Taking care of your body is one of the most important things you can do as a musician. Studies show that up to 80% of music students and professional musicians have suffered from a playing-related injury. It’s important to address any pain you experience while practicing or performing in order to prevent it from becoming a serious injury. Here are five ways to treat sore muscles from cello playing, as well as help prevent future injuries.
1. Stretching - Stretching can help treat sore muscles, as well as prevent muscles from getting sore in the first place. For cellists, areas of potential discomfort and injuries include the hands, wrists, forearms, shoulders, neck, and back. Try these stretches before and/or after a practice session to release tension in these areas. However, you should consult a physical therapist if stretching triggers more pain.
Hands and forearms: Extend your arm in front of you with your palm facing toward the ground. Bend your wrist down (so your fingers are pointing toward the ground) while using the other hand to gently push the hand farther until you feel a stretch in the hand and forearm. Make a fist to deepen the stretch. Next, bend the wrist up (so your fingers are pointing toward the ceiling) while using the other hand to gently push your palm toward you. Repeat on the other side.
Wrists: Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle so your hands are in front of you. Make a fist and circle your wrists.
Shoulders: Raise your shoulders toward your ears and release them back down. Next, gently roll your shoulders forward and backward.
Shoulder girdle: Place your forearm against a doorway with your elbow at a 90-degree angle. Using the doorway to resist, slowly lean forward until you feel a stretch in your shoulder. Repeat on the other side.
Shoulder blades: Put both hands behind your back and lace your fingers together. Squeeze your shoulder blades together while lifting up your arms. Hold for a few breaths and release back down.
Neck: Make sure you are sitting upright with good posture for all neck stretches. Roll your head to the left to stretch the right side of your neck and vice versa. Stretch the back of your neck by looking down towards the ground and using your hand to gently pull your head down. Lastly, put your index and middle fingers on your chin and gently push your chin toward your chest until you feel a stretch from your neck to the base of your skull.
Back: Sit upright with your arms crossed over your chest. Rotate to one side until you feel a stretch in your back. Repeat on the other side.
Cat-cow pose: Cat-cow pose brings flexibility to the spine. Start on your hands and knees. Round your spine toward the ceiling and release your head toward the floor. Next, slowly lift your sit bones and chest toward the ceiling, allowing your belly to sink into the floor and your eyes to look straight forward. Release and repeat.
Child’s pose: I like to end in a gentle resting pose, such as child’s pose, to calm my mind before practicing. Start on your hands and knees and slowly lower your hips toward your heels. Walk your hands forward and rest your head on the floor. Release the pose by gently using your hands to walk your torso upright to sit back on your heels.
2. Self-massage - Massage therapy can help the body de-stress and provide relief from pain caused by muscle tension. Getting a massage from a professional massage therapist is beneficial, but also costly. It can be just as beneficial, and much more convenient, to use self-massage techniques at home. One of the most common places we hold tension is the neck and shoulders. The scalene muscles in particular are important to be mindful of because tension in this area can cause headaches, pain in the arms, shoulders, chest, or back. To massage the scalene muscles, place your fingertips above the collarbone and press inward. Continue massaging up along your trapezius muscle on top of your shoulder and the front of your neck along the outsides of the V-shaped muscles near the throat. The suboccipital muscles on the back of the neck are another great place to massage, especially if you’re prone to tension headaches. Reach underneath the back of your skull and massage from ear to ear. Another way to massage this area is by lying down to rest the muscle group on a tennis ball and gently moving your head back and forth. Continue massaging down the back of the neck and the top of the shoulders. This area often holds a lot of tension from practicing and other activities of daily life. Hook the fingers of your left hand over your left shoulder. Squeeze the muscle and slowly rake your fingers over the top of the trapezius toward the collarbone. Repeat with the right hand on the right shoulder. Next, move down to the shoulder blades. Start by reaching behind your back to find the outer edges of the triangular shaped infraspinatus muscle, which is located on the back of the shoulder blade. Use your fingertips or a tennis ball to massage the area. When you have finished around the shoulder blades, move to other sore areas of the back. If you’re having a hard time reaching these areas on your own, I recommend trying a massager, such as this Zyllion Massage Pillow with Heat, to help apply pressure to the muscle knots that are out of reach. You may also have sore areas on the chest, particularly the pectoralis major muscle, which is involved in arm movement. The muscle is easy to find my placing your fingertips directly underneath your collarbone. Use your fingertips, thumb, or knuckles to massage the area. The last part of the body that is particularly important for cellists is the upper extremity. Massaging the arms and hands can be a great way to relieve tension after a long day of practicing. Start by holding out the left hand and wrapping the right fingers around the back. Massage the palm of the hand by making little circles with the thumb. Apply firm pressure to help you find sore, tight spots. Next, pinch the front and sides of the fingers from the base to the tip. Then turn over the hand to massage the webbed area between your thumb and index finger. Repeat with the right hand. Continue to massage up the forearm. Unlike muscle knots in the back or shoulders, muscle tightness in the arms often goes unnoticed. You can release tension by massaging with your fingertips or rolling a tennis ball up and down the arm.
