As I consider all the hammered dulcimer and autoharp players I’ve worked with, it’s my observation that most of them share one thing in common: excess physical tension that gets in the way of their ability to play with the ease they’d like. (In my 25+ years of teaching the dulcimer, only one student started out with “easy” playing: a 73-year-old violinist who also happened to be one of my college professors. Talk about a role switch!)
Excess tension makes muscles (both large and small) work harder than they need to. When applied to music-making, this tension also “chokes” the instrument’s sound, compromising not only tone but also resonance. (Let’s face it: Strings want to ring!) Unfortunately, too many players have no clue that a great deal of tension exists in their playing equation, which can lead to injuries down the road like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) and Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). (To learn more about the cause and prevention of these injuries, click here.)
In the course of having excess tension identified during lessons, some of my students have admitted tendencies to overwork while performing everyday tasks, which then carries over into their playing. When we train ourselves to tense up in everyday life (which may have been unwittingly done for decades), it can be quite the challenge to let go and let the body do what it knows how to do from a neutral position. With this kind of “control” in our daily lives, it’s difficult to lose that control in order to accomplish a task and/or gain musical sound on an instrument. But, we must lose control to gain it.
Thankfully, we all can learn much from these students’ experiences (and this is true for enjoyers of music as well). Check out these everyday activities for yourself to see where you need to loosen up:
At the computer:
- Type with your wrists off the computer or desk, forearms level with the floor and shoulders suspended to lift the elbows. (This is just like playing piano, if you’ve done that.) Shrugged shoulders or elbows heading outward to turn your arms into chicken wings are your body’s way of saying that your chair is too low; if that’s the case, raise it! If your feet don’t touch the floor after raising the chair, get a thick phone book or two to take up the slack.
- Forget those wrist rests; they make you type without the help of your arms acting as “MacPherson struts.” See previous tip.
- Keep your “mouse shoulder” suspended (neither up nor down, but at a neutral place where no work is felt) when using the mouse. Check periodically that this shoulder doesn’t slowly creep up while you work.
- Your left thumb doesn’t have anything to do, but: Make sure it doesn’t “hook” upward while you type, as this places unnecessary stress on both thumb and left hand. Watch for a lower, neutral thumb position that matches the right thumb.
- Use keystroke commands instead of the mouse. (That’s what the underlined letters in “File,” “Edit” etc. in the top toolbar are all about, and many commands are listed in the drop-down menus next to the commands themselves.) Keystroke commands reduce mouse use and speed up computer productivity.
- More about keystroke commands: Use two hands to press the keys, even when both keys are on the same side of the keyboard. Copy and Paste can be done with the left hand only, but cause a circumstance known in medical circles as ulnar deviation, which when done long enough and often enough can lead to pain in the thumb and under the “shoulder” area around the armpit. (I’ve been there; read my story.) Distributing pairs of keystrokes in both hands helps maintain a neutral left wrist.
- Pressing the Return key with your pinky? Pick your right hand up to move your pinky over it, instead of stretching the pinky from a stationary hand. (Actually, my finger of choice for the Return key is the ring finger, which automatically makes me move my entire hand to the right to press this key.)
In the kitchen:
- When cutting up veggies, etc., again, suspend your shoulders at that neutral point where no work is felt. This will add weight to your arm to more strongly anchor the object of your slicing and dicing, and assist cutting. If your shoulders shrug (short people confronted with standard counter heights are likely to experience this), your work surface may be too high. (This means that I knead bread dough at the kitchen table instead of at the higher counter.)
- Whisking eggs: I’ve seen too many friends make their wrists go round and round to whisk (ouch–plus it’s so slow). Try this: Hold the whisk almost like a pencil, with the whisk handle passing between the index and middle fingers (this allows the wrist to be in a neutral position). Suspend the corresponding shoulder in space, then let your forearm do the whisking from the elbow. Watch it go really fast!
- To set cooking times on the microwave oven, make a loose fist, then key in using the “door-knocker” joints instead of fingertips. Should your microwave door open with the press of a large button (I once owned one designed like this), push this button with the door-knocker joints.
- Put your entire hand around jar lids to unscrew them, rather than using just the fingertips.
