5 things I've learned about overcoming physical challenges

I was born with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an incurable connective tissue disorder. My joints are hypermobile, which has led to pain, vulnerability to injury, and challenges with strength and endurance throughout my playing career. Here are five things I’ve learned about overcoming even a challenge as great as EDS.
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I was born with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an incurable connective tissue disorder. My joints are hypermobile, which has led to pain, vulnerability to injury, and challenges with strength and endurance throughout my playing career. Here are five things I’ve learned about overcoming even a challenge as great as EDS.

I was born with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, an incurable connective tissue disorder. My joints are hypermobile, which has led to pain, vulnerability to injury, and challenges with strength and endurance throughout my playing career. When I was 28 and recorded my album Patch Kit, I thought it would be a swan song and that the effects of EDS would lead to an early retirement. Although my condition hasn’t improved, 12 years and seven albums later I’m playing better than ever. The principles that have allowed me to endure can apply to other types of long- or short-term physical challenges, or even to people who simply want to preserve their playing health. Here are five things I’ve learned about overcoming even a challenge as great as EDS.

1. Warm Up Before You Warm Up

When I was younger, my warm-up routine consisting of little more than playing a few Hanon-type exercises. Now, my most important prep work occurs before I even sit down at the instrument. The warm-ups that I learned from acclaimed hand therapist Caryl Johnson in 1992 are based on Tai Chi, but many things can get your blood flowing properly. Try beginning with your arms by your sides and lifting them above your head very slowly so that you feel gravity, not momentum. After a few of these you will start to become aware of the kind of blood flow that makes your whole body function better.

2. Ergonomics and Technique

The body is a complex series of interconnected systems, and all kinds of subtle things can impact whether it operates at full efficiency. Devote focused time to technique, whether through exercises like Hanon (or my favorite, Beringer’s Daily Technical Studies) or more advanced études. Equally important is fine-tuning things like your posture, hand position and even the ideal height of your bench; some players even enlist teachers for this not from the music world, but rather from body-aligning practices like the Alexander Technique or Feldenkrais. Figuring out your body’s needs in these often-overlooked ways is crucial to maintaining and preserving your physical and musical health.

3. Train Intelligently

No one would run a marathon without serious advance training. Yet many musicians don’t think twice about playing a four-hour gig without systematically building up their endurance. As much as people legitimately identify over-playing as an injury risk, it’s equally risky to play too little and leave your muscles underprepared. Plan and stick to a training schedule to keep your body performing at its best. Learn to pace yourself—for instance, adding 30 minutes per day each week to your practice routine but taking breaks when your body demands it.

4. Tune In

It’s great to get swept away by music-making, but it’s easy to lose focus on your posture, breathing, and muscle tension while playing. Whether on the bandstand or in the practice room, find moments to check in with your body to ensure that your technical work is being put to proper use. I devote part of each playing session to playing something familiar so I have the freedom to devote my attention to the subtleties of what does or doesn’t feel good, making minor adjustments as needed.

5. Relax and Be Inspired

When I was 30, I played a gig that changed my life. The musicians and tunes were so inspiring that the music flowed out and left me less tired and sore than usual, even though I played harder and faster than ever before. I began to realize that inspiration is a key antidote to tension and thus a vital mechanism in allowing the body to operate as efficiently as possible. Part of this involves developing an increased awareness of your “autopilot moments” and nipping them in the bud so you can maintain your flow. Another part of it involves the broader life priority of nurturing the musical relationships that give you joy.

Jazz pianist, composer and educator Noah Baerman is the Artistic Director of Resonant Motion, Inc., a non-profit organization concerned with the intersection of music and positive change. His new album Ripples features Baerman’s mentor, jazz legend Kenny Barron. Find out more at noahjazz.com and resonantmotion.org.