I think one of the things pros don’t talk about enough is the time we spend away from our instruments; and the stage.
If you’re a pro that plays, practices or rehearses every day there is a very strong chance you’ll have injuries that will affect your ability to perform.
Typically these are repetitive stress injuries, or RSI. Surveys of symphony orchestras found that 64% to 76% of musicians were experiencing RSI that affected their performance. And remember that these musicians are among the most highly trained in the world. They are taught, and practice the very best ergonomic and musically efficient techniques.
Imagine how those who are self-taught fare.
I personally think that about 85% of my peers over the age of 50 have dealt with some form of RSI. Enough that it’s kept them home when they’d rather be, and quite often financially need, to perform.
So what are some examples of RSI that guitarists frequently encounter? Tendinitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Ask me how I know.
And then there are other physical issues that present themselves to guitarists specifically; lower back, neck and shoulder problems are most common. Sciatic issues abound. These injuries can affect a guitarist’s ability as much or more than the above mentioned RSI. Ask me how I know.
And let’s not discount the toll travel takes on the body. If you have back or neck issues from playing they are severely exacerbated by driving and flying. Ask me how I know.
So, what is a sexagenarian with over 30,000 hours on his hands do to protect himself?
I play as little as I can.
This still averages out to over 15 hours a week; most weeks. But I also schedule an off-season. And then a spring training, and then I go about my year. And I pretty much insist on celebrating a sabbath from my guitar every week. I only play 5-6 days a week.
If one were to look at my schedule closely over the last decade they’d see very few performances January-March. And if I play them, they’re typically regional 60-minute, one-set affairs. This is on purpose. I plan my year in much the same way an MLB player does.
I take January off. In fact I take from the last gig of December until the end of January off. This doesn’t mean I don’t pick up the guitar, but none of it is rehearsal. I only play what I want, when I want to, and I spend most of my time fishing for ideas on a variety of guitars. Or experiment with strings and tunings as I did this year with my baritone-eventually deciding to tune it C-C in standard which was another step lower. This is a valuable creative time for me, but I only play 3-4 hours a week, at most.
The rest is invaluable.
February is when spring training starts for me. I play at least one 60-90 minute focused session on one guitar 5 days a week. This time includes warm-up and stretching. I play as long as I can stay actively engaged in critical listening which is the requirement for me to call it a focused session. Once the outside world begins to intrude I put the guitar down.
I allow myself to play one more 45 minute focused session, if I want to, on another guitar, or play a ‘casual’ session for up to 90 minutes. An example of a casual session would be playing while watching a sporting event or news broadcast. But the only mandate in early February is one 60-90 minute focused session .
I ease myself back in making sure that I’m playing at about 60-70% of volume and tempo. Think pitchers playing long-toss. I’m stretching muscles that haven’t been taxed in 30 days.
By the middle of the month I move to two 60-90 minute mandatory focused sessions, and allow one casual session of any length as long as I’m feeling relaxed and pain free. I also up volume and tempo, approaching performance tempos and volume.
In February I do not evaluate my accuracy. This is important. If you’ve taken a break from focused playing, or playing at all, your accuracy is going to be negatively impacted. To expect anything else is foolish, and can set you back. Expect to make more than the average amount of mistakes.
Instead, I evaluate how loose I feel when I play, how well I’m playing dynamics, and how is my tone. I get to the basics of playing music. For example right now I’d rate my tone and dynamics close to 9, my rhythm is about 6.5 as I’ve found myself rushing a bit, but I’m playing with 100% commitment. I would say I’m playing enthusiastically. I’m really happy about that. The mistakes will clear up over time. It’s important to KNOW that that last statement is true. The mistakes will clear up over time.
By the first week of March I will play three focused sessions, one on each of my stage guitars, and as many casual sessions as I want to play. I think it’s important to note that most of my compositions come from these casual sessions, and I think it’s important to make those a regular part of my daily guitar habit. I also increase my playing to 6 days a week; if I want to or feel the need. Quite regularly the 6th day may be spent all casually. Meaning I’m going fishing on all my instruments. As a guitarist/composer I think of this as a working vacation.
I have been playing injured for most of the past 6 years. It was really a series of unfortunate events and included major flare-ups in tendinitis, neck and shoulder issues that pinched nerves and numbed the fingers of my right hand, severe right-hand thumb pain and stiffness from a non-guitar related injury, and major sciatic nerve damage. I soldiered on, but at a pretty serious cost. Both to body, but ultimately my performances as the injuries severely limited my repertoire.
I’ve had to learn the difference between playing hurt and playing injured. As well as learning the warning signs from when pain is presaging an injury. And what to do about it. Right fucking away. I no longer mess around.
One of the things I need to remember is that I’m not going to forget how to play the guitar if I don’t play for a week. In fact, I don’t get that rusty when I’ve not played for a week. I can take a week off and get back 80% of my repertoire to stage-ready in 5 days. You just have to know how. And for me I basically do a compressed spring training.
For me, I’ve come to realize there are probably no more guitar mountains to climb. I’m about as good a guitarist as I’m going to be. This does not mean that I can’t get much better as a musician. Because being a great musician is about being a great storyteller, and my storytelling can always improve. That has become the focus of my playing for over a year now.
So, if you play every day, keep an eye on your hands and body. Make sure you’re playing in the most ergonomic position that you can, and don’t be afraid to take time off when time off is required.
Happy playing, kb