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Playing With Fire #3

Median Nerve Entrapment, or carpal tunnel syndrome, is often the result of an inflamed long flexor tendon. When we move improperly or over stretch, micro tears form on the tendon and since the tendon has no direct blood supply it can’t heal very quickly so the body places scar tissue in the tear as a quick fix. Tendons glide and stretch within the tendon sheath but scar tissue does stretch not and more stretching or continued improper movement creates larger tears. Soon, inflammation sets in. Our long flexor tendons run through the carpal tunnel where the median nerve also passes. It is a tight and compact space and when the long flexor tendon becomes inflamed or larger, there is no place for it to expand so it crushes the median nerve giving us symptoms of pain and numbness.

Overuse is not the problem or cause of tendon issues, misuse is. Worse yet is if you combine tmisuse and overuse. When you move properly, there is no overuse. Much like a car in peak condition, you can drive it for thousands of miles with little wear and tear. However, if your frame is bent or there is something out of alignment, wear and tear will happen very quickly. Our bodies are no different. Compare this wear and tear to the tires on your car. If your car is out of alignment and that imbalance is eating away at your tires, you can get new tires but the wear and tear will happen to the new tires, too. The better solution is to fix the alignment of your wheels. Likewise, fix the alignment of your movement. Treat problems, not symptoms.

Often doctors treat the symptom of this pressure to the median nerve with drugs, rest, splints, PT, injections or surgery. Symptoms should not be treated, problems should be and for most people, the problem is they are simply moving improperly. Even after surgery and the symptom is “cured,” the problem of poor ergonomic movement still exists. The doctor only made more room for more future inflammation.

The benefit of learning how to move properly is that not only will the symptoms of pain, fatigue and numbness disappear but, as a musician, your accuracy, speed and power will increase and improve. Also, as you transfer these movements to everyday life, you’ll discover ease and effortlessness in other motions of your daily living.

There is one danger though, once you learn to move properly, there is no going back to improper movement. Moving improperly will promote muscle growth of the improper muscles and once you stop using them you will lose them, the incorrect muscles will atrophy. This is often referred to by musicians as being rusty. Proper movement does not need to be practiced once learned, like walking or riding a bike, it is always there. Improper movement requires constant maintenance because it is not natural. This gives rise to the old adage, “Miss a day of practice and you notice. Miss two days and your competition notices. Miss three days and your audience notices.” A proper, ergonomic or virtuoso technique, like walking, is there forever and requires no maintenance.

Should you ever go back to moving improperly, you can seriously injure yourself because the incorrect muscles will have atrophied. Proper movement is all or nothing. I have found that many people either don’t have the patience, dedication nor intelligence to re-learn how to move. This is not a criticism, it just is.


Playing With Fire #2

Many pianists and typists move incorrectly and improper movement creates tension and fatigue.  If you’ve ever gotten cramps or had to shake your hands out or wake up in the morning with stiff fingers, it is most likely because you use the wrong muscles or, are using them improperly.  When you play a finger BONE down onto a key, it must go straight down, following the path of gravity.  Often pianists are employing three of four muscles at the same time and three muscles pulling on one bone in three directions is what causes problems.  It is like if you were driving a car and trying to turn left and I grabbed the steering wheel and tried to pull us right, that is what goes on with our hands and we condition ourselves to accept then multiple muscle pulls as normal.  Really bad teachers will tell the student to practice more or build strength and endurance then prescribe silly exercises when all a long the student only needs to use the correct muscle and stop using the wrong ones.  In the car example, you would not need to work out or practice driving to stop me from trying to run us off the road.  You only need to stop using me as your copilot.

I will elaborate on this much more but for now, know that it is gravity that plays the keys down, all five fingers must move in the same direction at the same time (they are NEVER isolated as many teachers teach – that creates abduction and flexation at the same time), all five fingers play together, it is the arm that places the finger, the flexors are used minimally. This goes against what most of us are taught but, the laws of physics must never be challenged. If we do challenge them, we will lose and our orthopedic surgeons will be eating steak this week.

In summary, tension, pain, cramps, uneven playing, weakness in playing or syndromes are symptoms of using two or more muscles to simultaneously move one bone. Like the game “Tug of War,” one of your tendons will eventually tire and give out.

Anytime a pianist experiences tension, more practice only hard wires improper movement into the brain’s muscle memory. It would be best to stop practicing until the movement can be corrected. Also, over time micro tears can form on the long flexor tendons which will result in inflammation. An inflamed long flexor tendon will press on the Median Nerve within the carpal tunnel resulting in pain, fatigue or numbness.

Playing With Fire #1

Playing With Fire #1

There is a myth that repetitive movement creates repetitive strain injuries. That is false. Improper movement creates strain, fatigue and injury. Over the course of a year I am going to address issues of movement and how it can lead to injury, especially as it pertains to pianists.

With all five fingers together, wave “bye bye.” Now abduct your fingers (spread them out) and wave “bye bye.” Feel the strain? At the very least, you should feel that your fingers don’t move as effortlessly as they did when they were moving together in one direction at a time. This is where computer users, pianists or anyone who uses their hands can go wrong.

