Too Much Practice Doesn't Make Perfect
I’ll start off by targeting this Hub to younger players who have more practice time. However, unless already aware of RSI, Dystonia, and Tendinitis, any guitarist will benefit from reading this.
Practice is a magic word to any serious guitarist or guitarist-in-training (just as it is a byword to any fret-boarding slacker). However there is such a thing as too much practice.
In general, musicians are athletes. Unlike fully mobile athletes, we do our running, jumping, and hurdling on our respective instruments. The problem is most of us don’t know we are athletes until we are educated about it—and the education might come long after we’ve embarked on our musical journey.
If you are a younger player, you are an athlete. Never mind the image of guitarists--in particular—as lazy, rebellious slackers. As true as that might be for a number of us, playing the guitar remains to be grueling, hard work, regardless of who you are.
If you are an older player like myself, be comforted that you just didn’t know, perhaps until now. It isn’t lack of talent that is hindering your greater aspirations. Many of us have reached physical limitations, plain and simple. The mind is flying, playing all the right notes and rhythms…but the hand(s) just can’t keep up. The question for older players is: what do you do now? You haven’t given up yet, so that’s obviously not an option. Well I’m in the same boat. So after defining the our common enemies—RSI (which includes carpal tunnel syndrome), focal hand dystonia, and tendinitis—I’ll humbly offer some suggestions that I’ve started to put into practice—quite literally—myself.
Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)
Also known as repetitive stress injury, repetitive motion injuries, repetitive motion disorder (RMD), cumulative trauma disorder (CT), occupational overuse syndrome, overuse syndrome, and regional musculoskeletal disorder, repetitive strain injury is an injury of the musculoskeletal and nervous systems that may be caused by repetitive tasks, forceful exertions, vibrations, mechanical compression (pressing against hard surfaces), or sustained or awkward positions. From Wikipedia.com
Focal Hand Dystonia
Focal Hand Dystonia is a type of dystonia that interferes with activities such as writing or playing a musical instrument by causing involuntary muscular contractions. The condition is sometimes "task-specific," meaning that it is generally only apparent during certain activities. Focal hand dystonia is neurological in origin, and is not due to normal fatigue. The loss of precise muscle control and continuous unintentional movement result in painful cramping and abnormal positioning that makes continued use of the affected body parts impossible. From Wikipedia.com
See here for more on focal hand dystonia.
Tendinitis / Tendonitis
For guitarists, tendinitis occurs in the arm(s). Tendons [can] become inflamed for a variety of reasons, [causing] the action of pulling the muscle [to become] irritating. If the normal smooth gliding motion of your tendon is impaired, the tendon will become inflamed and [muscle] movement will become painful. [Tendinitis] literally means inflammation of the tendon. From About.com
For more about the tendon and this condition see here.
I’ve Seen the Enemy, and I’m Prepared to Fight
From reading the basic definitions above, any guitarist can see these concerns are very serious. As musicians in general adopt more of an athletic state of mind in regards to their practice and performance, the affects of RSI and its cohorts on the general musician population, I believe, can be greatly reduced.
Moving from general to specific, there are many things a guitarist who is a victim of one or more of these injuries can do:
1. Don’t be stubborn and continue to practice the same things, believing you will somehow overcome the injury. You can’t undo the injury so the trick is to change what you practice. In many cases, the injury is related to certain movements. Try your best to find other ways on the fretboard to get the same sound(s), or consider dropping troubling “licks”, replacing them with newer ones that you practice carefully.
2. When doing home recording projects, play less, letting
the background arrangement shine through more. Try to make more with less (doesn't mean you can't show off every now and then).
3. When playing live, play less and let your band-mates
shine more (they might have been waiting a long time for this). Try to
put more into the things you play: better note-choice, more use of
space. You might realize you don't have notes to spare like you may have
had when you were younger, so make every note count.
4. Be wise and drop tunes or licks that you know you shouldn’t practice or perform anymore. I now realize I will never acquire the intricacy of Charlie Christian or the velocity of Shane Lane. The acceptance was sad at first but not anymore. I realized the more I hung on to past, unachievable aspirations, the less time I was allowing the real me to have on the guitar. I am now discovering and mastering new melodic sequences and improvising with small chords. My playing is fresh as ever.
5. If you don’t already know his story, think about physical trainer / entrepreneur Tony Little. Tony was a professional body builder who received many serious injuries in a car accident in the mid 1980s. Tony did not give up his pursuit of peak physical fitness but had to drastically modify his methods. He developed isometrics, which allows the body builder to work out with no strain from extra materials. Tony’s new program pitted himself against his own body. Not only did it work miraculously for him, but also for many of his followers.
So, yes, RSI, dystonia, and tendinitis are formidable foes. But personally I choose to be a Tony Little on the fretboard. There’s too much potential along those strings for me to see it any other way. Hope this has been eye-opening at least, if not encouraging.