RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) is among the most common physical problems that musicians can encounter during their studies or performing careers. For a professional musician reliant on performing for income, this can be disastrous. What are the root causes of this issue? Is it just bad luck? How do professional musicians get away with incredibly demanding schedules, performing concertos with orchestras around the world injury free? Having suffered from RSI myself since February 2015, I thought I would share my own experiences and hopefully this may help others to work through the issues surrounding it.
First Signs This problem first came to light during my final year of undergraduate studies in 2012. I was learning a demanding program for a final recital which included Chopin’s Polonaise in F# minor Op. 44. This piece contains octave passages, loud fortissimo chords, trills and a more intricate middle section that requires some nimble finger work. Whilst practicing this piece, I developed a dull aching in the fingers of both hands simultaneously, which prevented me from playing for a week. I wouldn’t describe it as a painful feeling, but it felt uncomfortable and strained, and it was clear that repetitive finger movements had cause the problem. After spending a week away from the piano, the problem disappeared and I was able to complete the recital. Three years later, having completed my Masters degree in music performance (injury free) and improved my technique a great deal, the familiar feeling resurfaced. This time, the problem didn’t recede so quickly. I was surprised it had resurfaced, as I wasn’t playing anything too difficult technically. Several months later, I was still finding it strenuous to demonstrate the simplest melodies during lessons. This was affecting my teaching, as I didn’t feel able to demonstrate anything comfortably. It was very frustrating because there is no clear-cut medical solution. One website suggested that if the problem persisted, you should simply stop the offending activity altogether and ‘find a new job’. For me, this was unthinkable.
The cause of injury can be wide ranging and may differ from person to person. I have discovered that deeper psychological and emotional issues can be responsible, which are far more complicated than the common assumption of over-practising. For me, a very busy teaching schedule and a lack of correct warm up exercises had caused the problem the second time around. It was crucial that I stopped playing immediately and didn’t ignore the pain. Many players choose to ignore it and hope it will go away, but this is likely to exacerbate the problem. Some performers who feel they have no choice but to continue often use painkillers, but I didn’t see this as a solution to the root of the problem. When the pain persisted, I sought the help of a specific piano teacher and performance coach who focused on helping instrumentalists to recover from performance related injuries. Through her I was able to identify the root cause of the technical issues that were holding me back. Crucially, she helped me to identify the psychological causes behind the issue.
Using the knowledge I gained from learning with my teacher, the causes of my initial injury in 2012 became clearer in hindsight. As a pianist coming to serious piano playing quite late in my teenage years, my mindset was always one of inadequacy. Instead of choosing more manageable pieces and ensuring an accomplished and comfortable performance at recitals, the self-induced pressure of catching up with more experienced peers drove me to choose a programme of music that was technically beyond me at that time. With countless hours of practice also reflecting this anxiety, my playing became very tense and I over-practiced the pieces. These competitive feelings may be familiar to students at Music College or conservatoires, but it is important to focus on your own development to avoid trying too hard and developing muscle tension. This is the primary cause of any muscle injury. Having worked through these issues and relaxed my mindset a great deal, I can play both the piano and the guitar comfortably without any problems.
In summary, there are two main points that I would encourage you to think about. Firstly, what are the psychological factors that drive you to practice to the point of strain and stress? If you can identify these qualities and keep a watchful eye on them, you will be able to address them. If you find yourself over practising out of insecurity, cut down your practice time to ensure productivity and focus. An hour of good productive practise can be plenty, so try and cut your practice time down and be more economical. Finally, my old guitar teacher used to tell me ‘You need time out to go and feed the ducks’. I think this is the best advice to give serious students. What he meant was to have something else in your schedule that is totally unrelated to music. Play football, go walking, go cycling – give your brain some time off!
Choice of repertoire is a vital ingredient in the development of young pianists. If the piece is too easy, they can become bored very quickly. Whilst some pupils enjoy a challenging piece, others will become frustrated and disillusioned if they are faced with a piece that is too difficult. Over the past few years, I have been searching for interesting pieces that will capture the imagination of young pianists without drastically increasing the level of difficulty. Here, I have selected five pieces for late beginners or early intermediates to get their teeth into. Each piece is around RCM Level 2 -3 standard, although some are more challenging than others!
Key Features: Expression, pedalling, sequential patterns in left hand, piano and pianissimo playing, balancing the right and left hand.
This short Nocturne is a great introduction to the soundworld of romantic piano music. The challenge for a young pianist here is to set a dreamy atmosphere and play expressively throughout. The left hand must be especially soft in order for the right hand melody to shine through.
This piece is always a popular choice! Many pupils will enjoy the challenge of playing this at a quick and urgent tempo. There are some rhythmic challenges in the piece, which can be used as a vehicle for teaching syncopation (bars 15, 16 19 and 20), and the short and frantic introduction includes an impetuous accelerando. This provides an opportunity to introduce the concept of changing speeds to a young pianist.
Shades of Blue is an excellent collection of blues and jazz pieces, with a real variety of moods and atmospheres. ‘Scary Stuff’ gives the pupil an opportunity to create huge dynamic contrasts. More creative pupils might like to create a storyboard to go with this piece, in order to give them a mental picture of what might be taking place along with the music. The tremolando outburst at the climax of the piece should be a new and exciting concept at this level.
This piece is a useful introduction to ledger lines both in the right hand and the left hand. Spotting the repeating patters in the music can be a useful way to begin this piece. The pupil should be able to identify some of the left hand ostinato figures throughout the piece, as well as the return of the melody an octave higher at bar 18. The piece requires a cool, laid back approach, particularly during the final few bars.
This Musette was an ABRSM Grade 2 piece back in 2005-2006. The frequent time signature changes might seem daunting at first, but some work on the left hand ostinato figures to begin with should help with this. The beautiful right hand melody must be played with good legato and with plenty of expression.