Musicians are stuck in relatively unnatural positions for hours at a time nearly every day, so it’s no wonder we have aches and pains sometimes! I thought it was time for a post on some stretches to ease your pain, so here it is – my top six exercises and stretches to help you improve at your instrument, warm up, or ease away any tension in your muscles after a long practice.
One of the first things piano students learn is the position of their hands on the keyboard. You start out with very rounded fingertips, as though you’re holding a ball. Over time, the fingers can uncurl as they grow stronger. Still, even after years of this gradual process, “broken fingertips” can continue to haunt you. Try using this first exercise to strengthen your fingertips: Begin by facing a wall and positioning your hands on it as you would on a keyboard. Uncurl the fingers, be sure that your bridge isn’t broken, your thumbs are curved, and you have minimal tension in the hand. Now, slowly lean against the wall, putting some of your weight on your fingertips. Don’t place all your body weight on your fingertips. Go gradually. This exercise will help cure those broken fingertips once and for all.
Want to improve your octaves? Try stretching the webbing between your fingers to increase your reach and finger flexibility. With your left hand, scoop in between your pinkie and ring finger, pushing on the webbing. Repeat between each finger on both hands. Be sure, however, not to overuse this stretch, as it could lead to injury; use it once a day at most. Also, try to do this only when your fingers are warmed up to avoid straining your fingers.
Watch this short YouTube video for some excellent warm ups for your wrists. They really help before a practice just to get some blood flowing and ready for flexible movement, as well as easing any wrist pain you might have.
One of the best things you can do before practicing is warming up your arms. You know, it’s not just the fingers and wrists that need a good warm up – ideally, you should be stretching your arms, shoulders, and neck as well. Shake your arms, flap them around, anything! You’ll find that warming up your arms will prepare you for a practice more quickly than anything else.
Here’s one particularly good stretch for the arms that helps me warm up: Reach your right arm up and behind your back. With your left hand, reach behind you and, if you can, clasp your fingers together. Repeat on other side.
Neck and Shoulders
Countless pianists, violinists, and other musicians struggle with shoulder tension. Enter the shoulder roll! Yes, I know, it’s about as simple an exercise as you’ll find, but I love it so much I had to include it. Just a few rotations will leave you feeling more relaxed and loose. Not only that, but rolls are much easier to do than most stretches – you don’t even have to leave your instrument to do them. For some of us, leaving the instrument is hard to do when we’re amidst a tough practice. (Ironically, that’s probably the best thing to do when things get too tense. That’s just asking for an injury. But more on that later.) Shoulder rolls are your easiest and quickest solution!
Now, for my last point, and (in my opinion) one of the best:
Once upon a time, I had no interest in yoga—and then I tried it. I’m still no yogi, but I have a new appreciation for yoga. Believe me, these stretches feel amaaazing. Try this 30-minute yin yoga for the neck and shoulders to start with. I don’t hunch over the piano, but I do get my share of tension from looking out and in front of me for long periods of time. This yoga session opens me up and helps me relax after a long practice. I also love this 20-minute deep stretch yoga session, which allows plenty of time for you to relax into and absorb the stretches.
If you’re using these stretches to prevent injury, I have one last note for you: stretching won’t help you very much with that. The best way to prevent injury is to be careful not to have tension in any of your muscles. (And, by the way, even if you think you’re completely relaxed, a long practice will inevitably yield tension.) When you do feel tense or tired, don’t just stretch and continue playing; step away from your instrument for a little while. There is no need to continue. If you force yourself to keep playing, you will only injure yourself one of these days.
I know it’s hard to periodically take a break from your instrument. It’s one of the things I myself struggle with. I really dislike getting up from the piano—it feels like I’m giving up on something—and I oftentimes continue despite any aching or fatigue in my fingers. This is exactly what I shouldn’t be doing! Even if I wouldn’t injure myself, that kind of practicing is not smart and won’t even help me improve in the long run. It’s only destructive. (Speaking of smart practicing, here’s what you need to know about it.)
I think these exercises are great to unwind after a long practice – I just don’t want you to rely on them to remedy your tension when you need to get at the root of the problem.
Thanks for reading!