Information

Music ergonomics looks at the interface between the musician and their instrument in order to make individual recommendations to prevent injury or alleviate pain.  Recommendations may include changes in the position of the instrument or musician, stretches or other exercises, practice strategies or referrals to other health professionals.  The goals is to help the client play in a relaxed, expressive, and comfortable way.

Injury

Playing related injuries are common in musicians of all ages and ability.  A survey completed in 1988 indicated that 76% of orchestral musicians experienced pain severe enough to affect their ability to perform.  The highest rate of injury was in musicians 35 to 45.   Why are injuries so common?  Below are some of the factors.

  1. Anatomical variations. Historically, musical instruments were designed to achieve a certain sound without consideration for the musician’s body.   For example, a small harpist playing a concert grand harp may have too much weight on their shoulder.  Flute and violin can lead to awkward positions in the head, neck, and shoulders.
  2. Students are sometimes advised to play through pain and to repeat the same passage of music many times. 
  3. Improper posture can lead to a while host of problems such as nerve compression injuries or back pain.
  4. Inadequate physical conditioning. Musicians can be considered small muscle athletes.  Like other athletes, our bodies need preparation through appropriate exercise.
  5. Sudden increase in playing time. A large increase in playing time, perhaps in preparation, for an upcoming performance, can lead to injury.
  6. Poor practice habits.
  7. Change in instrument. A change in instrument size or the amount of pressure needed to ress strings or keys without gradual introduction of the instrument.
  8. Inadequate rehabilitation of a previous injury leading to a reoccurrence.
  9. Stressful non-musical activities. Do you have a hobby or vocation that also requires repetitive motion?
  10. Quality of the instrument.
  11. Environmental factors.

Practice Habits

  1. Do stretches before playing.
  2. Warm-up with simple exercises or passages first.
  3. Take rests breaks at least every 30 minutes. Do stretches again or stand and move.  Set a timer if necessary.
  4. When learning a new piece of music, start away from the instrument. Look at the key and time signatures.  Plan fingering or breathing patterns.  Practice first by playing “air” instrument.  When you go to your instrument most of the learning will already be done.  This will cut down on repetition required at your instrument and allow you to maintain a more relaxed position.
  5. Always be aware of neutral posture.
  6. Save technically difficult pieces until you are warmed up. Then break difficult passages into small sections, putting the sections together after they are learned.
  7. Breath! A moment of relaxation and breathing prior to playing can decrease muscular tension.

Posture

Posture should strive to achieve neutral posture. This is the posture that puts the least strain on muscles and ligaments. Faulty posture can also cause compression of nerves in the spine.

To achieve good posture when sitting, you should sit with weight evenly distributed on both hips. The back should not be twisted. Depending on your instrument, you may need to sit toward the front of your chair. Knees should therefore be even or slightly lower than hips. Feet should be flat on the floor to provide a good base of support.

The position of the pelvis plays a large role in achieving neutral posture whether sitting or standing. In the graphic below, the first figure has correct posture with the head, shoulders, and hips in alignment and a normal spinal curve. Note the head position in the second figure. The human head weight about 8 to 12 pounds. The forward head position increases the force on the neck and shoulders, causing the shoulders and spine to become more rounded. This can lead to pain in the neck and thoracic spine. The last figure has overcompensated tilting the pelvis and causing an exaggerated arch in the low back.

Posture examples

Stretches for Musicians

The following are stretches recommended for musicians. These should be used prior to practice sessions or performances. Some can be done while sitting in a chair waiting to play.  They should be done to the point of feeling a stretch but NOT PAIN. Hold each stretch for a count of 10. As always it is best to check with a physician or Physical Therapist prior to beginning any exercises, especially if you have previous injuries or physical limitation.

The first group stretches the chest and thoracic spine. If you have any thoracic issues check with your physician. Those with should problems may need to adjust arm height on the doorway stretch. Again, you need to feel stretch but not pain.

The next group are stretches the neck, shoulders and upper back.. They may help relieve tension in these areas.

Forearm stretches

These can be graded by allowing the elbow to flex. More elbow extension equals greater stretch.

Lower extremity stretches

Basic Core Strengthening

Below are several basic Core Strengthening exercises . You can complete 1 to 3 sets of 10 of each exercise. When muscles feel a little fatigued you have done enough to improve strength.
Progress repetitions gradually. These will help with maintaining the good base of support needed to play without fatigue and tension. Do not expect to achieve the degree of thoracic extension shown in picture 1 . Do what you can do comfortably.

As always, it is advisable to check with a physician before beginning an exercise program.