Back in the 1960s, Green Bay Packer football coach Vince Lombardi coined the phrase “no pain, no gain.” That phrase may inspire pro football players, but it’s not at all appropriate for musicians. In fact, pain is like the warning lights on your dashboard: a signal to pull over and check things out.
The muscular-skeletal problems musicians encounter are often associated with the instrument they play. Flute players need to take care of fingers, piano players must be aware of eye strain, and drummers can suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. But whether you stand or sit to play, all musicians must be aware of back problems. Bad posture can lead to misalignments of the spine and pelvis that, over time, become painful contortions, making playing no fun at all.
Fixing back problems can be time consuming and expensive; it’s better to avoid problems than live with them or try to deal with them once they’re unbearable. Fortunately, there are practical ways to keep your back free of pain.
3 Tips to Avoid Back Pain While Playing
1. Don’t Slouch—Chronic back pain is often the result of a lack of knowledge about how the skeleton supports the body. Habitual slouching leads to pain because we forget that the round bones at the bottom of the pelvis are designed for us to sit on them. When we don’t sit on those bones, we don’t take advantage of the significant muscular support that comes from the torso.
2. Practice Smart—Concentrating for a long period on a difficult passage can cause a musician to forget posture and alignment. Athletes break practice down into high intensity and low intensity workouts; so should musicians. Try copying and cutting out difficult passages from a score, taping them together, and working on them exclusively for 20 minutes, before relaxing and playing freely for the rest of the hour.
3. The Whole Body—Two ergonomic techniques are popular with musicians and are worth knowing. The Alexander Technique, developed by Frederick Mathias Alexander, is a gentle, hands-on system of movement re-education used in conservatories throughout the world. The Feldenkrais Method, developed by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, is a movement therapy system that helps musicians expand their range of motion and improve body alignment through gentle massage, light touch, and slow, soft body motions.
Musicians don’t typically regard themselves as ‘musical athletes,’ yet playing an instrument involves the entire body just as much as swinging a golf club does. Honoring the way a body moves and functions while playing starts with learning a few simple steps that can lead to a lifetime of pain-free play.