Sidharth Praveen, a Bengaluru-based musician, guitarist, and teacher, sets aside 10 minutes for finger drills, wrist stretches, and arm blood flow exercises before he plays the guitar or conducts a class or session. Post the concert, practice or session, he takes a few minutes to cool down too. Praveen’s routine feels like the pre- and post-match routine of a sportsperson.
Listening to the melodious notes emanating from a string instrument is uplifting. But behind the beauty lies the silent narrative of the pain the musicians deal with as they pursue perfection through relentless training and performances for years. Ranging from improper technique to repetitive strain, numerous causes contribute to the pain. However, taking certain measures helps to minimize the pain involved in the playing experience.
Such warm-up and cool-down exercises address muscle, joints, tendon fatigue and more. However, exercises are just one of the many preventive measures that artists take to make playing string instruments like the violin or guitar pain-free and happy.
Various pains while playing string instruments
Calluses: Whether it is the guitar or violin, calluses (thickened and hardened areas of skin) on the fingertips are something that every string instrument musician faces, especially during the initial days of the journey. The fretboard in a guitar and the fingerboard in a violin serve as the playing surface where the musicians press down on the strings to produce different notes and pitches.
“When we play the instrument, our fingertips are moving back and forth on the strings. Constant friction leads to the formation of calluses on the fingertips,” says Praveen, the founder of Riff Guru School of Music, Bengaluru. “There is some gap between the string and the fretboard on the guitar (fingerboard on violin). As a result, we must apply some pressure to produce the music. The pressure against the strings also leads to the formation of calluses,” he says.
Calluses are bound to happen when you start playing any string instrument.
“It can be painful in the beginning,” says Dennis George, a professional violinist from Bengaluru with 16 years of experience in both acoustic and electric violin. “Over a period, once you keep playing a particular instrument, your fingers become accustomed to the strings. The skin will naturally build a hard layer on top of each of your fingertips, and it becomes easier to play,” he explains
Carpal tunnel syndrome: Carpal tunnel syndrome is characterized by compression of the median nerve in the wrist, which results in hand pain, numbness, and weakness. Repetitive and strenuous finger movements during practice can lead to inflammation and compression of the median nerve within the wrist. So, carpal tunnel syndrome is common in guitar and violin players.
“It happened to me due to over-practicing and I developed severe forearm pain,” says Praveen. “You can prevent it by cutting down on the amount of time you spend practicing and giving your hands some rest.”
Playing with the right technique helps avoid wrist pain.
“Since it is a string instrument, most people assume playing it requires a lot of hours,” says Praveen. “While effort is necessary, it should be done with the correct technique. Pain is an expected result of prolonged playing; consider it as a cue to take a break. Similarly, if you experience some sort of pain immediately when you start playing, that means the technique is wrong.”
Neck, shoulder, and arm pain: Even though certain instruments are lightweight, holding them for a long time in the same position causes pain in the arms, shoulders, and neck.
George faced some pain and discomfort and needed medical intervention for recovery. “When you are engrossed in the music, you cannot seem to figure out the intensity of your pain.” “When the show ends and you return home, that is when you truly begin to experience the pain,” he says
George went through a few months of physiotherapy. This is when he realized he should take some precautions before his performances and practice to minimize the chances of feeling pain.
Taking break and proper posture
It takes a lot of time, dedication and effort to master any musical instrument. At the same time, following proper technique and taking adequate breaks are crucial to avoid long-term complications like postural issues, and different aches and pains.
People often hunch over when playing the violin or guitar. This may be due to holding the instrument incorrectly.
“When holding the violin, it must be precisely parallel to the level of your nose. Otherwise, you start crouching down, bending, and eventually developing a hunchback as your shoulders also begin to hunch,” says George.
George recommends fixing a shoulder rest (pad) to the violin to provide support and comfort for the player while helping to maintain proper playing posture and prevent the instrument from slipping.
Exercises for guitarists and violinists
Professionals advise certain exercises before and after the performance to improve blood flow to the fingers and strengthen the muscles. This will help one play efficiently and minimize pain while playing guitar or violin.
Stretches: “They ensure that our fingertips receive blood flow, especially when we perform in cold temperatures,” says Praveen.
Fingertips are more susceptible to cold temperatures, which can cause vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels) and reduce blood flow temporarily.
Neck stretch: Moving the neck from left to right, up and down, and holding the neck static after each stretch for two seconds helps to strengthen the muscles.
Arm stretch: Extend one arm forward, keeping it parallel to the ground, and the palms pointing toward the floor. Pull the fingers towards the body with the other arm, stretching the forearm muscles. Repeat for the other arm.
Wrist stretch: Stand with the arms resting beside the body, pointing towards the ground. Hold the left thumb straight using the right hand. Fold the rest of the fingers into the palm and stretch the thump. Repeat for the rest of the fingers in the left hand. Do the same stretch for the right hand.
Finger drills: Finger drills are what you do on the instrument. Common drills include scales, arpeggios, and trills, which help players develop precise finger movements.
Blood flow exercise: It should be done before picking up the instrument. Start with pressing in the centre of the palm, and then softly massage and distribute the pressure to the tips of each finger. Do it on both palms.
Cooldown exercises: The cooldown exercises include rotation of the wrists. You can do a couple of rotations, clockwise and anti-clockwise.
- Factors like poor technique to repetitive strain result in pain while playing string instruments (guitar and violin). Taking preventive measures minimizes the chances.
- Calluses, carpal tunnel syndrome, and neck, shoulder, and arm pain are commonly experienced by string instrument musicians.
- It is crucial to use the correct technique when holding the instrument and to take adequate breaks to prevent postural problems and various aches and pains of playing instruments like guitar and violin.
- Exercises such as stretches for the neck, arm, and wrist, finger drills, blood flow, and cool-down exercises improve blood flow to the fingers, strengthen the muscles and make the experience better.