• Eight Tips for Healthy Practicing

    Posted on September 5, 2014 by Jessica Ryan in Musician Health.



    Photo credit: fredwlangjr / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    In a 1986 survey of over 2,000 professionals belonging to the International Conference of Symphony and Orchestra Musicians (ICSOM), 76% of the musicians surveyed indicated that at some point during their careers, they faced severe injuries that forced them to stop performing.[i] Unfortunately, professionals aren’t the only musicians who experience injuries. Surveys of college music majors, including incoming freshmen, have also demonstrated a wide prevalence of performance-related pain and discomfort.[ii]

    These facts may come as a shock to some, since the general public doesn’t typically think about music-making as a physically demanding career or hobby. However, countless hours of practicing, rehearsing, and performing can take their toll on the body over time. While you can never completely eliminate the chance of ending up with a performance-related injury, you can take steps to minimize your risk. Read on to discover eight tips that can help you stay healthy when playing an instrument.

    1. Warm-Up: When beginning practice sessions, always warm-up, just as you would before engaging in any other physical activity. A proper warm-up starts without even touching an instrument. To boost circulation, first do an aerobic activity for several minutes, and to avoid injury, stretch only after you get your blood pumping faster. Once you loosen up, you can start to play. Rather than jumping into difficult passages immediately, go slowly and start with simple exercises that do not require demanding techniques.[iii] Practice a variety of skills in your warm-up, and remain mindful at all times so that you can adjust your practice plan based on how you feel.[iv]
    2. Cool Down: Cool down to help your muscles recover faster. Begin wrapping up a practice session by moving away from new music or passages involving strenuous techniques, and instead spend time improvising or playing familiar music.[v] Once you finish practicing, engage in a light aerobic activity and stretch to minimize lactic acid buildup and help ensure that your muscles will be ready to go the next day.[vi]
    3. Practice Variety: Practice a mix of repertoire and techniques during each session so that you avoid over-taxing any particular muscle group.[vii] If you want to drill an especially tricky passage until it’s fixed, allow yourself to work on it for a pre-determined length of time. Stop when time runs out and return to it the next day if necessary, since endless repetitions often become mindless and reinforce mistakes or poor technique. It can help to set a timer to remind yourself of when you need to move on to the next spot. Additionally, mitigate injury risk by limiting time spent in awkward positions. Keep your head, neck, and spine neutrally positioned as often as possible.
    4. Take Breaks: Although it may be difficult to put your instrument down during an intense practice session, breaks will help you practice more efficiently. At a minimum, take ten minutes off during every hour of playing.[viii] You may also want to take shorter breaks throughout the hour to keep your body and mind fresh. Figure out what schedule works for you and stay flexible so that you can alter your routine based on how you feel each day.
    5. Practice Consistently: Janet Horvath, Associate Principal Cello of the Minnesota Orchestra and author of Playing (Less) Hurt, writes “Doing a consistent hour a day is more productive and safer for your body than skipping days at a time and then launching into a marathon session.”[ix] When it comes to practice, quality trumps quantity, and it’s easier to have quality practice time if you split practice sessions across days instead of trying to force your body and mind to cooperate for hours on end. Don’t forget that while you should aim to practice consistently, sometimes a well-deserved day off will help more than any amount of practice. Carefully listen to your body and mind to see when you might need rest.
    6. Gradually Increase Playing Time: If you had a busy summer and spent time away from music-making, don’t jump into a full schedule of practice sessions, rehearsals, and performances right away. Instead, start with a small amount of daily playing time and grow this incrementally. Give yourself more time to get back into playing if you’ve taken a longer period of time off.
    7. Stop If You Feel Pain: Never play through pain. It is much better to quit for the day than to tough it out and risk having something minor turn into a serious injury. Investigate what may have caused the discomfort, and ice sore spots to reduce inflammation. Use heat to relax muscles if you feel tension instead of pain. If you take several days off and still hurt when playing, seek assistance.
    8. Be Mindful: By practicing thoughtfully, you will help yourself follow the other guidelines on this list. Start a mindful session by identifying goals and developing a practice plan. Pay attention to your posture throughout and notice when you need physical or mental breaks. I’d also recommend using a camera or recording device from time to time, since during my days as a violin student, I often filmed myself to analyze my technique and ensure that I stayed loose and relaxed. Often, I’d catch and address bad habits that I never knew existed. Also take time to practice away from your instrument to develop your knowledge of the music without expending unnecessary physical effort. As mentioned earlier, limit repetitions to keep them from becoming mindless and counterproductive. In short, practice deliberately and think through everything that you do.

    I hope you find these guidelines useful as you jump back into playing an instrument or just take some time to re-evaluate your practice habits. Happy practicing!


    [i] Horvath, Janet.  Playing (less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians.  2009 ed.  Eau Claire:  Documentation LLC,  2009.  Print.

    [ii] Ibid.

    [iii] Klickstein, Gerald.  “The Total Warm-Up.”  The Musician’s Way Blog.  Gerald Klickstein,  15 Mar. 2010.  Web.  2 Sept. 2014.

    [iv] Horvath, Janet.  Playing (less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians.  2009 ed.  Eau Claire:  Documentation LLC,  2009.  Print.

    [v] Tsioulcas, Anastasia.  “10 Easy Ways To Optimize Your Music Practice.”  Deceptive Cadence from NPR Classical.  National Public Radio,  3 Sept. 2013.  Web.  4 Sept. 2014.

    [vi] Podesta, Luga.  “Warm-up and Cool Down Pre and Post Performance Recommendations.”  Podesta Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Institute.  Podesta Orthopedic Sports Medicine Institute,  17 Mar. 2011. Web.   4 Sept. 2014.

    [vii] Horvath, Janet.  Playing (less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians.  2009 ed.  Eau Claire:  Documentation LLC,  2009.  Print.

    [viii] Richardson, Brianna.  “Tips for Healthy Practicing, Part 1.”  String Visions from Ovation Press.  Ovation Press, Ltd.,  18 May 2011.  Web.  2 Sept. 2014.

    [ix] Horvath, Janet.  Playing (less) Hurt: An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians.  2009 ed.  Eau Claire:  Documentation LLC,  2009.  Print.



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