Your Body is Part of The Instrument
A couple of months ago I was in my basement and found a stack of sheet music from when I was a teenager. It was around 1986 then, when I was first studying classical guitar. I blew the dust off a piece called the Bach Bouree. It is a famous piece in classical circles. I had played it quite well on a few different occasions, but it has been at least 15 years since I really nailed that piece. I decided I would try it again.
I set up the music stand in front of my couch. When you play classical guitar, you need to be in the right position. The couch is about the right height and would suit me for now. In lieu of a foot stool, I would normally just point my toe during those casual moments of play, but this time I was incrementally more serious, so I improvised with a meditation pillow that was on the floor and placed it under my foot. Zen indeed.
I started the all too familiar first two measures of the Bouree. You know, the part some people like to repeat over and over again to impress people who never heard the piece before. I stumbled my notes and laughed. There is this part of me that gets excited and laughs when I know I can do something but have to work to do. I know that in just an hour or two hours, or (or in some cases a month or two) I will probably play it well enough to actually enjoy listening to myself.
The Strains of Practice
As I got deeper into the piece, the measures got harder. It’s not because it is actually harder, but it is the nature of practice that I will start at the beginning. It is a very good place to start, after all. (Yes, I went there). That means that I have played the beginning more times and so it is easier, and the middle of the piece is harder. My fingers got harder to move.
I had to double-check the notes, and study them to decide if my fingering was correct. I asked myself “Is there an easier way?” I am fortunate enough to have my teacher’s notes from 1986 scribbled on the page. It doesn’t take much. “1/2 barre on 2” scribbled in the margin could save me hours of trial and error.
Through The Cobwebs
Years of not practicing a piece makes it difficult to remember the transitions and positions. It is as though over time, there is a veil that comes between me and the music, or it’s like a cell phone with a decreased signal.
As the movements get more difficult, my muscles strained more, and my wrist and forearm would start to stiffen up. I focus mentally on relaxing my hand and easing my movements. It is worse in the left wrist, usually, I find. It’s that hand that does all the barre cords and has to grip and stretch. All this while the right hand, seemingly motionless, allows its fingertips to lightly perform their relaxed dance over the strings.
Even as I type this, my wrist aches with the memory.
Asking for Advice
During a lesson I told my guitar teacher that my shoulder was hurting while I played. He said to watch my posture. “Make sure your shoulder doesn’t slouch down.” He was right, but it was still not the best advice. I suffered through hours of practice every week.
Normally I would practice 10-40 minutes per day, but I would practice up to 12 hours per day the week before a recital. I was motivated first by the fear of embarrassment, then by the rush of endorphins that only rigorous applause from strangers could bring, and the praise from parents and kids after the recital.
A Priceless Guitar Experience
I still remember at my first recital, a small girl approaching while clung to her mom’s walking leg. “Go on.” the mom said, pointing in my direction.
“I really love the way you played… ” She went on and on describing it. I was so touched I don’t even remember any of what she said.
Music is funny that way. Most of us don’t get paid, but we will practice and practice, just in case we get the chance to play for somebody and get praise, or we just play for ourselves, for fun or for the challenge. People talk about professional athletes overcoming pain. They get paid millions and tough it out. They have trainers and experts fixing them up. I think little is mentioned about what musicians go through physically while practicing.
In Dire Straits?
I know music isn’t usually a contact sport. The “maybe get a blister on your little finger, maybe get a blister on your thumb” line from “Money for Nothing” may ring true (It beats lifting appliances) but little is said about the repetitive strain that occurs to so many of us.
I know first hand that most injuries aren’t dramatically traumatic, they are repetitive and postural. Repetitive damage builds up over time and makes us more vulnerable to injury in the future.
I was 16 when I got that advice from my guitar teacher. It was years later at age 19 when I went to a chiropractor for the first time. I remember the chiropractor asking if I had upper back pain. My reply was “Yes but that is normal” while he lightly smiled at me, like the Mona Lisa.
That first adjustment was incredible. I remember when he pressed gently on my back and it released like a dozen mouse traps, and the feeling of a rush of ice water going into my arms. He adjusted my neck and it made a ridiculous noise, and felt like a waterfall of fresh water was entering from my head down into my body. WOW! It was the best thing ever.
After that visit, I went down to my car and sat there and thought for a minute. I remember thinking “Is this the way I am supposed to feel? Are people supposed to not feel in pain?” It was really a re-birth for me. I had seen chiropractic save my mother’s life, and make my brother-in law walk again. Despite this, I was still skeptical, and after this adjustment I realized something. It not only helped those in trouble, it also helped people who didn’t know they had a problem to begin with.
The Sources of Stress Realized
I thought back to every time I got hit in the head and even knocked out momentarily while playing football, or playing hockey. Every body check that I delivered and received. I didn’t even think of the toll mental and emotional stress had on me. I didn’t even think of my diet.
Think about what a difference it would have made if my guitar teacher had said “See a chiropractor, get adjusted, you probably have problems in your spine that have build up over time from poor posture, sports, and hours of practice. Go see a chiropractor, get adjusted regularly. It may change your life. Just do it. I love my chiropractor. Just go. It’s your nervous system that controls everything and if your spine is in alignment then your body will work better and you will play better. Just go. Think of how much better you will play if you are not in pain.”
When a teenager comes in our office, it is because they want to. I don’t have actual statistics, but I would say that more than half the teenagers who visit us do so because they asked (or begged) their parents to come in. Maybe they were convinced by a friend or other person influential to them.
