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Playing Without Pain

In the midst of digging out after this record-setting snowstorm, I was contemplating many of the pedagogical discussions I have either read about or participated in over the years concerning technique for singers and instrumentals. Musicians of all stripes have been debating the “correct” way to play or sing for a very long time. In my experience, if you ask ten different musicians to describe “proper technique” you will hear at least eleven different answers!

It occurred to me today that playing/singing music is exactly like shoveling snow. How I grip the shovel, how much snow I pick up in each shovel-movement, how I stand and brace myself, and what type of motion I make with the shovel all serve to determine how long I will be able to continue shoveling until fatigue sets in. If I continue shoveling long after fatigue sets in, I will begin to injure myself and eventually be forced to stop. If I use the correct shoveling technique and take periodic breaks, I can probably continue shoveling indefinitely.

There is nothing esoteric about how to shovel snow efficiently. I might even venture to say that few if any of us ever care to perfect the technique of snow shoveling. We only improve our snow shoveling abilities out of pure necessity. We want our lives to return to normalcy as quickly as possible. To be honest, the fundamentals of technique for playing or singing music are really not any more complicated than this either.

Most serious musicians spend many hours per day practicing, rehearsing and/or performing. It becomes very easy to get caught up in the moment and stop paying attention to the physical demands of what we are doing. It does not take long for our bodies to start showing symptoms of abuse: lips swell, wrists stiffen, fingers slow down, voices feel unsteady, and a whole variety of other symptoms begin to take hold. Too many of us ignore our bodies when they start to speak up. Sometimes we notice these signals but are not sure how to make any adjustments to alleviate them. Other times we intensionally ignore them thinking that a little pain might even be good for us and make our bodies stronger. While perhaps an argument could be made that a slight amount of fatigue and discomfort is beneficial for growing muscles, pain and injury will only serve to damage the body over time.

The basic process for refining technique on any instrument (or snow shovel) is one of minimizing extraneous movement and excessive force while simultaneously maximizing whatever it is we are trying to accomplish. What makes a movement extraneous or force excessive? Any movement or force that can be eliminated without negatively affecting one’s musical (or snow shoveling) goals is excessive and SHOULD be eliminated. If in trying to eliminate the movement or reduce the force we struggle to achieve the same results, then perhaps there was something necessary about it, and it SHOULD NOT be eliminated.

I used to notice myself squinting whenever I played in the upper register on the trombone. As soon as I figured out how to stop doing this, my upper register felt so much easier and in control. At one point I noticed myself lifting my fingers far off the piano keys when I played scales. As soon as I stopped doing this everything felt so much easier to play.

However, I also used to notice myself using a higher tongue position whenever I articulated in the upper register of the trombone. I spent a lot of time trying to eliminate this tongue motion, but whenever I did I could no longer keep my tone centered up high. My high register response and flexibility suffered greatly. As soon as I let my tongue go back to doing what it was doing before, my upper register was completely fine again. I later reasoned that this was perhaps an essential part of facilitating the upper register on a brass instrument and not at all extraneous.

We observe ourselves, notice tendencies and patterns, and then experiment with eliminating whatever seems excessive or unnecessary. Sometimes when we make changes everything gets better right away. Other times those changes immediately make things much worse. Furthermore we might even discover tradeoffs—when making a change certain aspects of what we do got better, but other ones got worse.

If we encounter a tradeoff, we just made another important observation. We found an aspect of our technique that needs to vary depending on what we are doing. For example, I tell my brass students that it takes a different embouchure formation and airstream to play in the high register than it does in the middle or lower register. If one tries to use their low register embouchure up high they will struggle to play. However, that doesn’t mean that using the high register embouchure down low is the answer either. Instead, we should strive to transition smoothly between an embouchure which works down low and one which works up high.

Likewise, playing the piano efficiently requires a very large repertoire of hand motions due to the huge variety of physical demands required by most piano music. I once overheard a heated debate between good friends of mine over whether pianists should spend more time perfecting their finger technique or instead learn to use the weight of their arms. The answer is that they should do whatever best facilitates the music they are attempting to play. Playing from the weight of the arms often gives more power and brilliance to the sound, but it also slows everything down. Should you use a snow plow, snow thrower or snow shovel? It really depends on what you are trying to do. Each tool is well suited for certain tasks and struggles to easily do others.

And this brings us to the last and somewhat horrifying point about technique. No approach to playing/singing can completely solve the problems of pain or injury. Even the most efficient approach to a physical task still takes a toll on our bodies. We reach our physical limitations no matter how “correctly” we approach something. The advantage to using a more efficient technique is that we can last longer and accomplish more before fatigue starts to set in. However, it will still set in eventually for even the best players/singers. Sometimes the symptoms of fatigue are extremely difficult or even impossible to notice.

In other words, any of us can develop a playing related injury at any time without much warning. At the first signs of injury we should take action. Stop playing/singing until the signs of the injury fade. If it seems severe or mysterious, seek medical attention. These days there are lots of medical professionals who specialize in working with performing musicians. If you take good care of your body, it will usually take good care of you too.

If we are careful and meticulous in how we approach what we do, we should be able to continue enjoying our craft indefinitely. Never ignore your body when it is trying to tell you something. Always experiment with new approaches, and take plenty of breaks. Speaking of breaks, it’s about time for me to head back outside.

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