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Practice of Jeremy Woolhouse, pianist and Alexander Technique Teacher in Melbourne, Australia

Specialist in working with musicians, RSI, posture re-education, neck, back and chronic pain management. 

Is it OK to play piano with pain?

Articles on Alexander Technique in life - by Jeremy Woolhouse

Monthly blog articles by Jeremy Woolhouse.  Alexander Technique for daily life, music performance, specialised activities, pain relief and management.

Is it OK to play piano with pain?

Jeremy Woolhouse

If you experience pain when playing piano, your body is telling you that you are at risk of injuring yourself. Piano technique is not inherently painful. Even a mild discomfort is an indication that you can improve on piano technique; whether this may be the specific movement of fingers on the keys, the balance of the whole body to support your hands, or a combination of both.

Traffic lights

Pain is like a red traffic light. You might be able to drive through it many times and survive. But the more you do it, the higher the chance of injury. If it becomes habitual to ignore pain and persevere, then you are constantly putting yourself at risk.

Some pianists have successful careers in spite of running this risk. It is a choice. The safer option is to stop if you get a pain message. You can continue again when conditions are more favourable. The smart pianist can him or herself create more favourable conditions - this is the skill that Alexander Technique trains.

The piano was designed around the human.

Music has evolved around the piano.

The piano has been ingeniously designed to afford the pianist an immense expressive palette at his or her fingertips. The arrangement of the keys are ideal from an ergonomic perspective. Undoubtedly, there are challenges to technical movements, but the instrument has not evolved in a way that by default imposes pain on the skilled player.

Whilst it is true that modern music has a different set of parameters from the music that was around when piano keyboards were first used, with the exception of some extreme art music, our musical intentions can be fulfilled without pain-creating movements.

You are always using a piano technique

The pianist must use some kind of technique to make any sound at the instrument. The child poking at the keys is using a kind of technique. The self-taught pianist uses another kind, just as the virtuoso has his or her approach to technique. There are many pedagogues with complex definitions of technique, but anything that creates sound is a way of playing - i.e. a technique.

You can never play without using a technique. Some players never make technique conscious and may get by just doing what feels right. If you never think about what technique you are using, you may be training yourself in a poor technique; a technique which creates musical limitations, pain, or both.

Every time you play with poor technique, that technique is reinforced. Every time you use a mindful technique, your chosen way of playing is reinforced. It is up to the player to consider which kind of technique to use - in simple music, or in complex.

Technical development happens in every moment of sound production; it is not only the sphere of technique exercises, etudes or studies. The musical demand of our chosen repertoire will inform what technique we need, and there are always a variety of ways in which we can meet the needs of the music. For the pianist with pain, it is appropriate to seek the ones that do not provoke symptoms.

A good technique is one that is adaptable. The more possibilities there are, the more freedom we have.

Scope for Improvement

Pain when playing the piano is an indication that there is scope for improvement. An effective technique uses the forearm, wrist, hand and fingers in a way that is healthy and creates the desired sound.

It is possible to get the desired sound but compromise comfort in your body. It is also possible to create comfort but not get the desired sound. Neither of these is satisfactory - we need both comfort and desired sound.

Ultimately, if you are in pain, your attention is diverted from listening to what you are playing, which can only have a negative effect.

They said the pain will pass

There is a common myth that pain is part of the learning process. Unfortunately, this has been the case for a large number of players who have become teachers. What often happens is that, rather than resolving the causes of pain, the aspiring pianist simply gets used to the feeling and ceases to notice or pay attention to it. When this happens, the player has lost the ability to use the body’s feedback effectively.

Sometimes the feedback is a pain while you are playing; sometimes it is soreness that lingers afterwards. In either case, there is a message that something is not working well. Rather than grin and bear it, use the pain message as feedback that is telling you there is a better way of playing.

Reject pain right from the start

As a beginner, if you have a low threshold for pain, you will reject practices that are compromising. This is more auspicious than desensitising yourself by persistently pushing through the pain.

For the experienced player, the technique you have used to date has worked to get you to where you are, so it has something positive about it. If it also creates pain, there is something that can be improved on.

If we want to develop a technique that is free of pain, we may need to let go of some things that are in the current technique. It might mean that for a time you cannot play what you used to be able to. This is frustrating, but if it makes it possible for you to learn a pain-free technique, it will be worth the effort.

At any stage, lowering your threshold for pain will result in a more refined and healthy piano technique.

A good looking technique

Sometimes, it seems that we are doing all of the right things for good piano technique. We may be doing everything the teacher says and still suffering pain.

Quite often in teaching technique, piano teachers focus on finding the right position but overlook the quality of the student’s hands, arm or whole body in the process.

Without changing the position, it is possible to change the muscle tone we use to create the shape. For example, you can make a fist, and make it tighter. You can continue to keep the shape of a fist and make it softer, and softer again.

Sometimes, we can also learn to recruit a whole different set of muscles to make the same shape. Putting things in the right place is not the end of the story. We also need the right quality about the movement and poise we use.

Alexander Technique is a technique for generating a healthy and appropriate quality of musculature for the shapes and movements you need at the piano, or elsewhere.

On your own, you can experiment with releasing muscle to recalibrate muscle balance for yourself - redefining the minimum effort required to make the sound you want.

No pain, no gain

We are often encouraged to persist in the face of failure and ‘try harder next time.’ When pain symptoms are present, persisting is only practising in a dysfunctional technique. Trying harder is putting even more tension into something that is not working.

We need to redirect this effort into a different technique. If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try and try again the same way. Any pain that arises from playing the piano means you have either not succeeded in producing good piano technique, or that you have done so at a cost to your own health.

Taking a long break from playing because of pain

Many musicians have been advised to take an extended break from playing and practising as a cure for playing-related pain. It is a wonderful thing to stop practising a technique that is causing pain, but the problem for many musicians is that when they start playing again, the pain comes back just as before.

Taking a break can relieve symptoms and this is a healthy thing to do. When returning to playing, resuming the use of the same method which created the symptoms before is bound to be problematic. If, however, the pianist returns to playing with an intention to revise and improve on technique, he or she is reducing the chance that the symptom will reoccur.

Taking a short break from playing because of pain

If we are to make a change in our poise or our technique, we need to have a clear intention to do so. Without an intention to do something differently, the habitual technique will be the default. The kind of mindfulness this requires is no small ask. It is quite natural that when we play with a new technique, we gradually revert to the old technique.

For this reason, a short bit of practice is most constructive: if you can keep your attention for three minutes before it wavers, then you should stop after two. That way you’ve avoided practising the old technique.

Similarly, if pain symptoms appear after five minutes, it is better to stop at three. Take a little break, reaffirm your intention, and do another three minutes. In this way, you can accumulate time in pain-free practice.

A timer is an invaluable tool for practice. Set the timer not as a minimum, but as a maximum time to play before a break.

How to fix pain while playing

This article has raised some common causes of pain, and there are many more. They way each pianist might overcome them will vary according to the individual, and the solution may be anywhere on the spectrum from a subtle refinement to complete retraining of the pianist’s whole coordination and piano technique. As the details will be highly individual, there is little scope for general descriptions to be effective. The ideas in this article are a starting point.

The posts in this blog are aimed at promoting the possibility of change, and improving knowledge of structures, principles and processes. At the very least, these articles might inspire readers to think about what they are doing a little differently.

In a session, an Alexander Technique teacher will be able to present more tangibly the processes a pianist can use to manage his or her specific pain. Alexander Technique is a process you learn to use independently, and the principles described in these pages may provide the basis for your own experiments, with or without a teacher.