Even though they are blocked in a neutral position while playing, the muscles are still working to hold it there, so gently flex and extend your wrists as well moving them in slow circles a few times. A brisk rub up and down as well as around your wrists, ending with a vigorous shake will warm up the wrists.
3. Your elbows are held in flexion and abduction or raised. Again, slowly straighten and bend them a few times, being careful not to overextend, easy to do if you "snap" your arm out. Using your other hand, squeeze the muscles of the forearm and upper arm a few times.
4. Shoulders are curved forward as well, the great pectoralis muscles doing the work of keeping those elbows up and bow arm moving. To stretch the "pecs" try and move your shoulder blades closer together, then bring your arms around in front and give yourself a hug. Shoulder rolls forward and backward are helpful if they are done gently and slowly. Don't forget to open and close your mouth a few times too. Lots of people hold stress in their jaws, clenching their teeth when concentrating.
By this point you should be feeling pretty loose and comfortable, ready to play. At this moment, stop and remember how it is you feel. You want your brain to remember this pattern, so it can alert you when tension or muscle imbalance begins during your playing, signaling you to correct it.
Once you are warmed up, begin your practice session slowly at first, adding movement to your relaxed posture. Schedule your playing to include a 5 minute stretch break every 45 minutes of practice. And don't forget to breathe!
Deep, relaxed breathing nourishes the muscles with the oxygen they need to work well and will keep you relaxed and aware of potential, unnecessary tension.
For cellists who need pictures to help them understand these stretches I can refer you to Bob Anderson's excellent book "Stretching", particularly his chapter on back, neck and shoulder stretches.
It is likely that you will overdo it at some point and playing will become painful - either gradually creeping up on you or grabbing you in a sudden spasm. Should this happen try to take a day or two break, paying special attention to the muscles that hurt and keeping them relaxed but moving within pain tolerance. If the pain continues beyond two days, or starts up again once you begin to play, it is time to seek some help. Your medical doctor can help in diagnosing the problem, and a physical therapist or massage therapist can help you get better.
Massage therapists are specialists in soft tissues of the body - muscles, tendons, fascia and cartilage etc. In particular, sports massage therapists have developed in-depth knowledge of performance muscle function and movement analysis that is very applicable to musicians.
In my practice I ask musician clients to bring along their instrument to the initial appointment so I can watch them play. This helps me assess muscle groups and patterns, postural imbalances and problem areas and assists in developing a more effective treatment plan and prevention routines.
The going rate in my part of the world for massage therapy begins at $40.00 an hour. Again, another good investment of time and money that will keep you playing relaxed and pain free for years to come regardless of your age now.
I am convinced that Pablo understood the importance of stretching!
Copyright 1996 Internet Cello Society
Submitted by Linda Hickey, Massage Therapist and Cello Student. Ms. Hickey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org (John Jacob Hickey)