Tendonitis, Playing the Piano and Skiing

I recently wrote a blog about the prevention and cure for tendonitis where I opined that working on your piano or typing technique can improve other activities such as skiing.  Someone called me to task on that comment and challenged me to explain.  

It is not that piano playing and skiing are that much related as much as the physics behind them is the same.  The concepts in common are gravity, alignment (kinematic chains) and reactions to actions.  

One of the most common injuries to a skier is a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament).  It happens simply when the femur and tibia are not properly aligned and the torque doesn’t go through the bones but is transferred onto the tiny yet powerful ACL.  The ACL is very strong when properly aligned but break that alignment and it is as weak as a piece of paper.

Every movement has equal and opposite movements.  In playing the piano the pianist has to play down and thusly he is required to have an up motion.  The muscles to make the arm go up are much stronger than the arms which make us go down because to fall down, no muscle is required.  The pianist also goes up and down the keyboard so in order to play left he has to go right.  Here is why:

If I were to swing a tennis racquet, I would toss the ball in the air and swing my arm backward, then swing forward to hit the ball.  To swing a baseball bat or golf club, I would do the same.  When I swim, in order to stroke, my arm goes behind me, then up and in front of me, then down and behind me.  If I were to swat a fly I would raise the swatter before descending down to smoosh its target.  If I were to slap your face, I wouldn’t start with my palm on your face.  I would swing backward then forward across your cheek (and you’ll let me do it seven times seventy times then turn the other cheek).  

If I wanted to jump into the air, I would bend my knees and sink a little to the ground then propel myself upward.  If I were standing on a glass floor and wanted to break it.  I would jump up and keep my knees bent until I was close to the glass, then extend my knees and feet into the surface for maximum impact.  

I come from the old school of parallel skiing where I keep my legs together and ski with them as one rather than two legs.  When you ski with your legs or feet apart, you have four edges to worry about and control (dual muscular pulls).  Catching an edge on the snow can cause you to lose balance and fall.  When you ski with your legs parallel, you only have two edges acting as one limb.  The skier always keeps the inside leg a little bit shorter by bending it slightly more.  Both legs and feet have to be turning together in the same direction at the same time much like all five fingers of a pianist  SHOULD only go in one direction at a time.  The skier needs to have his torso and head perfectly aligned and balanced in one chain.

The parallel turn is accomplished not just by jumping or grinding your edges into the snow but by un-weighing yourself.  When turning, there is a bend at the hip and the legs are extended to the right.  You can experience this, sort of, if you stand sideways about four feet from a wall, lean toward the wall with your left hand so that you are at an oblique angle.  All your weight should be in your right leg (inside the foot-radial side) and the left leg is parallel.  At tremendous forces the edge is digging into the ice (if you ski in the east) and snow (if you ski out west).

That is kind of what a turn feels like but not as static.  This is also a left turn.  As you turn left by leaning into the inside right ski edge, your body will feel the momentum and you would then slightly tuck both knees up and shift your legs to the other side but when you extend your legs so that your skis go down, you lean into the inside of the left ski edge:  These are equal and opposite motions, with perfect alignment, with both legs going in the same direction at the same time.

This method of un-weighing can look like the skier is jumping in the air but they are actually just extending their legs and shifting weight from right to left.  With balance, momentum, extension and retraction, this keeps him upright and in control.  

Also, the skier needs to keep the front of his body always facing down the hill where the fall line is or where gravity is pulling him.  If he deviates from the fall line, there needs to be a lot of adjustments lest he catch an edge resulting in a face plant or yard sale.  

It sounds complicated but if you are a parallel skier, it makes total sense.  The skier’s whole body can only do one thing at a time, either turn left or right or coast forward.  Many skiers are taught to snowplow which is skiing on the inside edges of both skies at the same time but that isn’t skiing.  It is ice making and it puts pressure on the knees and maintains constant flexion of the muscles.  As a novice masters the snowplow they are taught the stem Christie which is one step away from parallel but most skiers don’t progress to the next step predominately because the nature of un-weighing the whole body is foreign to many people’s concept and it requires a leap of faith.  A shy skier will never move beyond the stem Christie. They lack the confidence that their edge will be there if they un-weigh so they remain advanced beginners or intermediate skiers at best because they don’t understand nor trust the concept of a closed-loop kinematic chain.   

Have you ever noticed that after somebody has a heart attack or loses a child or goes through anything really heavy, their outlook can change overnight?  They see life on a more deep level than before.  They tend to think about the bigger things and not care so much about the color their cars are or what clothes are in style.  When your mind and body are at one with the mountain, all the obstacles and gravity melts away.

So, like the pianist whose arm can only go in one direction at a time, the skiers body can only go in one direction at a time.  If his body or legs oppose that, he can still ski, just not well.

For the past twenty years ski makers have been designing parabolic skies which are shaped to promote parallel skiing and it is funny to see people skiing parallel without the un-weighing of their body.  Instead they are rolling the ski from edge to edge.  They still fall because they are trying to control the ground rather than control their body and go with gravity.  

When skiing in deep powder or on ice, the skier needs this un-weighing as if they are trying to plunge through a glass floor.  This makes it so that the ski edges can dig in to whatever they are resisting.  Lack of un-weighing is why most skiers cannot ski on ice or in deep powder.  They then complain about the mountain or the conditions. 

A skier who tries to control the ski, control the ground and control gravity, will not be a good skier and can easily hurt themselves.  If they use the ski as an extension of their body and they go with gravity rather than fighting it, they can control everything and it will be effortless because they won’t be static and engaging the same muscles all the time.  On the contrary.  Our muscles which aid in us going up are much stronger than our muscles that help us go down (Hamstrings Vs Quads).  Ironically, it is engaging the weaker hamstring which gives the quads a break and allows them to work more efficiently and most importantly – rest.

A pianist who fights with the mechanical nature of a piano will forever be challenged by it and their own bodies and, most likely, injured by it.  The pianist is not the engine to the instrument as much as a conduit to the music that already exists.  Only when the closed-loop kinematic chain of the body is achieved and alignment between body and instrument coalesce into one can a musician become an artist or a skier master the gravity of the mountain.  

It is interesting to note that true artists or true prodigies don’t know what they are doing.  What they do is simply natural to them.  When they try to explain what they do they get it wrong because they explain how they feel.  Bach, for instance, taught his students to scratch the key in a carrezando technique because what he was feeling when he played was his fingers caressing the keys.  What was really happening was as he was lifting and dropping his arm and moving in and out onto the keys because instinctively, he knew his fingers were different lengths and equalizing them caused micro tension.  The sensation of caressing the keys was a result of his arm moving the fingers.  That is what he felt but caressing the keys was not what he was doing. 

Another thing teachers get wrong is when they tell their students to relax the hand.  They need to relax the correct muscles at the right time.  But that is a topic for another time.   

Original slide on Tendonitis


One thought on “Tendonitis, Playing the Piano and Skiing

  1. Michael Garrett

    I was diagnosed with tendonitis in 2010… I used to join my cousins with their rock climbing weekends but I had my left elbow injured. I went to our family’s physical therapist and had therapies for 8 weeks… The therapy didn’t go well for me… My elbow was extremely swollen and throbbing… I also tried some home remedies like hot/cold compress…. My tendon got better after I finished a stem cell treatment with my orthopedic surgeon, Dr Grossman. It was a 6-week treatment which was done efficiently. Honestly, I didn’t really trust regenerative medicine. However, my cousin, Fred, also had the same treatment with the same doctor and I’ve seen good result, so I’ve decided to try it too.. and good thing I did…


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