When you wave with your fingers together, you are alternating between the flexors and extensors, the muscles in your forearm (your fingers have no muscle) that flex and extend them. Your flexors are designed to move your fingers in one direction and your extensors are designed to move them in the opposite direction. You can not flex and extend at the same time because you can only move your finger bones in one direction. For instance, you can only steer your car left or right, not in both directions at the same time.

However, when you use your abductors at the same time you use your flexors, you are pulling the bone in two directions at the same time and that creates a tug of war or strain to the muscles and more directly to the tendons. You are attempting to move them down but left and right, too.

Most people who experience strain, fatigue, cramps or pain are creating this force vector which can build up scar tissue over time resulting in inflammation to the tendons.

Optical Illusions

Are you looking for a fun activity to do outdoors with your kids or youth group? All you need is a camera, an eye for location and a subject (with a solid core) who can hold a pose. Very little photo editing is required.

First, take a hike. Check with local hiking groups and online websites to find hikes that are appropriate for your age children then take them to the summit. Bring lots of water and snacks. Don’t forget the water and bring plenty of water. Did I mention not to skimp on the water? Bring more water than Brett Kavanaugh drinks beer. I like beer.

Whatever mountain you choose, if you are not an experienced hiker, read trail reports to figure out how long a round trip will take. Plan accordingly. Bring flashlights (along with water) in case you miscalculate. Chances are you live near an area with short one or two hour hikes. You can also do a Google Image search of your chosen peak so you can see pictures of the summit that other hikers have taken and plan your photo layout in advance.

Then, look for a ledge, large flat slabs of granite or a large rock (erratic) that they can lay on. What is important is for the camera to get either high or low enough to catch the subject but with either only sky or rock in the background. If you catch any trees in the background you will have to do some editing for everything in the background will belie the optical illusion. This is why you may have to hike to the summit of the mountain and look for layered ledges or a large erratic. If you try this on a slab of granite, make sure there are no shadows from trees or people which will give away the illusion.

Once you find your location, safety always comes first. Do you know what the leading cause of death is while hiking? The selfie.

Find a crack or bulge in your rock and have your subject lie down on their side below it with their bottom arm stretched up to the crack or bulge (a more realistic picture will have their arm at a right angle). They must lie in a straight line. Their upper arm should be relaxed but held up in the air pointing toward their feet. Their head can be angled downward and their eyes can look all the way down toward their feet. This is the “acting” part to give the illusion of awe of the height. Too much acting will look fake. Anyone brave enough to climb a cliff won’t have the look of fear on their face. Likewise, a real climber would not hang by his fingertips and smile for a camera. Real climbing is serious business and poses often look fake or at least, not dangerous. This should look like a candid pic snapped in the midst of action.

Now the hard part. The subject needs to raise both feet and legs off the ground. At least the upper leg. Point the toes downward, this is very important. Likewise, the arm should have the relaxed grace of a ballerina. After the picture is taken, load it into a photo editor and simply rotate it once in the proper direction then save it.

Another tip to ensure that the photo looks as real as possible, the subject shouldn’t wear loose clothing, loose long hair and, their shoelaces should be tucked in. Gravity will grab anything it can to make your photo look fake.

Halloween Organ Concert Ideas

I am often asked for repertoire ideas for Halloween Organ Recitals. It is not that difficult. Take any melody in a minor key, play it with a four foot flute in your right hand, maybe with a mutation, and with your left hand, do a slow palm glissando on both black and white keys with strings or softer flutes. Here are several songs I have played in the past:

Postlude Sollenele

Night on Bald Mountain
(gasp, I can’t find my vid)

Toccata and Fugue in D minor

Chopin Prelude

Moonlight Sonata

Chopin Mazurka

Little Prelude and Fugue in G minor

Addams Family

The Munsters
(gasp, I can’t find my vid)

London Bridge (because there are human sacrifices in each pillar – orphans)

Itsy Bitsy Spider

Hall Of The Mountain King

Boellemann Toccata

The Lost Chord

Flight of the Bumblebee

March of the Marrionettes

Couperin Fugue

O Fortuna/Phantom of the Opera

Variations on a Recitative Schoenberg
(gasp, I can’t find my vid)

Ring Around the Rosie (about the plague)

Point Of Sound

One of the causes for strain, stress, injury and other maladies pianists, organists and typists experience is simply that they press too hard into the keybed of their device or instrument. Let’s first take a look at sports and then physics (that HS subject you think you don’t use in real life).

As a baseball player stands at home plate and the ball is hurtling toward him, he back-swings, forward swings, hits the ball, then all the energy left over from the swing dissipates into the follow through. The same action occurs when an athlete swings a tennis racquet, kicks a ball, swings a golf club, punches someone, throws a ball, etcetera. That is Newton’s third law of physics that every action has an equal and opposite action. In order to forward swing, one must first back swing. Even when we walk forward, as one leg is extending up and forward, the other leg is pushing backward. So according to the laws of physics, in order to type or play the piano down, one must first lift up. Many of us were trained or taught to play or type from a resting and relaxed position which actually creates tension because holding a position requires effort. So we know that everything requires an opposite motion and a follow through. I bet all you smart kids out there know exactly where I’m going with this.