4. Essential oils - Essential oils can be used topically (applied to the skin) to sooth muscle aches and headaches. I recommend Saje Peppermint Halo, which comes in a roller bottle and can be easily applied to the neck and shoulders. You can also make your own essential oil blend by mixing together your favorite essential oils, such as peppermint, eucalyptus, tea tree, lavender, or rosemary. Then, add a few drops of your essential oil mixture to a 5 ml roller bottle. Next, fill the rest of the bottle with a carrier oil, such as jojoba oil or coconut oil. Lastly, put the lid on and roll the bottle between your hands to mix.
5. Rest - Taking a day off from practicing may feel a huge offense, but it’s important to let the body rest. Over-practicing and playing through pain can cause a repetitive strain injury, such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. If your body is telling you to take a break, listen to it.
The way we talk to ourselves before, during, and after a performance can have a huge impact on how we perform. If you find yourself in a negative headspace before a performance, it can be helpful to have some go-to affirmations to transform negative self-talk into positive thoughts. The following are positive affirmations you can use to help boost your confidence before going onstage.
“I am READY!”
Before a performance, we usually spend countless hours in the practice room, where self-critique is essential for improvement. When we perform, it is important to get out of this “practice room mindset.” Replace self-critique with self-appreciaiton and trust that you are prepared.
“I am doing my best.”
Many musicians are plagued by perfectionism, which can make any imperfection in a performance feel catastrophic. Sometimes performances don’t go as planned, and it is important to forgive your imperfections. Regardless of how you performed, you know that you gave it your all, and that is something to be proud of.
“I am grateful for this opportunity.”
Studies show that gratitude is a powerful tool for improving your optimism, satisfaction, and overall sense of well-being. Before you go onstage, take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come and feel grateful for the opportunity you have been given.
“I love this piece.”
We’ve all played a concert where the temperature of the room was too hot or too cold, the chair wasn’t the right height, or the acoustics were terrible. If you find yourself brooding about an inconvenience, shift your focus to the only thing that matters - the music! Appreciating the music will help your distractions fade away.
“It’s okay to make mistakes.”
The audience knows you are human. Mistakes can and WILL happen! Everyone, including your mentors and even famous musicians make mistakes sometimes. Perfection is boring - you’re here to make music!
“This performance does not define me.”
Though it is natural to be proud of a good performance and disappointed when it doesn’t go as planned, it is important to separate your self-confidence from your self-esteem or self-worth. Self-confidence is how you feel about yourself and your abilities on different days and in different situations. It can rise and fall with the ebbs and flows of life. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is how you feel about yourself and value your worth regardless of your confidence level in the moment. Performers often have a difficult time separating who they are from what they do. It can be helpful to reflect on a performance you had in the past. If it was a good performance, did it make you a good person? If it was a bad performance, did it make you a bad person? No matter how well you play today, tomorrow is a new day.
These are just some examples of affirmations you can use. Another idea is to try keeping a journal to come up with your own affirmations. Start by reflecting on your fears. Let yourself fall into a negative mindset and practice talking yourself out of it. Find new affirmations by highlighting certain words or phrases that helped bring you back to a positive mindset.
If you’re a music student, you’ve probably heard your teacher tell you, “Don’t forget to practice your scales!” once or twice or maybe a thousand times. If you’re anything like me, you would probably groan and quickly play through your scales so you could move onto practicing your pieces. However, scales aren’t just about putting in the time. They give you the opportunity to strip away the dozens of other variables you would otherwise encounter in a piece to expose what is essentially the building blocks of music. Below is a list of reasons why scales are probably the most important thing to practice on a daily basis.
1. Intonation - For most instrumentalists (aside from pianists), we need to learn how to play in tune. Scales allow you to practice basic finger patterns while checking the intonation of each note. Familiarizing yourself with the sounds of the different major and minor keys can help you develop your ear.
