Strength and Accuracy for the Guitarist

 

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Your Weekly Dexterity and Stamina Exercise

Updated February 10, 2005


 

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Tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Serious issues with serious consequences


You are an athlete. Yeah, I know, you haven’t done a squat-thrust or jumping jack since high school and the Knicks are definitely not beating your door down to sign with them. However, you are still an athlete and governed by the same physical limitations and regulations as any Olympian is. Once you’ve realize that music isn’t merely a mental workout, but is most definitely an athletic regimen, you are on the high road to avoiding sports-related injuries. And that, my friends, is exactly what many of us suffer from. In my case, I thought ‘Well, you are getting older…’ and excused the burning in my elbow, the numbness in my thumb and the shooting pains in my fingers a few years ago.

“No pain, No gain!” Yup. It’s said all the time, right along with “Feel the burn!” Supposed to be a good thing, but these are actually the harbingers of a ruined career. Don’t be fooled, pushing through the pain is not in your best interest.

In my case, I figured my symptoms were somehow related to age and maybe a touch of arthritis. I was 46 when I first noticed the symptoms I've described above. I tried Tylenol and then Aleve (both awesome medications for arthritis and inflammation) but these only masked the problem as I used them. If I’d rested a bit, they would have helped to fix the damage, but no, I wasn’t going to give anything I chance, I was going to be a man and play through the issues. Fool.

Aside from playing guitar, believe it or not, the following activities can exacerbate the tendon/carpal tunnel damage:

  1. Gripping and squeezing. Hey, they told you about that in Catholic school anyway.

  2. Leaning on a desk edge with the wrists, palms, or elbows. Sit up like your mother told you to.

  3. Holding a phone with your shoulder. It looks stupid anyway, so cut it out.

  4. Carrying a shoulder bag. We all did that in school. Get a brief case, it looks more professional anyway.

  5. Bad posture. (And how many of us have copped that bad-boy slouch from time to time?)

Take it from me, typing at a computer for a great portion of my waking hours is another activity that raises a red flag on the road to trouble. A man I know who has lost use of his hands has a program that allows him to dictate to his computer—no manual keystrokes necessary. This might be a boon to guitarists and other musicians who use their fingers in their art.

As you move your fingers, the tendon flexes and moves within its sheath. This generates a certain level of friction that eventually leads to inflammation. If the inflammation is ignored and further aggravated, scar tissue will build around the tendon. In the case of carpal tunnel syndrome, this scar tissue builds up on the tendon where it passes through the carpal tunnel. There isn’t a lot of room in their folks. There are also nerves and blood vessels sharing the space and as the tendon swells, it cuts off blood supply to the muscles of the hand and pinches the nerves. These muscles and nerves need the blood and without it, they will die. This is more or less permanent.

Musicians take these foibles and elevate them to an art form by the awkward stuff we do with our hands. We bend our wrists into strange, tendon/nerve/blood vessel choking angles and then move those fingers and arms rapidly for hours at a stretch without coming up for air. Add to this the fact that we do this under great emotional stress at times—try sitting a college-level jury some time—and what I said about air is literal, as we often hold our breath through strenuous passages. It’s a formula for trouble.

Now I (of all people) understand the need for thorough practice. Heck, I write these exercise and stamina building pieces all the time. That’s why I feel it is my duty to let you know not just what to do to work those muscles, but how to do it safely. I was listening to a guitar player discussing his health issue just recently. He said “I’ve been having a lot of surgery lately, fixing the vertebrae in my neck—I play too much guitar.” Give the guy the buzzer. Yeah, he may have played too much but more likely, he played to much INCORRECTLY.

Okay, so how does one play correctly, not burn out those tendons, nerves and muscles?

FIRST: Stretch out and warm up like any athlete. Grasp you hands together in front of you. Apply light isometric pressure and lift you arms up over your head. Bring your clasped hands down behind your head. Return them to a position in front of your torso. Stretch out to the left, then the right keeping those hands pressed gently but firmly together. If you are a classical guitarist or one who sits extensively when practicing and performing, stretch out your legs. I know you wouldn’t be able to do floor stretches in a suit or gown if about to perform a recital, but you can always warm up a bit earlier.

SECOND: Don’t jump right in and play your speed metal licks, your Joe Satrianni tribute piece, a Bach violin partita or Scarlatti harpsichord transcription. Use those silly chromatic exercises I’ve shown you and some slow scales

THIRD: Don’t do what I did to almost burn up a tendon. If you practice for a solid hour, take a twenty minute rest. Hey, if you were at a gig, you’d get a beer and leak break. Treat yourself as well as a demon club owner would! In the real world, you would never play three hours straight. Why should we practice that way?

Oh, so you haven’t been doing these things like warming up or giving your arm and fingers a break? So you’ve felt pins and needles in your fingers at night… Your hand goes numb when you play…You get sharp stabbing pains in your muscles… You can’t feel the guitar neck… You’re already in trouble. Okay. There is hope.

You will need to stop what you are doing immediately. Yes, that means guitar playing as well. Find a sports-medicine doctor and/or a physical therapist. Some GP’s will recommend splints, cortisone injections, and maybe a surgical procedure. I know guys who have had the surgery. I also know some guys who will never play again. Don’t play games with your art. If you’ve pushed through to these symptoms, you will not be playing for a few months. That’s at best. Do some research online about Repetitive Stress Injuries. Don’t be a manly-man and wind up on the bench permanently. Life is short, but it will become very long without music! Harry Pellegrin performs weddings and gallery openings in the Capital Area!


Hey, if you feel you've benefited by these pages, please consider buying my novel LOW END through Amazon.com

 

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