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Avoiding Arm and Hand Pain in Piano Playing


The very physical nature of playing the piano unfortunately sometimes leads to problems with tendonitis, hand strain, and pain in the arms.  Pianists can find themselves habitually putting unnatural strain on






parts of their bodies, which can be complicated by their age and physical development, their technique, and the demands placed on them by their instructors.  Anyone studying piano should practice playing as naturally as possible, using a preventative approach to make sure pain does not hinder enjoyment of the instrument.


Where do problems with hand pain at the piano come from?


It might appear that if a person is fit and strong, they should simply have no problems when playing the piano—after all they are not on the basketball court or playing an injury-filled sport.  However even for a very healthy person numerous issues can cause problems: for one, many musicians do not even realize how they use their bodies at the piano.  Many pianists adopt contorted postures, grimace and twist their faces, lift their fingers at odd angles, lean far forward, and move in other unnatural ways.  Much of this takes place in an attempt to execute difficult passages, or to bring out passionate emotion, or just out of bad habit.


Furthermore, another issue is the age and individual development of the piano player.  Especially children under sixteen could be prone to problems if they do not develop good habits, because their bodies are still forming.  Teachers need to be aware of students’ physical wellbeing at this stage.  They should make sure the pieces they assign do not overly stress the student, and that the student has learned the appropriate technique.


How can pianists avoid developing arm and hand problems?


One of the most important things a piano player can do is focus on playing in a manner that is natural to him or her.  Before learning any fingerings, hand positions, or technical methods, the pianist should just attempt to play effortlessly.  Make every motion, every execution of a passage, as though the hands were just at rest, not exerting any energy, not forced or pressured.  Maintain a steady relaxation, and avoid any postures or movements that do not feel natural and relaxed.


Next, watch for common problems and sources of tension.  For example, many players will lean into the piano during playing.  This is not as good a posture because it places more tension on the arms and reduces blood flow due to the angle of the torso.  Another source of tension is the neck and shoulders.  Many players will hunch the shoulders, which restricts motion of the upper body and spreads tension down through the arms and hands.


In terms of tension in the fingers, a good exercise is to understand the neutral position of the hand, sometimes called the “position of function.”  Drop the arm and hand down vertically pointing towards the floor, then lift the forearm up at the elbow so it is horizontal, keeping the same relaxed position of the hand.  Notice the natural arch of the fingers, the open position, free of tension.  Notice how the thumb curves, and the angle at which it rests.  This neutral, relaxed position is a good model for how to try to maintain the hand during all playing.  No matter how technical or difficult the passage, strive to maintain the neutral, open position, with minimum tension.


Another good habit is to put some work into finding the best fingering for the individual.  Many sheet music editions have fingerings printed for each note.  Often these fingerings are strong and assist well with smooth playing.  At the same time, it is important for the pianist to find what suits him or her the best—whether he feels more comfortable using the third or the fourth finger on a note, or substituting the thumb in one hand for a certain notes in the other.  The fingering in the score is not always the best, and the time spent finding a comfortable fingering could prevent injury and make each practice session run more smoothly.


As well, injuries can also be prevented by using common sense when practicing.  Make sure to take breaks every fifteen minutes or half hour, to give the hands a chance to rest—do not exert them tirelessly for hours and expect them to never develop signs of overuse.  Also pianists should make sure to work on repertoire that is appropriate for their technical level—they should avoid playing pieces that require more physical ability than they currently have, even if they are otherwise able to grasp the piece intellectually and musically.  Working on a piece that is neither too difficult nor too easy gives the player a chance to progress and develop strong skills at each stage.  He can then move on to harder works more effectively, rather than jumping into overly challenging works and facing greater problems or injuries.


Finally, a piano player may wish to learn the details of an advanced technique, that can assist in efficient use of the body.  The Alexander Technique is one popular way of carrying the body and maintaining a stable posture while playing.  Individual methods and teachers also provide their own ways of maintaining healthy posture, from rotating the wrists, to sliding the thumbs, to keeping the fingers arched.  Advanced study of one or more of these techniques may provide a good basis for keeping a good, pain-free posture.  Nevertheless, throughout the study of any techniques, it is always important to keep in mind the simple idea of playing naturally.  If the player focuses on avoiding stress and tension, using the body in a generally relaxed manner, and using common sense to choose technically appropriate pieces and practice times, he or she could already be well on the way to healthy playing.





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