March 13, 2016

Knowing What Triggers Your Playing-Related Pain

Knowing What Triggers Your Playing-Related Pain

Have you ever experienced playing-related pain or discomfort? For musicians, playing-related pain can disguise itself and show up through a variety of symptoms including soreness, tenderness, weakness, tightness or aching. In more serious cases, feelings of restricted mobility or a loss of motor strength & control may be present. Now we tend to shrug off and ignore most of these symptoms for one reason or another: you may feel it’s a tiny issue that will go away; perhaps you always believe that soreness is a natural part of muscle strengthening & conditioning; maybe the belief of ‘no pain, no gain’ has been instilled in your learning and development. Those things may be true – however, while we continue to think those thoughts, we continue to disassociate our pain with our musical practice and disengage ourselves with personal reflection.

I’ve experienced these symptoms myself – along with serious episodes of overuse and forearm tendonitis – at various times throughout my career to date; I know all too well the emotional weight that playing-related injury concerns can carry (e.g. when you want to play your instrument but know you can’t… when you’re cancelling rehearsals, gigs or tours because you know you’re physically not up for the task… or when you’re struggling to perform basic household tasks without pain). The list of limitations you feel is long and debilitating. Understandably, feelings of frustration, isolation and despair ensue because: 1) it comes as a surprise – you were not anticipating the onset of playing-related pain; and 2) on a deeper level, you’re out of alignment with your core personal values of creativity, contribution and self-expression. 

It is therefore vitally important to understand this question:

What triggers the onset of my playing-related pain?

This is a question you need to ask yourself not only during instances of pain, injury or panic, but also when you are feeling 100% fit and healthy. Why? Because awareness is the key; you need to know exactly what activities, postures and movements are causing you grief or not serving you as well as they could be.

Here are the dominating risk factors that contribute to my playing-related pain:

  • Unnecessary tension, particularly in the upper arm/shoulder area
  • Lifting heavy gear (exacerbated when I’m not using a trolley. Get yourself a trolley!)
  • Lack of warming up or stretching (a.k.a “playing cold”)
  • Not cooling down after a demanding performance or practice session
  • Excessive computer use coupled with drumming
  • Playing beyond my physical limits
  • Increased playing workload (accumulation of tension from multiple gigs, lugging gear, etc)

Now there are many other risk factors that could be contributing to your playing-related pain. A recent study I conducted with 38 tertiary drum kit players around Australia (you can read here) illustrated these factors as the most prevalent:

  • Unnecessary tension (78%)
  • Carrying heavy gear (52%)
  • Poor technique (39%)
  • Long practice sessions (39%)
  • Inefficient posture (36%)

Other factors included a lack of muscular strength, lack of body awareness, technical flaws and personal perfectionism. 

Do you feel any of these injury risk factors? Are you consciously aware of the messages your body is telling you when you’re playing? If you’re lacking awareness, now’s the time to reflect.

1. Reflect on how much you’re REALLY doing

Playing time can stack up, particularly for the gigging musicians who may be jumping from one rehearsal to the next, spending hours and hours every day with their instrument, or facing the demands of being on the road touring. In this working environment, it’s easy to forget to take breaks, to remain in sedated sitting positions for long periods of time, to lose sleep, and to feel stress and burnout. All of these factors do not contribute to optimising your health as a musician, so it’s important to ask:

2. What are you doing about your pain?

If you are suffering severe discomfort, you cannot ignore the symptoms and continue playing. Listen to your body. Darin Workman sums this up perfectly:

When something goes wrong, your body has ways of telling you. The sign that we most commonly notice is pain. Unfortunately, most of us see this as the only sign, when in fact that is one of the last signs just before total breakdown. By the time you feel pain, you have missed the many signs before it that were telling you something was wrong. Some of these signs include awkwardness, stiffness, shaking, grinding, and so on.

To illustrate how our bodies tell us something is wrong, I would like to compare injury to a fire. If we are perceptive, we can hear the fire, smell the smoke, and even feel the heat. However, most of the time our minds are so preoccupied with other things that we do not recognise the signs until the fire alarm sounds.

Pain is our body’s fire alarm to warn us that problems exist. By the time an alarm sounds, the damage is progressing fast and becoming more difficult to stop. We can choose to ignore the alarm (ignore pain), or even turn it off (pain relievers, etc.), but that doesn’t mean the fire will go out. If you pay close attention to your body, the early signs that something is wrong become more obvious. A few of them are stiffness, uneasy feelings, or lack of fluidity as we play.

Beyond stretching, warming up and taking practice breaks, I personally recommend seeing a physiotherapist – one that actively works with performing artists – because it has been so crucially helpful to my recovery and wellbeing as a full-time musician. Of course, there are many therapy options available from acupuncture to dry needling to body awareness methods (Yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, Qigong, etc) that mustn’t be ignored.

