I have a lot of extremely talented and amazing musicians in my family including 2 brothers, a sister in law, Zinnia who’s got a voice like no other and, a brilliant concert pianist for a mother, Professor Nancy Harper. I noticed over the years how my brothers, Eric Harper who is a great guitarist would often practices for hours hunched over his guitar and Kristian who also spends quite a bit of time hunched over his instruments and later would complain of back pain. Growing up in such a musically driven and talented family I had the privilege of not only getting to meet but also to hear many talented musicians playing various concerts around the world, so amazing and a blessing but, a common complaint I’ve heard amongst them is how many of them suffer from back pain because of the hours of practice in seated positions over their instruments. So I thought I’d address the issue and hopefully help to rectify this complaint and feel better by learning how musicians can prevent back pain.
Have you ever given thought as to why posture is so important or why your parents always told you to stand up straight and pull your shoulders back? No, it wasn’t just to be annoying, it was actually good sound advice even if they weren’t fully aware of why. Ideal posture is the position of the body which the musculoskeletal system functions at its most optimum. According to Corrective exercise and high-performance exercise expert Paul Chek “In Ideal posture there exists optimal length-tension relationships between agonists, antagonists neutralizer and stabilizer musculature. Ideal posture encourages maintenance of concentric joint motion and an optimal instantaneous axis of rotation.” Pianists spend many hours during the week in a position that actually is not natural to the body – sitting. The body is meant to move and be fluid but sitting for many hours while practicing your instrument can lead to back injury and pain if not corrected and strengthened.
Bad posture while sitting can lead to a myriad of muscular imbalances including but not limited to what’s called an Upper Cross Syndrome where there is an imbalance between the flexors and extensors of the trunk and lower cross syndrome which creates an imbalance in the lower body. This is often seen in people who spend a lot of time hunched over a computer for most of their working day or musicians who practice for many hours a day. Lumbar disc pressure is increased from 100 which is normal, to 185 when seated bent forward with the hands out. Now imagine what that pressure does to the lumbar spine after many years of practicing the piano?! Ouch! The body is meant to move not sit for such long periods of time.
Strengthening the core is very important because it protects the central nervous system and internal organs. The bony spinal column keeps the spinal cord, the rib cage and the strong outer abdominal muscles act as a protector to the internal organs from external blows or trauma. If the body is exercised correctly the internal organs are mobilized which helps keep your organs from sticking together, improves fluid flow through the organs and helps maintain normal bowel habits. However, when important core muscles stop functioning correctly due to poor diet, stress, or posture the support for internal organs is lessened and their function decreased. When the body is exercised correctly with fluid movements pressure changes occur in the core that assists the heart and the extremity muscles to circulate blood and lymphatic fluid throughout the body. So, if the core does not function well, the heart will have to work harder and the fluids become stagnant.
In addition to doing the right strengthening exercises and stretches for your back it’s important to keep the digestive system healthy with good quality unprocessed or packaged foods due to inflammation of the gut which may also give you back pain. If there is inflammation in the gut due to a poor diet it is unlikely any core work will be effective. Pain or inflammation of the digestive organs (gut) will reflex to the abdominals thereby leaving important stabilizer muscles unable to work properly and weak plus your gut will remain pouched. The body is a whole organic unit that works in concert to keep it healthy and functioning properly. Putting the best fuel into it will help keep the organs, muscles, and joints happy.
Doing the following program for stretching and strengthening will help keep the back strong and happy which leads to better concerts and recitals. The body is a complex machine and there is a lot more that goes into keeping it strong and healthy including doing a proper assessment and addressing individual issues however, for our purposes here I will simply give a few stretches and strengthening exercises to help you along the way to a stronger back and better posture. Stretches should be done at night after a hot shower for those who are really tight and lack flexibility.
1. Side neck stretch and rotation
2. Pectoral minor stretch (small muscle beneath the pec major muscle that will round your shoulders forward when they get tight.)
1. McKenzie Press-up
3. Prone cobra