What is good piano technique? Is it the ability to play fast scales? loud chords? hard pieces, that go on for a long time? Yes. All of these things. But they are part of a bigger whole. It's healthy, efficient, and pain-free movement at the piano that enables you to express the music in all the ways you need. What if you are one of many pianists who struggle in pain and are forced to cut back their time at the instrument? One such pianist, Artina McCain, tells us about a treatment modality that returned her to full function, and offers some teaching advice based on her own experience. We present information about some other treatment possibilities—Rolfing and the Feldenkrais Method—as well. A life in music can present challenges. It's good to have options if you find yourself in a less-than-optimal situation with your piano technique. And even better if you learn how to develop good physical and mental habits right from the beginning, for yourself and for your students.
Muscle Activation Techniques
by Artina McCain
Our livelihood as musicians is connected to our physical ability to perform and teach. What happens when that livelihood is threatened by nagging repetitive strain injuries? These can cause anxiety, loss of income, and decreased performance opportunities. Although many pianists seek and find relief for their symptoms, some stubborn injuries just do not seem to want to go away. For those persistent injuries, there is a possible solution to repetitive strain injuries called Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT).1 After years of suffering from repetitive strain injuries, MAT has restored mobility and strength to my hands.
I had experienced the everyday woes of the pianist's muscle aches and pains. I typically recovered from the soreness in a reasonable amount of time and was able to keep up with the demands of performing and teaching. This changed after a long practice session in April 2005. I was in excruciating pain. After taking a few days off from practicing, the pain did not subside. Unlike my previous episodes, this time I was unable to practice, open a door, or even drive to daily activities. Surprisingly, by June, I still had not recovered and had to cancel pending performances. Prior to the injury, my playing time was unlimited. Now it was a struggle to play more than ten to fifteen minutes in a day without pain. I could not even demonstrate in students' lessons. In October, six months after initial onset, I was able to slowly rebuild strength and practice time. Then, in December, having gained about forty-five minutes of daily playing time, I attempted to perform a solo recital program. As soon as I began to perform again, the pain came back almost immediately. I played through the recital in increasing pain every minute. After the recital, the pain was more excruciating than the initial injury in April! Disappointed that the long rest had not cured me, I knew it was time to seek alternate solutions.
Searching for answers
I researched traditional and non-traditional ways to treat and cope with repetitive strain injuries. According to my physical therapists, after multiple injuries the likelihood of returning to my previous muscular