Avoiding hand and wrist injury when playing guitar – part two

Following on from my post last week about developing and maintaining a somewhat straight line most of the time between hand and forearm when playing to minimise risk of injury to the wrist and hand I thought I’d follow on with another important factor in avoiding and minimising risk of injury. Well, this is something that has worked fantastically well for me, so I’d like to share.

As Frankie said back in 1984 – relax! And when I say relax I mean this both physically and mentally. Usually addressing the latter first considerably helps with the former.

Often easier said than done though, right?

So how do I go about relaxing? Well, here are my top three things I do to make me mentally relaxed and at my most physically accessible for playing:

  • I approach my practice with a relaxed state of mind – I don’t rush into the practice room, it doesn’t matter if I’m late this time, it matters that I’m there. I lay aside the day’s “busyness” for 30 minutes or an hour, none of that matters during this time whilst coming to play. Whatever is or has been going on can certainly wait for an hour. And I use this same approach when coming to perform – by approaching our practice in this way, we’re training in not just the notes, and the physical movements, and the music and so on, we’re also training in the mental approach and the feeling associated with coming to play.
  • If I’m finding that challenging then there are a couple of physical exercises I do to help get relaxed (i) take four or five deep breaths, breathing in for a count of three and out for a count of three. This acts as a reset button for you system, gets oxygen right into the deeper parts of the lungs and cleans out the carbon dioxide from the deeper parts of the lungs too and (ii) I get doing some of my Alexander Technique semi-supine on the floor.
  • When sitting with the guitar I draw attention to where I’m holding unnecessary tension in my body, checking in with my various body parts and release if necessary – neck, jaw, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, hands, fingers, upper back, lower back, chest, abdomen, hips, thighs, calves, feet and toes.

So yes, these things help to prepare me to be physically accessible for playing in two ways:

(1) Less tension and rigidity = greater ease of movement, a more fluid and legato feel, a less “heavy” and laboured sounding right hand; you can ask more of you body when it has less rigidity in it.

(2) As the instrument is touching your body part of its resonance moves through you – the more relaxed you are, the easier the vibrations pass through you, and the more beautiful, resnonant and full the sound you can make.

And back to the main point of this post – how does relaxing prevent injury? Well, think about it like this – what happens to any material, when stressed, be it wood, plastic, whatever, that is rigid and unbending? It won’t yield, and ends up cracking and breaking? What happens to more flexible material such as bamboo, tall grass, or other material with more “give” in it? It moves with the applied stress and the movement; it goes with it, it doesn’t try to resist and as such can return to it’s normal position unscathed. (I’m in no way a materials scientist – in case you couldn’t tell! hah hah! – but you get where I’m going here….)

So it can help to think of our muscles, tendons and ligaments as working at the optimum when they’re working like bamboo – stront, but working at their best when we’re asking them to work with a bit of “give”. And awareness of tension in parts of the body seemingly unrelated to the wrists and hands is key in avoiding injury to the wrist and hands – playing the guitar is as much about the rest of your body as it is about hands and fingers. By learning to relax, or firstly learning to be aware of where tension lies (as with observance and awareness brings change), we can minimise tension, aid more fluid and musical playing and importantly, trouble, pain and injury-free playing.

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