Now imagine that our baseball, tennis, soccer, golf, football players or boxers are standing before a concrete wall and they backswing then forward swing but instead of hitting an object and following through, they strike the immovable wall. All the energy of the swing, instead of following through and dissipating, ricochets back into the athlete. That can hurt.

A piano is much the same. Many pianists press into the keybed of a piano and not only does that fail to produce any more of a tone but, all the energy of pressing down is being transferred back up into their finger joints and tendons. We often don’t notice this until after an hour or so of practice or the next morning when we wake up with stiff fingers. We are taught by bad teachers “no pain, no gain.” In this case, it is very much a lie. No pain, no gain is fine when building muscle but not for bones, joints, tendons, ligaments and certainly not for our technique. Often poor technique, strain or missed notes are a result of what we are not doing rather than what we are doing and often we are using the wrong muscles.

Sit at any acoustic piano and very slowly, depress a key so you don’t play a sound. At some point you will hit a little bump in the action, then press through it and you will hit the keybed. That little bump is the point of sound once you actually play.

As a pianist drops the controlled weight of their arm onto a key, they must use Newton’s third law. As they hit the point of sound, much like an athlete striking a ball, they must then follow through without hitting the keybed. When they press into the keybed, not only is their energy backfiring but, they are pressing down and according to Newton, we can’t set up for the up motion if we are pressing down. This hinders technique. You can’t play down if you don’t play up and you can’t play up if you are pressing down.

So, the key and cure to playing without tension or pain is learning to play to the point of sound and simply following through and not pressing into the keybed. Unbeknownst to most teachers, their students press into the keybed. It is a motion that is often invisible. When a student experiences problems with technique or pain, the teacher often says practice more or run exercises to build strength and endurance and the teacher is often oblivious that the way the student practices is what needs to be addressed, not a clock.

Danger Will Robinson. Before anyone tries to learn to play to the point of sound, there are other components of technique which must first be in place. This includes controlling arm weight, controlling up/down, controlling in/out from the shoulder and elbow, using the fulcrum of the elbow, controlling rotation of the forearm through the use of the pronator and supinator muscles. Likewise, there are movements to avoid such as abduction, curling the thumb under the palm, isolating a finger, equalizing fingers, radial and ulnar deviation, and trying to play too relaxed, still and quiet.

A virtuoso technique looks like it is effortless and relaxed. That is true, the fingers are relaxed because the arm does all the work. Observers are often looking at the pianist’s hands and fail to notice the elbow and arm is actually doing most of the work. Pianists who attempt to play from the fingers and have fatigue, are told to relax so, they relax the same muscles they are continuing to use and they achieve nothing.

Once all of the proper motions are achieved and the improper ones eradicated, point of sound will just happen. Some “techniques” such as the Russian Technique, surreptitiously imbue the pianist with these movements but personally, I would rather learn the physics and ergonomics of movement rather than being tricked through mindless imitation. Although, it works to some degree. Where it fails is when a pianist encounters a passage they can’t execute and if they knew the mechanics of the arm, would be able to figure out what sort of adjustment is required to play that passage.

I once studied with a leading concert pianist in my area who didn’t know what he was doing but had a phenomenal natural technique. His instruction to me was to watch him play then imitate his motion. That would have been fine but I already had bad habits hardwired into my brain which were getting in the way. Since he didn’t know anything about ergonomics nor physics, he had no idea how to fix me other than prescribing “practice more.”

I once gave a lecture on this topic and a pianist disagreed with me about Newtons third law citing that the piano is down, not up. The finger must come straight down onto a key. If the pianist is playing with a “still and quiet hand” and they must also play black keys, note that the black keys are higher than the white keys. This results in the still and quiet pianist to stretch or twist to reach those keys which in turn create vector forces or, two muscles pulling one bone in two directions simultaneously. This creates tremendous imbalance in the arm which controls the hand and fingers and this leads to an incoordinate technique. Keep in mind your fingers have no muscles. They are moved by the flexor muscles in your forearm so that is where the pianist must first play from.

If you were to walk up stairs, your ascending leg would lift HIGHER than the next stair, then come straight down onto it. If you tried to walk upstairs without lifting your foot higher than the step, you’d trip. Playing the piano is the same. We must use the larger muscles of the arm to get the fingers higher than the notes we are desirous to play. Of course as we become more efficient, we minimize the height but make no mistake, although it may appear invisible, it is still there. Hanon knew this and prescribed the pianist to isolate one finger and lift it high but, this isolation engages the flexors and extensors at the same time resulting in strain to the long flexor tendons which leads to median nerve entrapment (AKA carpal tunnel syndrome). Remember the arm, hand and fingers can only move in one direction at a time. By abducting, for instance, the hand gets pulled in two or four directions despite the pianist trying to play a passage in a specific direction.

I have no conclusion to this post other than don’t try this at home. Find a teacher who knows what a pronator and abductor is and work from there.