I remember finishing my last year of high school, and being so excited to start practicing. I literally expected to be a superstar percussionist by the end of my summer holidays. However, two days into my world-percussion-domination endeavour, I felt something give way in my wrist, and from there, I began developing severe pain all down my arms. I asked my teachers around me what I should do about the pain, and they said it would eventually pass. I asked my friends around me, and they said they played through the pain. I walked around wearing these two arm braces looking like some sort of tan-coloured, completely debilitated Transformer, while I lay in bed at night with intense burning and tingling pains down my arm, hoping someone would cut them off in Monty Python Black Knight style.
Not normally one to give up without a fight, I made it a mission to “fix” my arms. With the help from my teachers, my peers, and my alternative-therapy obsessed Mum, I started a journey trying anything and everything to relieve this pain. This mission took four years, but the pay off is completely worth it; I can play without any pain, for as long as I like, while feeling completely free and expressive with my instrument. In a world where the words “Repetitive Strain Injury” cause shivers or groups of musicians to bemoan “ohhhh noooooo”, the acronym enthusiast within me has turned RSI into the more positive “rest, solutions and insistence”. As unabashedly corny as it sounds, the process of resting, finding solutions, and insisting to follow through with these solutions helped me overcome my pain when I played. I’ve detailed my process below: while others will have different experiences, and everyone responds to treatment differently, I hope my experience will give you a few ideas to get started on the road of recovery!
So many times I’ve kept practicing when I know I should have stopped. Taking the time to rest, whether it’s for an hour, a night, a day, a week, or even longer, is essential for retention, learning, and general sanity. It also helps your muscles repair themselves after intense practicing. I find that the most gains I make in the practice room happens just after a break from practice. Figure out what works for you, stick to it, and if you feel any pain, don’t push yourself to the point of injury!
Some people absolutely swear by their physiotherapist and osteopaths etc, and I agree. I received life-changing advice from my osteopath, which was to change my sleeping position, and to start using a postural pillow, which relieved my neck pain. However, I got caught into the money trap: I was seeing one of these professionals every week, and my lowly student income couldn’t handle it. I eventually realised the work done by these professionals is often not permanent, so I began looking for more preventative measures for my RSI. But hey, a session every once in a while with my incredibly friendly and not-to-mention good looking osteopath doesn’t hurt!
Improper technique was definitely a huge cause of my pain. Some people pick up technique incredibly fast and have no pain issues at all. I’m definitely not one of those people. When we have to learn things so quickly and at such a high level, we often cut corners when we really should be taking our time. To improve my technique, I found a teacher who was focused on the most technical aspect of playing. In addition, I practiced exercises slowly and with a mirror, trying to change any movements that looked unnatural or stressful for my body. It’s slow and brain-numbing at times, but the pay-off is worth it!
Pilates definitely was a personal turning point in the fight against my body. I found a remedial pilates studio near my house, which offers very small pilates classes where the instructor would create programs specific to each person. After explaining my RSI problems, my instructor worked specifically on strengthening bigger muscle groups and improving my posture, so the right muscles were taking the load when I played. After doing this for a couple of months, I found I didn’t have to see a physiotherapist at all, and these classes cost half the amount. In addition, my pilates instructor has also become my unofficial therapist, so I’m definitely getting my money’s worth!
Eating crap food is seemingly embedded in the music lifestyle. When you have to run here and there from rehearsals, there’s barely any time to make good food and takeout becomes the lifeline. I soon realised that eating crap food all the time made me feel sluggish, which wasn’t ideal when I was trying to perform at my peak. The reality it that classical musicians in this demanding era are very similar to athletes; we have to be extremely physical for long periods of time, so keeping healthy is more important than we realise. I’m not quite Gwyneth Paltrow 24/7, but when I’m intensely practicing in the lead up to a recital, eating well helped my body bounce back after a long day in the practice room, and gave my mind some clarity. Try it before your next recital, and see if you notice any difference!
Any form of relaxation is completely ideal. After trying all the above, my body still wasn’t completely great. Meditiation and yoga changed that. I learned that your body holds stress in your muscles over time; think of when you’re stressed out and your muscles tighten and hunch up - if you are feeling stressed every day, you become immune to this feeling, and your muscles are constantly tight. Clearing all the tension through guided breathing and stretching exercises helps relax the body and clear the mind, and is also great for generally improving concentration and performance success. While I haven’t tried Alexander Technique myself, I have heard it works wonders too!
Lastly, once you’ve found something that helps, stick to it and don’t give up! A teacher once told me that “RSI is an inevitable part of being a musician; you just have to learn how to get over it”. So many people go through it; 50-60% of professional orchestral musicians will experience it at some point in their lives, and the only way to fix it is to put in the time to fix it. Unfortunately, most solutions aren’t immediate, and it takes a lot of time and patience. But, when you put it in perspective, 6 months solely dedicated to fixing technique and RSI problems is only 6 months within a lifelong music career. And if you cut corners now, they will definitely come back to haunt you. So by taking your time, being patient, and by having the intent to fix it, you will discover the gains!
So through a mix of all the above, I managed to fix my RSI! While I still have discomfort at various times, particularly when I’m tired, it’s no where near as bad as it was four years ago. And as your body becomes stronger and your technique gets better, it naturally improves over time. Just stick with your process, and have an open mind, because the solution that sounds totally crazy could be the one that works for you.
Also, many of my friends have resigned to the fact that they will be in pain their entire music lives. Never give up though! Keep progressively trying new things and searching for new solutions. Everyone deserves to play music without pain.
Finally, get the conversation started! Talk to your teachers and colleagues about your pain. Get recommendations for professionals and friends who have received help themselves. RSI isn’t a sign of weakness or incapability; having the will to tackle the problem head on is a sign of strength!
In the comments I would love to hear any other RSI stories/solutions/website links! Sharing is caring!