Previously, I did a blog here that had to do with fixing guitar technique problems by slowing down practice to the point that you could see movement ergonomic (or: the science of efficiency of motion) problems for insight as to how to change them. The major point was the idea that only when playing slowly could you not only see problems but also override the old ways that you had learned to do things. The brain doesn’t know the difference between what you “meant to do” and what you actually DID, and as such, our minds require a large number or repetitions in the “new correct” way to do something to override the “old correct” way that you had previously trained it to do.
OK, hold that thought while I present you with a seemingly new, but actually totally related one:
For well over a year now, I have experienced more and more pain in especially my left fretting hand, but also where the thumbs join my palms and wrists in both hands. I knew that eventually age catches up to us all, but wasn’t willing to chalk it up to that before I really examined the problem. Whenever you experience a new issue, it’s wise to ask yourself “what’s different now from before it started?”
The first thing that came to my mind was that – as is true with many – the Covid Age had driven me to interacting with people more on social media, and that resulted in a lot more TEXTING. I had been texting pretty much completely with my left index finger (I’m left handed but play right handed), holding the phone in my right hand, and I had to be honest that a lot of the pain seemed to happen while texting.
So I started trying to use “speech to text” whenever I thought of it, but that was again a real effort to get myself to do that. One thing that I decided to do that helped was to finish the whole text before I did any manual corrections and even add in the correct word after it inserted the wrong one that I would delete later, and also SLOW DOWN and enunciate more clearly. Like most creative people I think, I find that I just want to get an idea out clearly and quickly since that’s how it was formed in my head, but as I said above – “slow is fast” applies here in that there is less correction time if I SLOW DOWN – and way less damage to my hands as well.
So that helped a bit, but there was still some pain when I played guitar, and I had to admit that it was making me play less. I tended to just ignore the pain when actually performing, but I definitely felt it when practicing. I have lots of friends that have played many decades like me who also have had carpel tunnel and I knew I really didn’t want that.
I remember some people back in music school talking about playing through the pain and clearing the lactic acid that forms in the muscles through breathing, but I adhere to the adage that “pain is God’s way of telling us that we are doing something that is damaging us and we need to stop”. So I thought it far better to try to really pay attention to when it happened and what I was doing so I could change it.
I have never been a person that has paid to go to masseuses as while I could see that while it could make some people FEEL better, I didn’t see where there were long term results from it – at least for me, if it has for anyone else, more power to you and that’s great.
So I was resistant when the couple of people I even talked about it to recommended massage. I finally agreed to try it, and remembered that my hair stylist had told me about a person that she thought was great. I got the number from her and called the person, and when I described what I was looking for she told me that this was exactly what she did, which she described in layman’s terms as “reconstructive massage”.
I went for the first session and was very pleasantly surprised how tailor made her skills were for what I needed, and so I wanted to pass this on to others that have any of the issues that I have described so far above – read on:
Carmelita “Carm” Davis-Beets turned out to be not just a masseuse, but a “Certified Hellerwork & Body Somotic Practitioner’, which is a holistic mind/body sort of thing. And the great part is that she knew how to free up the (and these are my layman words and not hers) the sort of solidifying of areas that are meant to be have lubricating type fluids to keep our muscles working well – basically, my muscles had sort of turned into one big ice locked mass.
I asked her if I had tendonitis, and she said that I not only had it, but had it really bad in my left hand and wrist. I will add that I have high pain threshold so I don’t feel pain as acutely as other people do, which might seem to be an advantage but actually it has made to where I really hurt myself because I didn’t feel the damage, resulting in for one having pneumonia three times in my life.
She said that she could free it all up but it would take a few sessions, and on the first session spent all of the hour on the left hand. Here the high pain threshold helped me because it didn’t bother me much to heave here really push hard on this “deep tissue” therapy. We talked a lot about what I was doing that might be adding to the damage and the various motions that I had to do all of the time. A big problem was that the clenching motions that are 85% of what a guitarist’s fretting hand has to do builds up without any real relaxation work to where the muscles are sort of in a semi-permanent state of clenching pressure.
She showed me a lot of stretching exercises which included leaning against a table with the palms down flattening the fingers as much as possible, which for me wasn’t very flat at all. We talked about what seemed to be the retaining of water in my fingers, and the sort of “muscle bound” feeling that I had had in recent years that was restricting my movements from the way my hands used to be. She tried to free up the fingers but they were way too bound up for her to really “pop” the joints where they attached to my palms which needed to happen.
In the second session, she started out with the right hand which she said was about 50% as bad as the other hand, but in a whole different way. We talked about “The Alexander Technique” that the amazing guitarist Julian Lage studied to give him the utterly relaxed flawless technique that he enjoys, and she knew all about that practice and had known some teachers of this technique. She had been a professional dancer for 47 years and knew all about repetitive motion issues, so it was great to have someone understand that aspect of the causes of this damage. The cool thing was that she was able to free up the fingers on the right hand that day, but also overall both hands were now feeling more mobile and with less pain.
The next session in two weeks will probably add in dealing with some shoulder and back issues as she told me that she could see I had problems there, and since then I have really noticed tensing up that I do there from time to time. And also there will be more work on the left hand, as I can really see that I will be about to recover and that this isn’t an“oh well” issue related to the passing of time.
Changes To Be Made:
I will say that as I type this, I am putting conscious effort into both slowing down and hitting the computer keyboard keys at leas 20% lighter than I usually do. I am self taught on keyboarding as I think are most of us in the internet age, and I am considering taking a remote “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” keyboard course to correct my bad habits as well.
More importantly, I have realized that there is a HUGE difference in phone texting with the index finger than the middle finger, which I am moving to use now instead. Texting with the index finger causes the whole hand to clench, which increases when you recognize it is happening and then try to speed to “just get done”. The middle finger is WAY more relaxed, but as I said above, it’s better still to use “speech to text” instead or better still, a computer keyboard.
But most importantly, I have realized that while I am anything but a really heavy handed guitar player, I am STILL picking way too hard for the most part. When I SLOW DOWN and play lighter, I am really able to focus on shortening the main problem that I find almost all pick style guitarists have – an upstroke that is WAY TOO WIDE. An overtly wide upstroke adds lots of unnecessary distance – which of course greatly decreases speed potential – and so this really should be job one for anyone trying to increase the tempos that they can play at.
But keep in mind that as always, whenever you are trying to change something about your playing, use this motto: When PRACTICING, only play the new technique that you are trying to implement. When PERFORMING, don’t worry about doing it the new way, just play and do whatever it takes to get the music out. Once the “new way” is more comfortable than the old way you want to leave behind, you will gravitate to it naturally – after a short “awkward” period where neither feel good anymore, of course but unfortunately.
So that’s it, I had the feeling that a lot of people are probably going through issues like this and as such it would be good to pass all of of this stuff on while it was still fresh in my mind. My first session was January 4, 2022, the next about a week later, and the next coming up on Jan 26. In the meantime, I will really work in implementing all that I have been learning, but I can say that it’s given me a sort of “new lease” on playing all of the sudden. I hope that this will help some others as well. If you ware looking for a person in your area to hep you with this, try looking at the web sites of masseuses and talking to dancers, athletes and even hair stylists for recommendations, asking some of the questions that I have raised here.
In the meantime, if you are looking for some good examples of relaxed players teaching some really cool music to apply it to, what about some of these guys?:
May the 12 notes continue to dance in your hands,
Jan. 13, 2022