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This month debuts a new health and wellness feature that we plan to include in upcoming editions of the newsletter. Because health and wellness, especially in relation to injuries and injury prevention, is one of the most common problems  that fellows need help with, CMPI has decided to address this topic on an ongoing basis.

This first column is dedicated to preparing the body to play and releasing tension after playing, also known as warming up, stretching, and cooling down.

Note that the techniques in this article are drawn largely from the highly recommended book Playing (Less) Hurt by Janet Horvath, as well as the CMPI workshop and independent sessions presented by SD Rehab.

Warming Up and Stretching Your Body

It must be noted that warming up and stretching are NOT the same thing. Warming up is actively moving your body to increase circulation, allowing the blood to flow all over your body and raising your body temperature. When you warm up, your body should literally warm up in temperature, thereby loosening your tendons, fascia, and joints.

There are many very simple ways to warm up that take just a few minutes, including some of the following:

  • Run in place or around the building
  • Do some jumping jacks
  • Take a short, brisk walk
  • Run up a flight of stairs
  • Dance for a few minutes

After warming up your body, you can do a few gentle stretches. You don’t need to stretch for a long time; five minutes is usually enough. It is important never to overstretch before playing. If it hurts, you are overstretching and potentially making your body more prone to injury. These should be general stretches designed to get the muscles you use frequently warm and malleable. Think of simple exercises like the following:

  • Shoulder shrugs and circles
  • Neck circles
  • Gentle hand and wrist stretches
  • Cross-arm stretches
  • Back stretches
  • Triceps stretches
  • Chest stretches

If you are unfamiliar with standard stretches, you can use any general stretching book or internet site. CMPI fellows should have received handouts with stretches from SD Rehab and can ask their student navigator for a copy if needed.

Warming Up on Your Instrument

After you have warmed up your body, you can begin warming up on your instrument. The distinction is important – instrument warmups always come after body warmups, once blood is circulating well and muscles, joints, and tendons have loosened up.

A lot of musicians automatically classify all scales, etudes, and technical exercises in the warmup category, when, in fact, some of these exercises may be the most difficult things you play all day! Don’t start with octave double stops on a string instrument or fast playing on any instrument. Instead, start simply and gently. Here are a few options:

  • Slow, long bows on string instruments
  • Slow scales in the middle range of your instrument
  • Sustained notes played at a medium dynamic
  • Mid-range long notes to stabilize the embouchure on wind and brass instruments

Once your fingers (and embouchure for winds/brass) start feeling warm, slowly add in more technical elements, such as faster scales, more complex tonguing, and more complicated bowings. Warming up on the instrument should take 20-30 minutes, and the focus should always be on carefully monitoring relaxation, tension, and ergonomic technique.

Cooling Down Stretches

The most neglected – and arguably the most important – time for stretching is after you have practiced. Muscles may be fatigued and have the potential to cramp, tendons may be overworked, or the embouchure may be tired. In addition, many instruments, especially string instruments, use asymmetrical body techniques, meaning that different muscles are used on the left and right sides of the body.

Players should carefully stretch the fingers and wrists, and the same general neck, shoulder, arm, and back stretches used for warming up the body can be used to relax the muscles to prevent soreness. Five to ten minutes is all that is needed.

A great option to address asymmetry from playing is to lie down lengthwise on a foam roller, which can be purchased for less than $20 on Amazon or any other major retailer. This exercise opens up many of the muscles that have been contracted while playing, and you can target additional stretching to the side that is less used while playing. Resistance bands are another inexpensive way to enhance your stretching.

Creating a Plan that Works for Practicing and Performing

In an ideal world, we would all have 30 minutes to warmup and 10 minutes to cool down every time we practiced, rehearsed, or performed. That is simply not realistic, especially for students who are trying to balance school, practicing, and performing. But there are some ways you can incorporate stretching, warming up, and cooling down no matter what. Here are some tips:

  • Do your longest and most comprehensive warmup before your first practice or playing session of the day. In subsequent sessions, a shortened warmup is fine. Making simple choices like running up the stairs to your bedroom before practicing, doing a couple stretches, and playing 1 minute of long notes will get your body moving again.
  • When in rehearsal (and even during some performances), you can easily do arm, neck, and shoulder stretches while seated. These are great to do during orchestra rehearsals when the conductor is working with another section.
  • If you practice more than an hour at a time, take a 5-10 minute break each hour. Spend a few minutes of this time stretching or lying down on a foam roller. Your body and brain will thank you!
  • After a long day of practicing or many hours of rehearsal, it is easy to neglect the cooling down stretches. These can be done while chatting with colleagues, taking a shower, or even at the dinner table!

For those musicians with a history of injury or other physical/health conditions, consider consulting a physical or occupational therapist for assistance in coming up with a plan tailored to your needs. SD Rehab is available for CMPI fellows in the Chicago area and similar clinics can be found in most major cities.


CMPI Community Meeting with SD Rehab

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