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Helping Musicians Feel and Sound Their Best

Winter 2024

When something hurts, should I take a break? When is it ok to keep going?”

This is something I am asked about almost every day.

A quick note, I know that musicians often do not get a choice to rest or not, so this answer assumes that the practice schedule is flexible and modifications are possible.

Reasons to take a break from playing:

Playing is painful enough that you dread it

Pain is present while playing and lasts longer than an hour after you finish

A healthcare professional has told you it is unsafe for you to play (second opinions are always an option!)

The pain during or after you play disrupts your sleep

You have a gut feeling that you need a break

Indications that you could keep playing:

You have mild or moderate pain while you play that goes away when you stop

You are able to participate in your self-care and daily activities without limitation

You are working with a healthcare professional who helps you make a plan to keep playing

The pain doesn’t stop you from wanting to play, and you are enjoying your practice time

The question doesn’t have to be “to play or not to play”. The third option is to keep playing but change it up. Play a different genre or style, play in a different position, or play everything softly or lightly. If you can change things enough to get yourself into the “keep playing” category, go for it!

No matter which category you are in, please consider seeing a physical therapist to help with any pain you’re having when you are playing. PTs are really good at breaking big goals down into small, doable plans.

If you have any questions or topics you’d like to hear more about, please contact me at abby<at>forteperformancept<dot>com.

Be well,

Abby Halpin, DPT

Spring 2023

A note from your friendly physical therapist…

Teachers, does your body hurt while you teach?

In an Australian study of 505 pianists, 42.4% of the subjects reported pain and injury related to piano playing. Longer practice duration, more years of experience, and higher regularity of playing were all associated with higher reports of problems. And who are our most experienced musicians who spend the most hours at the piano? Our teachers. You!

Don’t worry; it’s not all doom and gloom. Let’s be honest you could be a golf instructor and probably have the same odds of having pain or discomfort. It is part of the human condition, after all. There are strategies specific to music teachers that you employ to limit your discomfort, improve your productivity, and, most importantly, have more fun with your students.

Make your set-up feel easy on you.

Take a look at how you’ve set up your teaching space. Are you comfortable while you’re teaching? Is your chair comfortable? If not, your seating area is the best investment you can make. While sitting in your chair, you should be able to sit all the way back in the chair with your back supported by chair. Your feet should be able to be planted on the floor (or on a step). And when sitting, the chair should be able to do the work of keeping you upright for you. Many believe they should actively hold themselves up with their core all day. But how many hours per week are you teaching? Do you need to torture your core with a marathon of work each day? Let the chair do the work. I will repeat that. Let the chair do the work.

Change it up!

Consider how repetitive some of your movements might be if you are, for example, always sitting to your student's right. You will need to turn your head to the right to read the music; you will always need to reach and turn the page with the same hand and in the same direction. If you need to perch forward on your chair, there will always be a slight rotation to the same side throughout the day. The muscles and joints that have a higher load from being used all the time will eventually protest, and the underused areas are at a higher risk of a surprise injury when they are eventually used during some unexpected movement.

Keeping your body positions variable throughout the day will prevent an over/underload management issue within your body. Try to change up which side of the piano or student you sit on throughout the day. Put a chair on each side of the piano so it’s easy to switch mid-lesson. Even better, get up and move around either within each lesson or between lessons.

Make your day your own.

Individualize your day. Take note of when you start to notice stiffness, pain, fatigue, or sleepiness during your work day. These are ways your body is signaling the need for a change-up. Schedule 5 to 15-minute breaks in your day just before you actually need them (this is the key). If you find that you can make it through 3 student lessons before your body asks for a change-up, make time for getting up and moving after every 3 students.

Get up, walk outside and take a deep breath, go to the bathroom, and refill your water bottle. 

You can even create a 5-minute movement routine to use during these breaks. Make it the same every time so you don’t have to think too hard about it.

Sample routine

1-3 rounds of the following:

Marching in place: Lift one knee and then switch, 10 steps on each side

Kickbacks: Stand on one foot and bend the other knee to kick your foot up toward your buttock. 10x each side

Overhead presses: Raise your arms overhead your head 10x

Pull-aparts: Stand with both hands straight out in front of you. Move your arms out to the side while squeezing your shoulder blades together 10x

Roll-downs: Stand with your knees soft and feet hip-width apart. Exhale and roll slowly down to touch your toes (or at least in that direction). Inhale at the bottom. Exhale and roll back up. 5-10x

Bonus points if you can do it outside and get some natural light to jump-start your brain!

If you are experiencing discomfort during your time teaching, it is valuable to reflect on what is contributing to it and consider changes you can make. You don’t have to hurt! Your students need you at your best, and you deserve to feel good at work.

If you feel you could use some guidance on how to feel better while you teach, please reach out to me anytime at abby<at>forteperformandept<dot>com.

