Stress Management for Musicians

One of the scariest things that can occur in a musician's career is an injury.  The saddest part of injuries are they are almost always self inflicted, take forever to heal, and are usually preventable!

It's the Stress

Injuries usually occur is because of problems with technique, how the instrument is held, or how the musician practices. The root of all of these problems are stress. Today we're going to talk specifically about stress management for musicians but not in the typical way. We're going to talk about stress that musicians put on their bodies, arms and hands when practicing their instrument.


We all talk about getting stress out of our lives by taking time out, learning to relax and making sure that we don't try to do too much at one time. All of these ideas also apply to musicians and their instrument. Stress comes from not taking time to relax (ignoring it), not taking the time to learn why the stress is there (awareness), and by trying to do too much at the same time (over-compensation). Musicians have to be aware of what is happening when they play their instrument. They have to be careful that there's not more going on there than what's needed. Most of all, they have to take time to make sure that there's no undo stress on your system. Relaxation is paramount.

Feel the Burn

Most stress problems arise from awareness; or lack of awareness. Sometimes musicians can feel the pain and damage on their system and continue to practice anyway. Stress and pain are not natural occurrances when playing any instrument and it's important to take time as asses and see if there is any pain. And, if there is, it's important that the musician takes time to erradicate that problem as soon as possible. It's important that this is taken care of and not just swept under the rug and left to take of itself.

Not 'Uncomfortable'

When just starting to play an instrument, there is usually some 'dis-comfort' because of the newness of the activity. I'm not talking about pain here, I just talking about the fact that holding the instrument properly or playing it may not feel completely natural. Much like learning a golf swing, there are times when learning a new skill feels completely awkward. At least this is how if felt for me the first time I was told how to swing a gold club properly. After a while we may become insensitive to these feelings and categorize then as inconsequential and something that will go away. We may have the attitude of just 'playing through the pain'. Pain, no matter how small and inconsequential, is wrong when playing an instrument. Remember I'm talking about pain here and not simply feeling uncomfortable or unnatural because for example, you may want to slouch and your teacher is making sure you sit properly. There are ways to hold instruments properly and it may not be something that feels completely natural at first. This isn't to say that there should be any pain. Most of all, if there is some pain, it's important that it's addressed right away. Alot of teachers will take the time to make sure that the student is holding the instrument properly. All people are different. There are going to be microscopic movements and small adjustments that are going to be completely your own. It's important that you take the time, find the problem, and determine how to fix it.

Check, Check

Here are some areas to check when playing. These should be addressed every couple of months just to check and see you haven't developed any bad habits. If you practice a lot and don't have any teachers or outside help, it's easy to get into bad patterns and not realize it. In our society it's usual for people to have tons of built up stress and not notice. It's part of our culture to ignore pain. The only way to combat this is to take time periodically and check to see there are not problems.

1. Numbness. This may seem like a huge indicator but a lot people won't notice this. Remember to put your focus and awareness on your body and notice if there are any problem areas. Numbness can be tricky because if you're not paying attention, it's easy to go by completely unnoticed.

2. Shoulder/neck and back pain. These are almost universal these days. People in general will put stress into one of these areas on a regular basis. Unfortunately, if you're getting pain in these areas after your practice, you may be putting even more there. Your practice sessions may not be the stress relief you thought. Violin players usually have a lot of troubles in this area because of the problems holding the instrument correctly. In general, musicians like to crouch over their instrument like they're deep into the performance. While that may help with interpretation, it's extremely hard on the body for extended periods.

3. Pain after extended period of play. This is the most common occurrence. These reason for this is because your body (particularly the hands) will usually take a lot of abuse before they complain. If by the end of your practice you have to discontinue because of pain, there is something wrong. That is not normal. That shouldn't be happening. You are doing some thing wrong or you are putting pain/stress on your body. Don't just 'let this go'.

4. Correct posture/technique. There are better ways to hold and play your instrument. Some people learn simply by doing. It's important that if you're one of the DIY people out there, that you take the time to reassess your technique every couple of months. It's easy to get into bad habits and not even realize it. If you have bad habits, it may not be obvious and you may realize the problem only after some major problems have occurred. Are you sitting/standing properly or are you slouching? Are your hands relaxed and you're making sure there are not problems areas? Are you making sure you have good technique when learning a new piece or are you just plowing through it? It's important you ask yourself these questions in your practice sessions.

Stop, What's That Sound

When any of these happen, take a step back. Try and figure out what part is the most painful. What particular exercise causes the pain? You may notice that when playing chords, your arms feel great but as soon as you try some arpeggios or extended intervals, you feel pain. Are you trying too hard in this one exercise? Are you putting pain in an area so that the exercise sounds right? If so, you will have to go back to the troubling exercise and start over. But this time, instead of focusing on getting the right sound or the right rhythm, play the exercise and focus only on the problem area of your body. Can you make the pain go away just by relaxing the area while you do the exercise. If it's a shoulder problem, you will have to examine hold you hold the instrument. Are you square or is your back twisted? If you're a horn player, there may be problems with your embouchure. There's one famous story of a jazz musician who had to take a couple of years off after discovering (after quite a few painful experiences) that his technique was all wrong. It's amazing how many of these problems arise from us putting too much stress in these areas without even realizing it.

Be Aware

If you're at the point where you spend a lot of time practicing, you may find some problems creeping up more often. This may be because of the increased workload, but it may be because the problem was always there, it just took an increased workload to bring it out.

Everybody's body is different. You're going to have some problems that are special to you. That means you will have to make sure that when fixing these problems that we take stress into consideration. We try to fix the problem but being sensitive about where the pain is, what may be causing the pain, and how we can fix the problem. Simply being aware of the problem and checking for stress is one of the best measures you can take to make sure that there aren't any problems.

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