- Drinking a can of pop, a glass or bottle of water, etc.? Again, put your entire hand around the vessel (the “power grip”), instead of holding it with just your fingertips (the “pinch grip”).
Picking up large objects
- I’ll describe this one scenario and you can adjust accordingly to each similar situation: A cashier at my local supermarket wears a brace on each wrist. When I saw him one day away from the cash register in the meat section, I understood the reason behind the braces (it’s more than from scanning groceries): He held in each hand a flat, 8×12-inch package of chicken with his fingertips (the dreaded pinch grip) from one corner, slowly swinging the packages as he walked anywhere from horizontally to vertically below his hands. (Given my frequent chicken purchases, I’ll guess that each package weighed at least three pounds.) Better to place one package atop the other and then support them from underneath with all of both hands, supplying even more support from the forearms.
- This is easiest to train yourself to do on long trips with a lot of “mindless” interstate driving: Hold the steering wheel with shoulders suspended at neutral, then let your forearms suspend from your hands.
- Try the above tip in traffic!
- Avoid lodging the phone between your ear and a shrugged shoulder. (How do people do that in the car these days with those little cell phones? Oh, that reminds me: Please hang up and drive!) Invest in a headset earpiece so you don’t have to type lopsided.
- Ah, those plastic sacks our groceries and other boughten items go into: If they’re heavy, and you carry them at your sides by the handles, you’re stretching tendons like mad. Choices here: 1) Load the sacks into a shopping cart; 2) if you’re walking home with the goods, use paper sacks instead to carry them from underneath; 3) how about a rucksack?
- In an airport luggage shop I saw a gadget that raises question marks in my mind: A handle that attaches to the handle of a wheeled suitcase so that the traveler can walk and drag with the palm of the hand facing the body. I had to stop and think about this one, and question its integrity (a professional reading this is welcome to clarify). Seems to me that when my hand is at my side, the palm facing my body is okay, but once my hand trails behind to pull a suitcase, it wants to take a 90-degree turn with the palm down. So, is this gadget really necessary?
- There probably aren’t many of us who use a ruler to draw lines in this computer age, but dust one off and it will show you what happens when your body opposes gravity while drawing a straight line: Shrug the shoulder of the hand holding the ruler and draw a line. When I do this, the ruler slides every time, and I never get a straight line. Now try again, with your ruler shoulder suspended at a neutral position. The shoulder now adds arm weigh atop the ruler, and the line is straight because the ruler stays put. By releasing your shoulder, the weight of your entire arm holds the ruler in place.
- Did you know that some door knobs are only right- or left-handed? (And some are ambidextrous!) Using the right hand for a left-handed doorknob sets the entire right arm in an awkward arm-rotation position. Using the left hand avoids all of that.
In short, here are the body positions to keep track of most, based on the above:
- Shoulders: not shrugged nor too low.
- Hands extending straight (neutral) from the wrists. Hands should neither bend up or down or to either side (“windshield-wiper hands”) chronically from the wrists.
- Pick up or hold objects by surrounding them with the entire hand for a power hold. Using a pinch hold with the fingertips creates undue stress on tendons.
Have you got a tip?
I’ll add it here if it’s ergonomically helpful. (PS–Items will continue to be added ad infinitum, so don’t worry if this article is two years old or more. You might want to bookmark this page so you can check periodically for updates.)
Reducing physical tension in your daily routine will do more than carry over to ease of playing your instrument; it will also allow the sound to resonate large and free. It may take a while to fully release your muscles while playing. (Note: Release will be achieved more easily when the hands are shaped properly for playing. For the hammered dulcimer version of hand shape, see Striking Out and Winning!) My students often report that they start their practice sessions feeling tense, largely due to reacquainting themselves with whatever piece they’re playing (while considering all the mistakes they prefer to avoid!). So, if you’re unable to relax right away when you start playing, keep at it. (I suggest playing whatever you’re working on at least three times nonstop; it takes that many times to fully submerge.) When your hands/fingers know where they’re going, you can start to let go and settle in. Oh, and turn your ears on before you begin; your instrument’s sound will become rounder the more relaxed you become.
This article was published February 28, 2005 and last revised on June 7, 2006.
©2005 Lucille Reilly. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced for distribution in any format without prior permission.