As the summer wound down this year, I had a really hard time staying healthy. I had the stomach flu at the beginning of August, followed by a cold later that month. Then came the stomach flu again (this time without the fever and chills) in September. Had I been more busy, I would have missed lots of work. As it was, I missed hours of practicing, a bunch of lessons (and their income), and lost all of the momentum of the previous month’s hard work. Luckily, the audition I was practicing for was cancelled, but we can’t rely on luck to get us out of a jam caused by ill health.
All this sickness got me thinking about the physical health of playing a stringed instrument. As string players, we are lucky in that we can have a cold and still play (we can even eat while playing but I don’t recommend it). Wind and brass players are in huge trouble if they can’t breathe. That said, performing while sick or injured is no fun. Read on for some information and treatments for common maladies and how to stay healthy and keep playing.
Staying Healthy – Ouchies
Playing any stringed instrument, especially the violin and viola, is tough on the muscles and joints. The most common injuries suffered by string players are repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. There are also muscle pulls, strains, and even tears. Additionally, spinal injuries are fairly common (I have had spinal surgery myself), and very serious. Surgeries for any of these conditions are expensive and painful, often with long recovery times. Let’s make sure we do what we can to keep it from getting to that point.
Prevention is the Key
We’ve all heard it a million times – an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. Too true. While there are cures for things like tendonitis, bursitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome, those cures usually involve surgery or some other extreme measure. Repetitive stress injuries are painful, but I’ll tell you, they are much easier to prevent than to cure. The first and best line of defense against these injuries is warming up.
Just like athletes, string players should stretch before beginning to play. You can do some basic ones like I do, more comprehensive ones like some other players.
I do the following: place your arms over your head and try to touch the ceiling. Then do the same thing, with your fingers interlaced. After that, put one hand on the opposite shoulder and with your other hand, pull on your elbow to stretch out your shoulders and back. Some toe touches and waist bends will help also. Never pull too hard. Also, never bounce when stretching. Stretch by pulling until you feel tension and then hold it. Don’t forget to breathe!
After that, warm up by playing some slow scales. Don’t just jump in and start playing a Bach Fugue or something equally technical. You need to slowly get your violin muscles warm and ready to work. Lastly, posture! If you are sitting, make sure your knees are below the level of your waist. That will help keep your back straight. Try to relax when you play and keep tension to a minimum.
When It Hurts
Staying healthy by stretching and warming up usually works, but if you do manage to hurt something, you need to know how to respond. First, never, and I mean never keep playing if something hurts. You need to take breaks from time to time to avoid injuries. Sometimes my hand will hurt a bit from working on a technical passage with lots of double-stops or whatever. I immediately put down my instrument and get rid of the tension in my hand. I do this by putting my arm down at my side and gently shaking my hand in an effort to get all of the tension into my fingertips. This is a great way to avoid ouchies.
Choosing medicine is very important. Many people use Tylenol (acetaminophen) or similar for headaches and muscle pain. It may work for headaches, but for muscle injuries for musicians, it is not a good choice. Acetaminophen is a pain killer (a pretty good one at that). The problem is, it kills the pain and if you keep playing, you might hurt yourself worse without knowing it.
Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) is a great choice for muscle aches when you are going to continue playing. Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory which means is stops the swelling that causes pain. This makes it much harder to hurt yourself any more than you already have. Avoid the really heavy stuff (Oxycontin, hydrocodone, etc.) if you need to be alert. The first time I took one of those, I described it as feeling like I just drank ten beers. Never drive or operate dangerous equipment when taking large doses of pain meds.
Lastly, if the injury is fresh (within 24 hours), you can put ice on it to keep the swelling and pain down. Apply ice 10 to 15 minutes at a time, as often as twice an hour, for 72 hours. Keep your arm elevated and don’t try to play (if you can) until you feel zero pain.
Stay Healthy – Germs and Other Greebles
Everyone gets sick once and a while, even clean freaks and germophobes. You can minimize the risk of colds, flu, and various intestinal distress by following a few guidelines.
First, wash your @#$%ing hands. People don’t really do that. I’ve seen multiple people at a time leave the men’s room at a crowded theater without washing. Ew. Washing your hands often is the number one way of preventing the flu or something like Norovirus (stomach bug). It’s really a no-brainer.
Next, eat good and timely food. Good food means healthy foods like fruit, vegetables, low-fat proteins (chicken, lean pork, eggs, lean beef). Timely food means, eat these foods at regular meal times. The second part is not so easy for touring or gigging musicians, but you need to try. If you have time in between performances, have a meal not a large unhealthy snack. Fast food is enticing, but ultimately awful for your body. Trust me, I have dozens of extra pounds lingering on me from my years of eating crap.
As for medicine, get a flu shot. I have avoided it for years, but after my latest 6-weeks of being sick, no more. Take vitamin C and D, and drink plenty of water/juice. Too few people drink enough to stay properly hydrated, myself included. Always have water with you at rehearsal or in the practice room. You will sweat at a performance so have water backstage and drink plenty at intermission. If you are always properly hydrated, you will always be healthy.
Staying healthy will ultimately help your music career whether you are a famous soloist or middle-school violinist. Missing rehearsals or performances hurts your ability to learn the music and for professionals it can actually take food off the table. Stretching, eating right, and maintaining a healthy routine is good advice for anyone, not just musicians. A body that is in peak shape will also lead to a mind that is in peak shape. It’s easier to think when you are in good shape. If you’re tired, it’s tough to perform at the highest level both physically and mentally.
I’ve seen it happen more than once. Great players have to quit playing their instruments because back problems or other injuries. Preventing them keeps you from having expensive and painful surgery. My own surgery was relatively easy. One of my cervical discs ruptured and was repaired surgically. Luckily it wasn’t a lumbar disc because those are tough. I was in the hospital one night, in bed on my back for a week, then about six more weeks until I was able to try to play again. The best part is, now I set off metal detectors every now and then with the titanium in my back.
Hopefully, none of you have to go through that. Stay healthy and keep playing!