Be well,

Abby Halpin, DPT

Winter 2023

Sometimes you just have to cram in a lot of practice over a short period of time. I get it. It happens. But how to recover from over-practicing, or as I like to say it, under-recovering? And what does rest and recovery look like?

The first thing to do is to figure out how much practicing and resting feel best for you. This varies from person to person and even varies during a musician’s lifetime, so it’ll take a little trial and error. You may have felt great with one passive day and one active day per week for years, but things change, so you have to shift your schedule. Some musicians need a few weeks or months of an “off-season” every year, and others enjoy playing year-round. Each body and brain is different. Each person’s life circumstances are different. The important thing is that you choose something because it feels best for you. And don’t bother comparing your practice schedule to other people. Their circumstances are different than yours, so they have different needs.

Tips for young musicians:

For musicians under eighteen years old, research suggests that organized activity time (including all practice time, rehearsals, lessons, sports, dance, etc.) should be less than or equal to the number of years of their age. So a ten-year-old ideally does not have more than 10 hours of organized activity time per week. More than that significantly increases a child’s chance of injury or burnout. Free play is unlimited!

There are two types of recovery and rest time to include in your practice schedule.

Active recovery is when you are resting from your normal activity while doing something active. You can still play - just make it feel like something else. Most of these options fall under “free play” for those under eighteen.

Play something you have already mastered that feels easy and fun. For me, my go-to is Gymnopedie No. 1 by Erik Satie.

Play something opposite to the skills you’ve been practicing. If you are playing pieces with a lot of big chords, you might change it up and play something full of long runs.

Have a super short practice session. Focus on one short section if it’s a new piece. Or if you are at a point where you can play through it, just play it once or twice to keep it fresh, but don’t dive into the details.

Passive recovery can be further divided into two options:

Option 1: Full-stop - no music or music-related things that day. These days are non-negotiable to stay healthy. Go skiing or hiking with your family, connect with your friends, learn to bake bread, etc.

Option 2: Continued practice, but without the physical playing of your instrument. This strategy is especially helpful when you need a day off but feel like you need to keep learning.

Listen. Listen to other musicians, listen to the pieces you are working on, and listen to recordings of yourself.

Mark up your music. When I was singing in choral groups, there was always time spent penciling in the markings.

Visualize: read through your score and visualize yourself playing. Research shows that visualizing activity causes the appropriate motor units in muscles to contract. This is a great way to work out the timing and coordination without the load of actually playing the instrument. If you have an event coming up, I would also recommend visualizing how the entire event will go. Set things up well in your mind so that you can feel settled in the ways that the day will unfold.

Logistics and organization: Spend some time doing all the nitty gritty things - answer emails, set up your lessons, clean off your music stand and organize your sheet music. Make future you feel uncluttered and settled in your next practice session.

Make sure to have both passive and active recovery days scattered into your practice routine. But if you’ve had a long period of time of over-practicing, or you’re feeling the beginnings of burnout starting, schedule more passive recovery than usual until you feel better. Future-you will thank you for it!

If you’d like to hear more about this, you can listen to the "Rest and Recovery" episode <lk> of my podcast, Play Life Loudly.

If you have any questions or topics you’d like to hear more about, please contact me at abby<at>forteperformancept<dot>com.

Be well, Abby Halpin, DPT

Fall 2022

As a musician, how have you been taught to sit? Many musicians learn to sit on the edge of their chairs, lift their chests and pull their shoulders back. This position is great for communicating that they are ready to start or are alert and engaged. It’s not wrong to sit like that. But the problem is that many students sit that way all the time. Static postures cause the same joints and body parts to bear the same load for long periods, resulting in fatigue and potential injuries, such as back pain or hands that tingle or fall asleep while they practice. It also keeps musicians from moving as they play, which can hinder their connection with the music or audience.

Here are some posture cues to try with your students that allow for dynamic body positions:

  • Feel your sit bones on your chair.

  • Feel your feet on the floor.

  • Lightly float the crown of your head.

They don’t have to use all three cues; there may be one that your student likes the best. If they feel those things, they are likely alert and ready. And they aren’t locked up in the “right” posture all the time, keeping them healthy and connected to their music.

If you have any questions or topics you’d like to hear more about, please contact me at abby<at>forteperformancept<dot>com.

Be well, Abby Halpin, DPT

Abby Halpin, physical therapist and performance coach for musicians of all kinds, and former piano student of a long-time VMTA member, returned to Vermont in 2022. She has shared her work with musicians and teachers in many presentations/demonstrations. Her physical therapy practice, Forte Performance & Physical Therapy, serves musicians in Vermont and nationwide via virtual and at-home sessions. You can find more information about Abby at www<dot>forteperformancept<dot>com and on Instagram at @forteperformancept.


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