More about hearing and hand protection, joint trouble, and the impact of upper body strength on musicians who strap on their instruments.
By Gary Allen
Because of the overwhelming response I received on my first Guitar Health article, I decided that I would write a Part 2. It seems that I have stumbled across an issue that musicians want to know more about. I received email from guitarists, bassists, drummers, keyboard/piano players, banjo players, horn players and vocalists. Many of you had suggestions for other topics to cover. I will try to cover them here.
In Part 2 I will cover more about hearing, upper body strength (specifically the shoulders and back), joint problems (knees and hips), and protecting your hands. We will end this article with some tips for getting ready to play in a studio situation. These will not be all health-related, but they're good tips for getting ready to play and sound your best when it really counts.
Health Issues Part 2
Hearing Part 2 - I received many emails from people who have already experienced hearing loss who want everyone else to be aware that it is a real issue. I have to admit that I was surprised to see just how many people have experienced this problem already.
Other people told me that they did not want to wear earplugs because they hindered hearing certain frequencies. There is truth to this argument, but after further research and receiving emails from others, I have found a way to put this argument to rest.
The cheap earplugs you’ll find in hardware stores are not designed with musicians in mind. They are, however, better than nothing at all. But there are earplugs on the market today made specifically for the musician. Although they are more expensive, they allow you to hear all of the nuances of the music at a lower volume.
I received an email from Jim and Barbara Himes that I would like to share with you. Barbara is an audiologist who used to work in a facility that pioneered development of musicians' earplugs. Here is what she had to say:
The cheaper plugs attenuate (weaken, diminish) lower frequencies to a greater degree than higher, thus distorting the sound. It is more difficult to sing when your ears are totally occluded. The musician's plugs are custom made so that they are more comfortable and the filters attenuate fairly evenly across a wide frequency range. The filters can be changed to vary the degree of attenuation i.e.: 15dB, 20dB etc. Because the ear is not completely occluded you can hear your own voice, the music, and other people's instruments with less distortion. Musician's plugs can be washed and will virtually last forever.
You can make the argument that you can not afford these earplugs. Just remember that when you lose your hearing, it is gone. Your ears do not heal from hearing loss. With this in mind, how can you afford not to make this investment? Put off that really cool piece of gear you were going to buy to improve your sound and get earplugs instead. What good is that piece of gear going to be if you can't hear it someday? You can buy the gear later.
Musician’s Friend carries a broad selection of hearing protection products designed to meet the musician’s need for unmuffled sound at safe volumes.
Upper Body Strength - Upper body strength is especially important for those players who have their instrument strapped to their body in some way. (The guy who plays the grand piano does not qualify here.) If you have never played for an extended period of time with an instrument strapped on, you would be surprised how heavy it will feel at the end of a show. I received an email from bass player Rob Miller who brought up a couple of points: the benefits of a wider guitar strap and proper lifting technique.
Some people prefer the sound that denser woods create in guitars. In Rob's case, he plays a six-string bass which has a larger body and neck, adding a lot of weight. This weight translates into sore muscles, especially in the shoulders and back. There are ways to combat this. One of those ways is to use a wider guitar strap. This will distribute the weight more evenly over your neck, shoulder, and back. I would recommend getting a strap with some kind of padding so the leather or nylon does not dig into your shoulder.
One of the most common causes of back injuries is improper lifting techniques. We have all heard the advice to lift with your legs not your back. But how often do we forget this important piece of advice when we are trying to hurry and get set up for a gig? If a piece of equipment is too heavy or awkward to carry comfortably by yourself, ask for help. As someone who has had a back injury I can tell you that it is one of the hardest injuries to heal from. You can not put your back in a sling and not use it until it heals. Virtually everything you do uses back muscles. This includes sitting, standing, walking and even lying down. There is no rest for back muscles to heal. Take care of your back. It's the only one you get.
Joint Problems - I received several emails from people who asked me to further discuss joint problems that they are facing and raise awareness about them to others. We talked about arthritis in the last article, so in this section we are going to talk about the major joints such as knees and hips. Knees and hips seem to be the most common problems that people brought up in the emails I received. As with carpal tunnel syndrome, most major joint problems are caused by repetitive motion, but they can also be caused by acute injuries such as falls, twists, and strains. Over time the ligaments and cartilage in all joints wear down and wear out. Your risk of this is greater as you age.
I would like to share some comments by Dave Aho. He wrote me saying:
I was loading equipment, kneeling in my trailer one night, and experienced a sharp pain in my right knee. I couldn't figure out why my right knee was bothering me all of a sudden ... I didn't recall ever injuring it although I had injured my left knee years before. After racking my brain for several weeks I finally figured it out. I played the typical four-hour gig 80-100 times a year for 20 years as lead singer/bass player. Because I was the singer I was stuck behind the microphone and couldn't walk around the stage so I developed a habit. I rocked back on my right leg and tapped my left foot and eventually 200-240 pounds bouncing on one leg actually wore out my knee. You mentioned carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis but there are many other unconscious repetitive motions which can cause injury when we're groovin' and not paying attention to other parts of our body.
Dave brings up a very good point here. We need to find ways to walk around the stage a little bit. We also need to distribute our weight evenly on both legs during the course of a night of playing. You may even consider getting a wireless headset mic if you are the lead singer so you can move around a little more. I know of people who don't care for these mics and others who could not live without them. If you get a chance, try one out and see if you like it.
I heard from many drummers who said that they are having problems with their hips. Hip joints are like the knee joint. They do wear out. Hip replacement is one of the top joint-replacement surgeries performed today. One way to help avoid this problem is to practice good posture while playing. Again, making sure you distribute your weight evenly is going to help greatly. These joints will wear out eventually, but you can take steps to better insure that they last longer. Let's remember to stretch our bodies and get limbered up before we play. That simple step may prolong your playing days by years.
Protecting Your Hands - As a musician your hands are one of the most valuable assets you have. Since musicians often have day jobs, there is always risk of damaging your hands. From the carpenter who works with a variety of saws and power tools to the prep cook who deals with extremely sharp knives, you need to do everything in your power to protect your hands. Make sure that all safety equipment is worn and used properly. Make sure all guards on your tools are installed and in good working condition. Everything from losing a finger to the irritation of even a small cut on your fretting finger/hand is going to hamper your ability to enjoy playing your instrument.
If you break a finger or hand, avoid playing until it has healed. If you try to play while it is healing, you run the risk of having it heal wrong and that can cause more complications and pain in the future.
Another great tip from Rob Miller is to wear gloves when loading and unloading equipment from your vehicle. While gloves are not going to help if you drop a 90-lb. speaker cabinet on your hand/fingers, they will help avoid pesky cuts and abrasions. Get a sturdy pair of leather work gloves. Drummers' gloves or weight-lifting gloves also work well for this purpose, but make sure you get the kind that cover the whole hand—not the fingerless kind.
In closing I would just like to say take care of your body and your gear and they will take care of you. I wish you all good health and a long life of playing music.
Got any strategies for staying or getting musically in shape? Share your insights below.