I look back at video of myself as a child (ok, it’s 8mm film converted to video) running, and I see a lowered shoulder, a flared foot, tilted head. I wonder sometimes how much better my life would be had I been adjusted throughout my life, not just the second half. Those problems all started at a very early age.
My guitar teacher was not just a guitar teacher, he was like a cool uncle. He was older but not too old, gave me advice about a lot of things in life. He cared. If you are a teacher, or had one, you may know what I mean.
Instrument Number 1: Your Body
Teachers teach us to tune our instruments. Tuning your body is a lot like tuning a guitar. I have started practicing many times, hating it, only to realize that I sounded terrible just because my guitar was only slightly out of tune. Just a little tightening of the G string and suddenly things were better. I sounded better, the room smelled better, food tasted better. I had more energy. I went from being lame to being a rock star. This was just from tuning the string of my guitar.
Surely, the “strings” of your body are at least equally important. What if the nerves going to your hand are compressed at the spine, at the neck, because you are slouching, or sitting at school all day, or play football. They could be compressed in the shoulder muscles or neck muscles too. The muscles in your arm can have scar tissue and knots that can be released with a little care. What if your wrist needs to be adjusted, stiff from years of over-use.
Your Brain is the Ultimate Conductor
Do you think you would play better if your neck was moving normally, and there was no nerve interference going into your arms? Do you think that your nerve function will affect the way you play a piece on your guitar? If an adjustment improves your coordination and nerve function and reflexes and hand strength, do you think you will play better?
Do you think you would play better if you were not in pain?
A former assistant texted me an article last year that more people than ever are quitting music programs because they have injuries. This really breaks my heart. I know as a doctor and a musician that these are absolutely avoidable in almost every case. These injuries are almost always treatable. Not only can you keep playing, but there are ways to help you play better than ever because your body is working better than ever.
The adjustment is the best way to address nerve interference. At Una Vita the adjustment to addresses nerve interference, the alignment, tone and movement. We address the muscles and the joints, and can prescribe the exact stretches that will help you get the relief you need.
Will Stretching Only Work?
Let me ask you a question. Suppose that you are stretching your flexor carpi radialis muscle in your arm. While you do this, misalignments in your spine are causing nerve irritation, and this is causing the muscle to contract. How well do you think the stretches will work if the irritated nerve is continually making a muscle contract? Will the stretches fix the nerve? Will the muscle ever stop contracting? Do you think it will be painful to stretch a muscle that is fighting you all the while?
At Una Vita, we use a special process to release the nerve interference in order to allow the muscle to relax so your alignment normalizes. We address the tone to keep it that way longer, and then we use Active Release Techniques to release the muscles. When we are confident your spine is healing, we prescribe specific stretches for you.
Can I release my own nerves?
If you are wondering if it is possible to adjust your own spine. The answer is a hard NO. You can crack your own bones at your own risk, but that is not the same as an adjustment. Even a chiropractor has to see another chiropractor to provide adjustments to remove nerve interference. It is actually a very technical procedure. It is very hard, and takes 7 years of training to be able to do it effectively. Even with 7 years of training, it is not possible to locate and adjust your OWN spine for nerve interference.
But Everybody Does It!
The guest who says “I usually crack it myself but can’t get it this time” or “my wife usually walks on my back but she is out of town” is going to be subject to either polite micro-re-education, or silence with a raised eyebrow, or a sarcastically delivered comment like “oh, that’s interesting.” It could also be any combination of the three.
If you are in pain and trying to crack your own spine, there is a good chance you will create further damage and irritation if you do any self “cracking” in lieu of a correct adjustment.
What Else Can I Do at Home?
There are many things you can do on your own to improve the function of your nervous system. Mostly, it involves reducing mental stress and chemical stress and physical stress.
Performing meditation is the best way to reduce the effects of mental stress. You can use an app like Headspace or the Muse device to help you meditate. Activities like Yoga help release physical and emotional stress, and will teach you breathing exercises.
For physical stress, yoga, breathing exercises and addressing posture and ergonomics are the best way to reduce interference.
For chemical stress, eliminate processed foods and processed sugar. Stick with organic fruits and vegetables, and avoid all alcohol, caffeine and drugs, as well as all pollution and chemicals.
I know you probably know al lot of that stuff, but are you doing it? Most of us are doing some of it, but not all. If you are a touring rock band reading this, I am particularly sorry.
I am the author of a stretching manual called TIME to Stretch. It contains over 40 techniques to stretch, relax and improve the flexibility of hundreds of muscles in your body. I developed these techniques over the last 18 years of my practice, and in addition to making it for my beloved practice members, I am also publishing it so I can share it with the beloved public, especially if you play the guitar.
There is nothing out there like this. These are completely new moves that are a valuable addition to every person’s stretching vocabulary.
Register Below. When the list reaches 50 emails you will all receive an excerpt from the book which will contain the 5 best stretches for guitar players, with a special guide written just for you. You will get it absolutely for free. I just want you to do one thing. After you read it, let me know what you think. I would really love to hear from you.
Care Personalized Just for You
If you are in the BC Lower Mainland, you can also schedule a consultation with me. As a part of your care, I would prescribe the stretches that are best for you, and also release any nerve interference, of course.
When YOU are in tune, you play better. Your will sound better and feel better and so will your guitar. The more you can do to keep yourself in tune, the more benefits you will get in the future.
If you want more tips about reducing stress with meditation, ergonomics, exercises and diet, subscribe to my mailing list at my blog, the Gentle Press, here.
There are a million blogs and information out there, my goal is to be your concierge. I want to help you weed out the fads, the highs and lows. I would like to keep you on track with the things that really matter to you. People visit me every day asking for advice on these very topics, and so I say why not share it with everyone, including you?
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