Ask The Insider, Music Advice Column, Music Blog, When I practice piano I get a pain in my wrists

I find that when I'm practicing the piano, I get pain in my wrists, and occasionally in my elbow, too. What am I doing wrong? I want to be a good player, but it really hurts sometimes. Sincerely, Tired of Hurting in Wisconsin.

You have touched on an important problem many musicians face, especially those who devote a lot of time to practicing. Let me warn you NOT to continue as you are, as you risk suffering PERMANENT, IRREPARABLE DAMAGE. Unless you have a pre-existing condition which contributes to the pain, such as a previous broken bone in the wrist, then you must learn how to play without pain, and EVERYONE CAN LEARN THIS. Before I explain, in a nutshell, I believe you must CHANGE TEACHERS, because a competent teacher does not allow their students to continue to experience the pain you describe. Competent teachers address the seriousness of this pain right away and find out what you are doing wrong to create this problem. You deserve better.

Two famous pianists who experienced pain while practicing/playing and who today have ruined their careers are Leon Fleischer and Gary Grafman. Both of these concert pianists, at the height of their international careers, became incapacitated by pain while playing, and both are severely handicapped today. Fleischer's hand curled up in a grotesque way, and to this day he is a one-handed pianist. How terrible are the results of not addressing this issue properly, and how sad these pianists must be at their great loss.

Now while repetitive movements, like those of a typist, are apt to create an environment where pain and injury can occur (carpal tunnel syndrome, for example), the real culprit is not the movements required, but tension produced by improper stance and technique. I believe ALL PAIN IN PRACTICING IS THE RESULT OF INCORRECT TECHNIQUE, which, if left unaddressed or unchanged, can ruin a gifted artist or even a talented beginner.

I am appalled at those who attempt to teach with NO CLUE as to what PROPER TECHNIQUE is all about. These "so-called" teachers do more harm than good, for they allow well-meaning students to hurt themselves because they never learned the ABC's of PROPER TECHNIQUE themselves. How I wish there were at least minimum requirements for private music teachers, for many have no basis or education upon which to teach their students how to play or sing without pain or discomfort. Most of these teachers never mastered their own technique, so how could we expect them to be able to demonstrate PROPER TECHNIQUE. Always remember my motto: "THE BEST TEACHER IS A GOOD EXAMPLE". If your teacher cannot play well, or no longer plays in public, take a clue and look for instruction from a competent instructor.

PROPER TECHNIQUE IS THE KEY TO UNLOCKING EVERY INSTRUMENT, including my two areas of expertise, voice and piano. It takes an understanding of many aspects ~ physiology, science, physics, logic, common sense ~ to fully comprehend what is required of the human body in accomplishing complex, difficult, even strenuous tasks WITH THE UTMOST RELAXATION AND RELEASE.

When I decided to study music, I wanted to find the best teachers available, and I did ~ eventually. Coming from a small community in Northern Minnesota, my initial experiences with my first teacher were awkward, because I knew I could play better than her from the start. When she would attempt to demonstrate, I could see her lack of knowledge and talent, and I was embarrassed to be in that situation. We looked around and found a much more competent individual (who lived in the area, and had studied with Josef Levine at Julliard), and so we changed teachers. And I'll tell you, there was so much animosity and jealousy on the part of the first teacher, it was incredible. But for the first time, I had a teacher who knew something about PROPER TECHNIQUE, and my playing really took off. By the time I was a Junior in High School, I had won a national award at Interlochen Academy of Fine Arts in Interlochen, Michigan. And I was playing some incredibly difficult literature (Liszt's Rhapsodies, Chopin's Etudes, Beethoven's Sonatas) with ease. The key to my succes was having a teacher who understood PROPER TECHNIQUE.

The teachers I chose in undergraduate and graduate work, were even more knowledgeable and skilled in PROPER TECHNIQUE. Dr. Wee at St. Olaf was a joy to work with, and he introduced me to the master teacher Gyorgy Sebok, the finest teacher I have ever met. I first played for Distinguished Professor Sebok of Indiana University in a master class out in Oregon, and he immediately took me under his wing. I received a full scholarship to Indiana Univeristy School of Music, where I had the privilege to study each week with Maestro Sebok for six years. And you wouldn't believe what he did.

At this point my resume was quite impressive with national awards of all kinds, so I had that self-assurance ~ let's call it cockiness ~ that I was some big bad piano player. But the Maestro took me aside, and in his broken Hungarian asked, "Do you really want to learn to play the piano?"

Now at first, my pride welled up inside, and I just about blurted out something like "Listen, buddy, have you seen my resume? I'm already a national phenomenon!" But something inside me knew better, and instead I submitted to the wisdom of the master pianist, and I said "Yes, I do."

I honestly did not know what to expect, but what Sebok did is he started me from scratch, back to day one, beginning all over again. Sebok wanted to lose every vestige, every iota of stress, tension and imbalance in my technique, so we started completely over from ground zero. It was very, very trying on my patience, but I believed in the concept of PROPER TECHNIQUE, and since Sebok's teacher was Bartok at the Liszt Academy in Budapest, I knew I was being told the truth and I was learning PROPER TECHNIQUE in the truest sense. (Liszt was, as the informed pianist will tell you, the greatest technician of all time. Liszt revolutionized piano technique in his quest to become "the Paganini of the piano". Liszt wrote pieces in his teens that no other pianist in the world could play. So I am tickled pink to know I am a musical descendant of the greatest pianist the world has ever known.)

While I was working on my PROPER TECHNIQUE, I took nine months off of public performing, just like Liszt himself did when he uncovered the mysteries of PROPER TECHNIQUE. And looking back, I wouldn't change a thing, for now THERE IS NO PIANO PIECE THAT I CANNOT PLAY, and PROPER TECHNIQUE ALLOWS ME TO PLAY THE MOST DIFFICULT WORKS FREE OF STRAIN.

So dear Tired of Hurting, the pain you are experiencing while practicing is a stark indicator to me that you need a teacher who fully understands PROPER TECHNIQUE as Liszt taught it. You owe it to yourself to master PROPER TECHNIQUE before you, too, become a statistic.

Seriously consider you teacher's qualifications, and inquire of your propective teachers what their knowledge and background are with regard to Liszt's technique. Ask them if they have battled with tension and pain in their own performing, and if they have been successful overcoming it. Have they ever had to stop practicing or playing because of pain? You see, we don't want the blind leading the blind. You need a real teacher who does not still battle with these issues, but has found the answers. You need a teacher who is an active performer who can actually DEMONSTRATE what PROPER TECHNIQUE is.

Always remember my motto for 26 years: "THE BEST TEACHER IS A GOOD EXAMPLE"

Please write to me again at contact the insider to let me know of your progress in finding a competent teacher. Be willing to travel some distance to find the best teacher available. If you need help locating a qualified teacher in your area, I would do my best to help. Take care and good luck.

The Insider


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