Technique & Avoiding Repetitive Stress Injuries

Going into this discussion of repetitive stress injuries, I want to take a second to re-frame the way we think of playing a music instrument. I think for a lot of us who may not regularly play, sitting down to play an instrument seems like a relaxing, somewhat sedentary activity. And while there is a calming element to playing beautiful music, I would argue that it's more our mood or spirit that feels the calm, while our bodies are very engaged in the fine motor movements that make the music. A colleague of mine from the McPherson Area Piano Teachers' League describes playing an instrument as being a 'fine motor athlete.' And that is exactly how I want us to frame our thinking as we head into a discussion about technique. 

I think to some extent most of us can understand the importance of learning proper form when playing a sport so as to avoid injury. We need to to do the same with learning to play an instrument. So my first two tips are going to be about form: 
  • Posture - our posture to the piano when playing is crucial for our hands to have the essential support from our back and upper arms. If we slouch down and cut off that flow of energy, we are dumping all of the work and tension into our wrists and fingers. So first, sit tall with weight slightly forward, and ensure that the bench is at the proper distance and height from the piano.
  • Shape - Hand and wrist shape are also very important in keeping out tension. Tension is our enemy when it comes to injuries, both in sports and in playing an instrument. The trick is in keeping our muscles loose enough to absorb impact while still letting energy flow where it needs to. If you notice that your piano kid's hands look like cat claws or are flattened out like a pancake, have them try this simple trick. (And you can try it with them too so that you learn what this feels like in your own body).
    • Put hands on your knees and rest them there without gripping so that your palms and fingers are gently curved around your kneecaps. Without changing the shape of your hand, lift them up and let them rest on the keys, trying to maintain the same neutral shape. 
    • Once you've mastered the hand shape, try lifting your hands higher above the keys and letting them fall to the piano to play whichever keys they land on (it will make a big dissonant noise and that's ok). This can help us understand the importance of using the weight of our arms to support our fingers in playing the keys. 
The second thing we can learn from athletics is the importance of stretching, warming up and cooling down. To translate this to piano practice try this: 
  • Stretch - You might gently stretch by moving your wrists in circles or putting your hands straight out in front of you like a 'talk to the hand' gesture, and then gently flexing your fingertips back towards your face. You can also make wave motions with your hands and fingers trying to articulate the wave motion from the wrist to the fingertips. 
  • Then warm up musically with either a scale, a light technical warm up from your assignment sheet, or a simple song just to get your muscles ready before you jump into your full practice. 
  • And finally, cool down after your practice. I enjoy choosing a favorite piece to wrap up my practice time, often it's a simple, relaxing, lyrical piece. This serves two purposes, playing music you already know and enjoy will help you play with less tension for a cool down, AND it will help you end on a positive mental note. You can also try some of the same stretches you did at the beginning of practice, particularly if you are feeling any tension built up over the course of your practice session. 
With just those few ideas, you can help your piano kid really frame their piano practice both with intention and prioritizing the health and longevity of their musical career. To wrap up, I'm going to give a few more general things we can keep in mind at the instrument: 
  • Take Breaks - marathon practice sessions are not always a good idea. Many runners use intervals to train, and we can do something similar too. If you feel tension settling in, get up and move around, stretch, play something simple, take a few slow breaths or get a drink of water. It's ok to give your body a chance to reset. Especially when we are working on advanced, or potentially frustrating, repertoire. 
  • Keep energy flowing, even when you're in stillness. - This is sort of a hard one to convey, so let's start by imagining that we're on the basketball court, where I think most of us know the best way to be ready to move is to have our weight in the balls of our feet and not in our heels. When we play piano, we also want to have that sense of a constant current of energy and motion, so we keep our weight mostly forward towards the piano so our energy is engaged. And in our hands and wrists, this energy often takes the form of very small circles. For example, to create a richer tone, we let the energy circle vertically, almost as if we were rowing the world's smallest rowboat, and we strike the keys on the way down, and pull the energy back towards ourselves to keep the current moving for when we need to strike the next note. (If you are a piano parent in my studio, and are having trouble visualizing this, just let me know and I'd be more than happy to give you a demonstration.)
This is by no means a comprehensive technical guide, and definitely should not be used in place of medical advice. It is always advisable to seek out the help of an instructor and/or medical professional if you are experiencing any pain or discomfort while playing the piano. These are simply a few tricks I have found that help both my students and myself be more mindful of the physical side of studying piano, and I hope they are of some help to you as well!