As musicians, we often have to play the same musical passages over and over, but many times we don’t realize how tight our muscles are until they are sore. This soreness can be easily staved off with a simple activity: stretching! The trouble is, we don’t think about stretching until there already is a build up of metabolic waste in our muscles. Metabolic waste is primarily lactic acid and can be reduced by rest, hydrating, massage and stretching.
You’ll know that you’ve built up too much lactic acid – and are ready for a stretch – when you experience a dull and tired ache. It’s the sort of ache that you can easily ignore, because usually with a little rest it will feel better in the morning. Sometimes this works. However, unless you start stretching, the metabolic waste may eventually accumulate to a point where it is debilitating. At that point, the simple remedy of a good night’s sleep won’t work anymore.
Don’t wait so long that your tight muscles turn into carpal tunnel syndrome. If that happens, you will have very limited choices, like don’t play at all, don’t play and have surgery, or don’t play and have cortisone shots. These are not the choices you want to have. Instead, learn the basics of what you can do to relieve your muscular discomfort in a natural way, like stretching.
The common belief is that you should stretch before you play, but stretching is mostly needed after a long session of music playing, because that is when metabolic waste is at its highest concentration in your body.
Also, it is more important to develop a routine of stretching even if you only do one stretch a day, rather than to do a whole variety of stretches on one-day and not develop a habit.
Here is the most therapeutic, relaxing stretch that I know. I learned how effective this stretch was when I suggested it to a classical guitarist who had the beginning stages of carpal tunnel. He had pain on the outside of his elbow and all around his wrist. At first, I did massage work to loosen the muscles in his hands, arms, chest and shoulders, which worked well to bring his pain to a manageable level. Then I suggested he do the following stretch. This stretch can be done as many times a day as you like, but at least once a day.
Lay on your back and draw your knees to your chest. Breathe in and as you exhale drop the knees to your left side. Lengthen your right arm to the side and rotate your head to look at your right hand. Now, here’s the tricky part. For ultimate results, your breath needs to be coordinated with the movement. As you breathe in, slightly arch your back. As you exhale, try to press the right shoulder blade to the ground. With each breath you are changing the angle of the arm, inching it up towards the shoulder. Allow your intuition to decide as you exhale whether you press the back, side or palm of your hand towards the floor. Exploring different angles will stretch different muscle fibers.
After approximately 20 breaths, your arm is no longer stretched out to your side, but is now stretching above your head. Once you have your arm above your head, now inch your arm back with each breath back to the side. You should take a minimum of two minutes to do this sequence, unless you are feeling discomfort. Next, do the other side and come back for as long as it is comfortable. If you are feeling no discomfort, repeat as desired on the side that feels like it needs it most. Don’t forget to slightly arch your back with each inhalation and try to press the shoulder blade of the arm being stretched into the floor.
Frank Hughes is a massage therapist and musician. He can be reached at (816) 529-2469.