Tips for Healthy Practicing
By Brianna Richardson
Are you more likely to get injured during a performance or while practicing? Even though you may put out extra physical and mental effort for a performance, which could aggravate an existing injury, most injuries in musicians are the cumulative result of overuse. What you do on one particular day – such as the day of your solo recital or symphony concert – may matter a great deal to you mentally, which can impact your performance, but it’s what you do every day that takes a toll on your body. Janet Horvath, author of Playing (less) Hurt, writes, “It is rare to see an acute or sudden injury in a musician.”  Richard Norris, M.D., author of “The Musician’s Survival Manual” agrees, stating that “Overuse injuries are, unfortunately, all too common among instrumentalists…. [A] chronic overuse injury takes place more insidiously over a long period of time.” 
An extravagant weekend of overplaying may put you over the edge, but if you were perfectly fine beforehand, a few days of rest and ice are likely to put you back on schedule. If, however, you are in the habit of playing past your current level of stamina on a regular basis– or have a very irregular practice schedule – this could be enough to put you over your limit. It’s okay to have days where you don’t follow all the rules, but if you want to stay healthy as a musician, it’s the habits in the practice room that matter.
Not sure whether or not your habits are up to par? Or want more information? Keep reading below!
Tips for Healthy Practicing Part 1
As a musician, it is important to pay attention to how you practice. Healthy practice patterns can help lead you to a lifelong enjoyment of pain-free playing!
How do YOU approach practicing? What do you do when you walk into a practice room or pick up your instrument?
Just as an athlete stretches before practice, or a marathon runner warms up before a race, a musician should warm up their muscles before launching into a long practice session or rehearsal.
Here are some tips:
- Warm up for 5-10 minutes before practicing solo repertoire or difficult passages.
- For every 50 minutes of practicing, it is important to take at least 10 minutes off to stretch and relax. This is a great opportunity to take a short walk, do a few stretches, or think about what you are trying to accomplish during that practice session. Let your body have a well-deserved break!
- Try to be consistent about your practice schedule. Practicing an hour a day is better than cramming in three or four hours every other day. Your muscles will thank you for being consistent, and you will retain more material.
- Gradually work up towards longer rehearsals and practice sessions, just as a runner would gradually work up their stamina for a race. If you are used to practicing 45 minutes at a time, don’t suddenly shift to two hour practice sessions.
- Avoid scheduling rehearsals back to back. If you can, show up early to warm up, and stretch during breaks and after the rehearsal ends.
- Take care of yourself and your body. It can’t function well under lots of stress if you are not getting enough sleep, exercise, and regular meals.
- Talk to your instructor or physician if you ever have discomfort from playing. It should never hurt to play your instrument!
It all starts in the practice room. You can frantically race through the cadenza of a sonata for your next lesson, or you can choose to carefully work through the more difficult sections, and then gradually work up the tempo. Try planning out your practice session. What are you going to accomplish? Write it out ahead of time, or think about it while you stretch or take your practice break. This is your time with you, your body, and your instrument. Use it effectively. You can practice mindlessly for six hours a day and never get anything done, or just have one really constructive hour each morning where you get everything done. Quantity is not quality. Consistent, mindful practice can gets things done painlessly in a shorter amount of time. And remember to take breaks! If you are stuck on something, take a short walk or just lie on the floor and take a few deep breathes. Your mind will be more attentive after a short break, and your body will appreciate it too.
If you are trying to increase your practice time (say, if your teacher tells you to practice more, or if you have a concert coming up), do it gradually. Add ten minutes every few days. If your body feels okay with 40 minutes, you can try increasing it to 45 or 50 minutes. But listen to your body. If you feel really fatigued after an hour, DON’T increase your playing time. Stay at an hour or decrease back to your previous playing time until your body tells you it is okay to keep increasing.
 Horvath, Janet. Playing (less) Hurt. Kearney, NE: Morris Publishing, 2002.
 Norris, Richard, M.D. The Musician’s Survival Manual: A Guide to Preventing and Treating Injuries in Instrumentalists. St. Louis, MO: International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), 1993.