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Ask Damian Erskine: Stay Healthy

Q: My question is about how to stay healthy. I find when I practice too much or play a particular song that has a lot of notes, my hands and wrists get sore. I know that singers warm up their voice, I usually run through some scales when I am tuning and setting up just to limber my fingers. I have been doing some finger/wrist stretching exercises that my teacher recommended, but what else should I do. My teacher says that I have good form, so I don’t think it is my form that is causing the discomfort. I feel like if I practice more, I will work through the problems, but I don’t want to practice too much and make it worse.

A: Definitely do NOT play through the pain or push the boundaries of your comfort. I have been extremely lucky in as much as I’ve never really warmed up and never had any issues with my body and playing music.

I DO know a number of people who have had great success with playing health by developing their tendon strength (Vic Wooten also talks about this in his bass/nature camp). I remember a hand-full of exercises that I’ve shown to others since.

Do each for one minute at a time, every day and you will strengthen your tendons (which don’t atrophy with age as your muscles do).

1. Hold your arms straight out away from you
a) put your hands up (so the backs of your hands are facing you) and extend your fingers as much as you can
b) make a tight fist
c) do this over and over again as fast as you can for a minute!
(harder than it sounds at first)

2. Similarly hold your arms straight out away from you
a) put your hands up (so the backs of your hands are facing you) and extend your fingers as much as you can
b) now wave your hand downward so your hands are extended downward.
c) do that over and over again for a minute (It’s basically like your waving or fanning air in front of you.. it’ll quickly feel like you’re doing it underwater as you work the tendons

3. A nice warm up that I learned from a great piano player
Inter-lock your fingers together in front of you (like you’re going to pray (not too tight!) and then just rub your palms back and forth. This loosens your fingers in a side to side way (laterally?) and it’s become my favorite warm up (really, the only thing I do before a gig)

Keep in mind, I’M NOT A DOCTOR and I don’t have much experience in this stuff, but I’ve seen people have good results this way.

In regards to your form, it may be worth video taping yourself and watching yourself play.

Are your wrists cranked at an angle?

Are you lifting your fingers away from the neck more than necessary?

The more efficient your motion, the less work you’re doing. Try and analyze (or get another teachers opinion?) your playing position.

Do you hold the bass unnaturally high or low?

I do have a suggestion for setting your strap. I prefer to play sitting down… it’s just more comfortable (unless something is really funky, than I’ve gotta do my silly dance… just can’t help it!)

So, whenever I get a new strap or want to tweak my playing position, I find the ultimate placement while sitting down and comfortable and then adjust my strap in a way that keeps the bass right where I want it when I’m standing as well! Try that.

You may also want to explore different kinds of straps. Is your strap digging into your neck (pinching nerves?)

I did develop a double strap idea because of fingers going numb on a long tour with a new 6-string bass years ago. 5-6 nights a week playing 3-4 hour sets beat me up because it was a much heavier bass than my old one and my strap was just cutting off circulation, I think.

I’ve been developing a REAL version of my strap (NOT home made anymore) with Gruvgear that will debut in 2010. Distributing the weight more evenly across both shoulders really helped a LOT. Every double strap on the market right now, tho, puts the bass in a weird position. I came up with my own method to keep the bass where I wanted it! just with less strain on your shoulders..

I’ve also met a LOT of musicians who have chronic problems with their physicality and the strange abuses of playing one instrument or another… I’ve come to assess that some folks just aren’t built to do certain things without complication… I know fantastic bass players with perfect form that have constant issues with tendonitis and the like.

I have a confession… I rarely practice, I NEVER warm up before a gig and I drink too much coffee. I gig constantly, though. I’ve also had many a manual labor job lifting, shoveling and hammering yet, I’ve never had a problem in the 30 years since I first started playing bass. I wonder if starting at an earlier age somehow trains your body so I have fewer problems than guys who start playing later on in life? I dunno… Maybe I’m just lucky.

I will say that the reason I don’t slap is because it exhausts my shoulder. It was never comfortable, so I just don’t do it! That may be a part of my luck… I don’t care to force myself to do anything that feels uncomfortable or unnatural.

If your problems persist I would definitely suggest seeing a specialist of some kind. I know a lot of musicians who have gone to see sports medicine specialists, which makes wonderful sense.
I would also suggest taking a specialists word for it over mine.