It started with pain in my left hand. When I'd play my guitar a sharp jolt would shoot into the webbing in between my thumb & index finger. Eventually the pain made it's way up my forearm, my bicep, into my shoulder, & middle back. After a few months of taking as much ibuprofen as I could tolerate I decided I needed help. This was getting worse.
My wife knew a great physical therapist who helped her recover after hurting her ankle falling off of a climbing wall. So I booked an appointment & went to see my new friends at Physical Therapy and Lifetime Wellness.
The diagnosis was easy enough for the therapist. Years of hunching over a guitar & not properly warming up my hands had started to hurt me. Even worse, my main guitar is a fairly heavy Les Paul that I've been strapping to my shoulder since 2001. My hands were hurting because my back & shoulders were bearing the weight of my guitar. The cumulative strain on my body was manifesting in my hands. If I wanted my hands to get better I'd need to fix my back & forearms.
We started off with a few minutes of targeted stretching, a routine that I'd incorporate into my day from then on. Every week I'd go back & replace the stretches that had done their job with new stretches to target more problem areas. After 6 weeks my pain was gone & I was playing better than ever. Whenever I start to feel tightness in my arms I know exactly what to do to fix the problem.
Thinking about it now, it seems easy, but that wasn't the case. I know I got better because I did what my PT told me to do, every day. Music is so important to me that I was going to do whatever it took to keep going. Sometimes that meant stretching when I didn't feel like it. That meant never missing an appointment. That meant not complaining about the cost. A good Physical Therapist ain't cheap, but they are worth every penny.
A few months ago I hurt my back. Rather than head to the doctor, I went back to my physical therapist. She had me back on my feet in no time. Before getting to work with a top notch PT (Thanks Liz!) I didn't understand what PT was all about. Now I can't live without it.
What does stretching have to do with music?
For me, a lot.
Any instrument is physically demanding. Most require asymmetrical, repeated movements that do not facilitate a balanced body. This can result in distorting the spine, off-setting hips, collapsing the chest…and we may wonder why it hurts to play. Or, why we “can’t play as long as we used to.”
For me, I’m kinda little (5’5”, 117 pounds) and I play a rather large instrument. Some of my first classical lessons were all about ergonomics and making friends with an unwieldy 26” x 16” x 69” oversized, upright violin. That was helpful. So, too, was my practice of yoga, started within a few years of my taking up the upright bass.
“Yoga” means “union” or “yoke”. In a hatha yoga practice, it’s linking breath with movement. This makes complete sense to me as a musician as well. Indeed, breath is one of the biggest areas of focus in a yoga practice. Becoming aware of it, directing it to a specific part of the body, controlling the duration of inhale vs. exhale, noticing the space between breaths, and letting go conscious control of it and just observing. As vocalists we often become more aware of our breath and the resonance it creates in our bodies as we sing. We learn how to control inhalation and exhalation to help us project, and, to not hurt ourselves. As instrumentalists, simply breathing can give us the space and awareness to calm ourselves and focus.
And, there are stretches that I know have improved my playing, maybe even saved it. There have been times when I felt a loss of strength and dexterity in my arms and hands—which was completely terrifying. Patiently and consistently working with a few basic stretches of forearms, hands, fingers, chest and shoulders not only helped me get back the strength, range of motion, and dexterity I was worried I was prematurely losing, they improved it.
In this episode my buddy and fellow musician Zak Sloan and I share some of our favorite stretches. A few guidelines I would offer from my yoga and life experience:
Honor your edge. Find where you feel the stretch but are not in pain. We’re not trying to create injuries or further problems. Find your edge (not anyone else’s) and patiently work with it. Lean into it, back off, and don’t force it.
Know that your body and your edge changes day to day. Some days you’re invincible and other days you feel defeated before you’re out of bed. No need to judge it, just notice it, and work with the changing edge.
Don’t compare yourself to others. Our genetics and our life experiences all give us different bodies. I may never be able to do the splits. That’s ok. Stretching is getting you in touch with your body, not giving you another place to compare yourself to others.
Breathe. See how you can use your breath to gently release tight muscles and bring awareness to the area you’re stretching.
May ease in your body create ease in your music and playing!