A few days ago I began developing the early stages of tendonitis in my right hand “bow” wrist. Having some experience with more vigorous training schedules, I know the reason for this hiccup in my practice schedule is my violation of a cardinal rule in training. Whenever you increase the intensity, it’s wise to simultaneously decrease the volume. Double Stops can be intense on the left hand, so I was keeping a close watch on it, relaxing and taking breaks as necessary. However, I neglected to observe what was happening in my right hand, and even spent my “rest breaks” doing bow dexterity exercises! I am currently remedying the muscle strain with problem with gentle shiatsu massages, stretching, ice packs, and sleeping wrist braces. To keep myself occupied during this period of reduced practicing, I would like to take a moment and write a post about the pitfalls of overtraining as a musician…
Shin’ichi Suzuki (1898-1998) once said that you only need to practice on the days that you eat. In this age of plenty, that’s likely to be 365 days a year. However, it has also been said that musicians are “athletes of the small muscles”. Any musician who intends to do serious training would profit from exploring the analogous training regimens for other athletic endeavors. Fortunately, in the process of training for triathlons in my 20s, I learned some valuable information about human anatomy & exercise physiology including balancing efficiency, intensity, nutrition, and rest. It is intuitive to imagine that training itself will increase your fitness, but this is not exactly what happens in the body. Exercise is a stressor which actually decreases fitness, first by using up the energy stored in your muscles (glycogen), then by depleting your other energy & electrolyte reserves, and finally by causing tiny tears in your muscle fibers. All of these effects combine to weaken the muscle’s ability to contract forcefully. If you continue beyond this point, your muscles will begin to tighten & then cramp up as a warning that further exertion will result in lasting injury (tendonitis, ligament tears, pulled muscles, etc). Increasing fitness is something that ONLY happens during rest periods (eg during sleep & days off). So the process for increasing fitness is cyclical in nature and has two components: the first is to break the body down (training), and the second is to build it up (rest). Neglect either one of these components and you could end up getting weaker, slower, clumsier, and more prone to serious injury.
Everyone’s body is different, and so the stress load involved in playing the cello (or any instrument) will be different for everyone. Even if you take all the proper precautions, there are no guarantees of avoiding an injury. That being said, I will list a few guide lines for body awareness that I use to avoid the precursors of injuries (tension, straining, and over exertion).
- Remember to Breathe – seems simple enough, but this is surprising easy to forget to do. This is also the first step in maintaining focused relaxation.
- Relax Your Thumbs – it’s virtually impossible to have tense hands when your thumb muscles are relaxed, and reducing excess tension will not only better your technique, it will also reduce the risk of injury.
- Use the Minimum Force – remember Newtons 2nd Law: Your instrument can’t push back on you any harder than you are squeezing on it
- Warm Up – stretching is not warming up. Take some time before your practice to get your blood pumping, jog in place, wiggle your fingers, do relaxed scales, bow dexterity drills, etc. Running your forearms under hot water is also an efficient way to prep your muscles for a work out.
- Stretch – gentle stretching is a great thing to do once your blood is flowing and your muscles are warm. It’s best to save “deeper” stretches after practice as a “cool-down.” However, stretching before a practice session with cold muscles can be dangerous and even introduce tension and strains.
- Take Plenty of Breaks – don’t wait until your muscles get tired and cramp up, take frequent mini breaks instead. Your brain and your hands will thank you. This is a good time to take in water and simple carbs to keep your energy and willpower up
- Pain Isn’t Normal – don’t ignore any burning, aching, pinching, tearing, throbbing, tingling, or numbness. Playing cello isn’t effortless, but it should never be painful. Stop playing immediately, and if you can’t figure out the problem without hurting yourself more, then wait till you can consult your teacher and/or a doctor. The earlier you stop & search for a solution, the more simple and quick that solution will be, the simplest being a good nights rest.
- Sleep – without adequate rest our brains and bodies cannot function properly for learning. In fact, not getting sufficient rest can put the same stress load on a body as a heavy workout. Chronic insomnia also has pretty nasty effects on memory formation, ability to focus, and can even decrease brain volume (ie cause dementia) if persistent.
- Balance Your Load – if you increase the intensity of your practice routine by introducing challenging new technique (extensions, double stops, energetic bowing techniques, etc), you should decrease the volume of your practice time to keep the overall physical stress load from spiking
- Ease Back Into It – in the event of an injury, don’t rush headlong back into your routine. Notch it up slowly and always, always, always, listen to your body.
- Rest on Your Rest Day – it’s typical in our busy multi-tasking lives to want to pack your rest time with activity to try and make up for any lost time on other priorities. If possible, try to make DOING NOTHING AT ALL a priority during your rest days. At least nothing that involves using your hands very much.
- Watch for Mental Fatigue – if at the end of a long practice you feel your passion for the cello waning, then you are probably suffering from ego-depletion and you are need of a rest day to avoid burnout and injury. This sensation is technically a form of temporary depression that is a direct result of overtraining. Take one Day off, and you will feel that siren song calling from your cello case again. You will also be more physically refreshed and mentally alert, and thus more efficient in the practice room.
Nothing will shorten your practice routine faster than holding on to excess tension, it is also the quickest road to injury. If you have a problem with relaxation, I recommend taking a class on yoga/tai chi or simply going for a nice walk. You might also find my post on inserting rest notes helpful since it is the most efficient route I’ve found toward ensuring relaxed playing for hours on end.