I encourage you to find the treatment that will work for you, however you will only discover what works if you are open-minded and realistic – you must accept that you cannot fight the battle of playing-related injury on your own. Speak with your teacher, other musicians and health professionals but most importantly, begin to educate yourself through self-assessment. Critical personal reflection and body awareness will reveal what triggers your playing-related pain and will put you on to the path of wellness and longevity as a musician.

July 17, 2015

Recordings in the Stairwell

Music therapy – and health & wellbeing as a whole – is something I’m very interested in, and I’ve been fortunately involved with a few musical projects over the years (particularly the MS Sing-a-thon & Mater Starlight Children’s Ward concerts) that have given me the opportunity to perform in these settings.

I’m really excited to now be a part of the Stairwell Project, launched by Peter Breen (Director, Jugglers Arts Space), which aims to lift the spirits of patients, staff and visitors at the Royal Brisbane & Women’s Hospital by integrating live music into the hospital. Over the last 6 weeks, I’ve been playing the handpan for a couple of hours every Monday morning in the stairwell (what an incredible space to play in!). The response, particularly from the staff, has been very positive – many staff members have stopped to ask about the handpan and its origin, others have simply smiled or said “thank you” as they walk by… I’m very grateful to be a part of it all and I can’t wait to see the growth of this project.

I’ve uploaded some recordings on Soundcloud – have a listen and tell me your thoughts 🙂

“Let’s Escape” –
Improvising –


Posted by in Handpan and tagged as , ,

June 10, 2014

John Hoffman Quintet – Gig Review


[L-R] John Hoffman, Elly Hoyt, Helen Svoboda, Lachlan Hawkins & Sophie Min

[L-R] John Hoffman, Elly Hoyt, Helen Svoboda, Lachlan Hawkins & Sophie Min

Last month, I was thrilled to share the stage with John Hoffman and Elly Hoyt at the Gold Coast City Jazz Club – a great fortnightly concert held at the Southport Bowls Club. The audience was very receptive and appreciative of our performance. Col Atkinson, Gold Coast jazz musician and member of the Club, put together this review of the concert.

The GCCJC was privileged to host the John Hoffman Quartet on Mon 19 May, John being without a doubt one of the Premier Flugal Horn players in Australia today. John came to Australia from the United States more than 20 years ago and apart from his busy playing schedule he has also taught many of our current young and fine musicians that we have today at the Brisbane Conservatorium and living up to that reputation, John brought along with him some of the very finest young musicians that he is currently teaching today. So – Young Min (Piano) Lachlan Hawkins (Drums) Helen Svoboda (Upright Bass) and John also had an ace card up his sleeve as the also brought with him the James Morrison award winning songstress Elly Hoyt to top off this fabulous quintet.
John and the band opened with the tune, Just In Time, a favourite of everyone’s, followed by Gee Baby Aint I Good To You, and then John and the band actually played one of my favourite tunes called Softly As In A Morning Sunrise. Elly then got up and wowed the crowd with a nice boss nova and Dianna Krall song called, Este Seu Olhar followed by My Funny Valentine. John then asked So – Young to play one of her own compositions to end the first set which was called A Breath Of Fresh Air and if the audience hadn’t already warmed to So – Young, they warmed to her now because the applause was overwhelming for her as her Piano playing was superb and an ovation was well deserved.
John opened up Set Two by playing one of his favourite tunes called, Weaver Of Dreams, followed by a very nice bossa nova called, Moon Alley. Elly returned to sing that timeless classic What A Difference A Day Makes and the audience were thrilled when she also sang for them, God Bless This Child. Both John and Elly then had a well earned rest and left it to So – Young, Helen and Lachlan to play, Darn That Dream. John came back to play What Can I Say After I Say I’m Sorry and then So – Young, Helen, John and Lochie as he is affectionately known played a roaring rendition of Pete Kelly’s Blues, then Elly finished the 2nd set with a composition she wrote herself, quite aptly called Elly’s Blues.
John open the 3rd set by playing that great Joe Henderson tune called Recorder Me, which in Spanish simply means Remember Me. Awesome stuff John. Elly then came up to sing another song that she had composed and dedicated it to an old friend. The song was written in ¾ or waltz time and was called, I Hope To See You Again One Day, then Elly and John did some great counterpoint together as John played and Elly sang, Stompin At The Savoy. So – Young then played another one of her compositions called Self Portrait and once again So – Young was very warmly received.
It was time to close the show and so the band finished up with an old favourite called, It Could Happen To You but after a great night of Jazz and appreciation by the audience for every individual musician, an encore was inevitable and so John and the gang played The Girl From Ipanema and for a change they did it in a swing style instead of the normal Latin feel.

So – Young’s Piano playing and improvisation was brilliant, Helen’s Bass playing and improvisation was awesome, Lochie was equally as good on kit and just the sound alone that John produces from the Flugal Horn is stunning and along with his immaculate improvisation, there’s not much more you can say about John Hoffman. We haven’t of course forgotten about Elly who was magnificent and very much appreciated by the audience. So I think everyone went home having a wonderful time and therefore the GCCJC would like to say a very big thank you to all that came to the show. Till next time, Yours in Jazz, Col Atkinson …