2. Rhythm - Scales are a great way to work on your internal pulse. Start by playing each note of the scale as a whole note. Next, play each note of the scales as a half notes, then quarter notes, then eighth notes, and so on. For string players, this means playing the scale with one note per bow, then two notes per bow, then four notes per bow, then eight notes per bow, and so on. I recommend using a metronome to make sure your note divisions are precise.
3. Technique - While playing a piece of music, there are dozens of technical aspects to focus on all at once. Scales allow us to focus on the fundamentals of technique, such as tone, bow speed, contact point, smooth shifts, and vibrato. We can then apply these techniques to the challenges we encounter in our repertoire.
4. Music theory - As you progress in your studies as a music student, you begin to learn about all kinds of aspects of music theory, such as key signatures, chords, modulations, modes, and more. Music theory will be much easier to understand if you know your scales.
5. Sight reading - If you learn how to play all of your scales, you will have learned how to play every note on your instrument. This will help develop your music reading ability, as in turn, your ability to quickly translate the notes you see on the page into sounds on your instrument.
There are many factors that can effect the sound of your instrument, such as changes in temperature or your strings wearing out. If notice your cello sounds muffled, it might be time for a tune-up. Similar to a tune-up on a car, your instrument needs to be adjusted periodically in order to keep it running smoothly. Below is a list of adjustments you can make to improve the sound of your instrument.
1. Replace your strings - Have you noticed you can’t achieve the same resonance you normally do, or you aren't able to get your strings in tune no matter how hard you try? It might be time to replace your strings. Over time, strings will naturally lose some of their resonance and ability to hold pitch. You should replace your strings once or twice a year to ensure that they don't go false. You may also want to try out a new type of strings to improve the sound of your instrument. There are many different materials used for the core and winding of the strings, which can significantly change the tone and response of your cello. I suggest high quality strings such as Larsen, Thomastik-Infeld, Pirastro, or D’Addario.
2. Rehair your bow - Similar to your strings, your bow hair needs to be replaced once or twice a year. If you've lost a large amount of the hair on your bow, the hair has become discolored, or you're having a hard time getting your bow to grip the string properly, it's probably time for a rehair. You can get your bow rehaired by taking it to a professional luthier, a person who makes and repairs string instruments. .
3. Adjust the soundpost - It's important to make sure your soundpost is set up correctly and hasn't fallen. The soundpost is a wooden rod that's held between the front and back surfaces of the cello. You can check if it’s standing by looking inside the cello through the F-holes. Adjusting your soundpost can improve the clarity and power of your instrument. A luthier can help you move the soundpost around to get the best possible sound out of your cello.
4. Straighten the bridge - A properly positioned bridge is essential to the sound and playability of the cello. It's important to check to make sure that the bridge is straight and in the center of your cello. If you notice your bridge is crooked, loosen the strings and gently pull or push it back into place.
5. Eliminate wolf notes - A wolf note is an unpleasant warbling tone produced when a note matches the natural resonating frequency of the body of a cello. They usually occur around the notes E, F, F# or G. A simple way to eliminate a bothersome wolf note is by placing a rubber mute on the offending string between the bridge and tailpiece. If a mute doesn’t do the trick, you can install a medal piece of equipment called a wolf eliminator instead.
Additional tips to keep your cello in peak condition:
- Rosin your bow regularly and remember to wipe the residue from the rosin off your instrument before putting it away.
- Always loosen your bow hair after playing by turning the screw to the left until the bow stick is no longer stressed. Be careful not to over-tighten the bow before use because this can warp the wood. The bow stick should maintain a natural arch when tightened the right amount.
- Avoid touching the hair on your bow. The oils from your skin will damage the hair and reduce its ability to grip the strings.
- If you live in a particularly dry location, you can use a cello humidifier to protect your instrument from damage due to excessive dryness, such as cracking and warping. A cello humidifier is a soft rubber sleeve that encloses a sponge that you dampen and insert into the cello's F-hole.
- Wrap your instrument in a silk blanket before putting it in the case. This will prevent the risk of scratches and help protect the instrument from the effects of changes of temperature and humidity.
- Don't leave your instrument in the car! Extreme heat or cold can cause your cello to fall out of tune, the varnish to melt, the glue to loosen, and the wood to crack. Furthermore, you don't want your instrument to get stolen!