Preventing and Resolving Piano Injury

Elizabeth “Beth” Mueller Grace spent thousands of dollars seeking the help of specialists in resolving her piano injury. Grace, a highly-trained pianist and teacher, is determined to pass on what she finally learned about healthy technique to others with similar problems.

Grace first experienced extreme hand pain after playing the Brahms Quintet at a summer music festival. She tried dismissing it until she found it difficult to practice, let alone perform.

More than a dozen tests led to anti-inflammatories, braces, and cortisone shots that temporarily relieved the pain. But the pain never fully subsided. Grace was determined to avoid surgery, knowing that scar tissue could create new problems. Rather than give up on her passion, she made it her life’s mission to figure out what it was about her playing that caused her injury.

Fast forward and Beth Grace is now a Certified Instructor of the Taubman Approach through the Golandsky Institute. She credits this work with saving her piano career, allowing her to continue her highly successful studio in Kansas City and New York City, as well as serve on the artist faculty at the University of Denver Lamont School of Music Summer Academy at the University of Denver. Since solving her own problem, she’s been an active clinician, collaborative artist, and directed and taught on the faculty of Rocky Ridge Music Center in Estes Park, Colorado.

Playing with Pain and Tension

“If I’d stopped playing when I was first injured and gotten help in the right way, I wouldn’t have had such a lengthy recovery period,” Grace says. She attributes her various diagnoses (tendinitis of the thumb, frozen shoulder, repetitive strain injury) to the way she learned to use her hands as a pianist. She now looks back on all she went through as a positive experience: “If I can help one person from being injured or help one person not have to go through all I went through, then it will have been worth the journey.”

Causes of injury

Through the Taubman Approach, Grace was able to address underlying alignment and movement issues. She also discovered fingering issues that lead to tension and then pain. For instance, she would strive to use the fingering as written on the music but this would often cause her to stretch her hands in unnatural and damaging ways that led to pain. She has since recognized that fingerings suggested by editors may not necessarily work well for those who perform the music.

The Taubman Approach makes it unnecessary to stretch the fingers or twist the hand to reach notes. According to Grace, “Twisting involves changing the alignment of the forearm and the hand to turn [the fingers] to the side. And when you turn [your fingers] to the side and play down with force, it’s not a good combination. It doesn’t feel good but people think this is the only way to master the passage and remain true to the score. The Taubman Approach allows the pianist all of the creative and musical freedom without the discomfort.”

Listening to Your Body

“If people are playing with pain and tension, it must be stopped immediately,” Grace says. “You cannot keep playing through the pain. The ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy doesn’t work. Your body is screaming at you when you have pain, that it does not like what you’re doing.” If you keep doing the same activity despite the pain, i.e., the stretching, twisting, grabbing motions as well a a combination of those, the pain will continue and most likely worsen.

Pain also leads to compensation. The injured part of the body may be protected when another part takes over, but this can often lead to a secondary injury. Grace now knows that had she stopped playing and gotten the kind of help she finally found through the Taubman Approach, she could have avoided a long recovery.

Case Study: An Injured Student

“In my experience, pianists are talked to less about how their bodies work and how their instruments work than other instrumentalists,” claims Beth Grace. “That’s because it is thought that almost anyone can play (or make a sound at) the piano., i.e., anything striking a key will make a sound. As a result, most piano students are not taught correct positions and motions.” They end up using techniques that Grace refers to as “hand busters,” i.e., the motions that are likely to lead to injury.

In her work with clients, Grace looks closely at the onset of pain in conjunction with the repertoire. She also observes their previous technical habits. Muscle memory is so strong that a comprehensive re-education process is sometimes required in order to remedy the root problem.

In the video below, Grace works with an injured high school student who is seeking help in anticipation of college auditions.

Comments

  1. Belle

    Hi Beth! These videos and the case study especially were very helpful! I’m 14 years old and I’ve never played the piano before, and I’m attempting to teach myself with various videos showing me proper posture and hand placement, etc as I am not in the position at this time to afford a constant teacher. I have done my best to sit with the piano to my belly button level to avoid any stress in the shoulders and any bad placement of the wrists, but I am not completely sure if what I am doing is correct. However I occasionally feel pain in the joint from my shoulder to neck and somethings in the muscles right below the elbow. I wasn’t sure if this is just the pain from my lack of experience and if i just had to play more and get used to it; or if this was the result of starting with hand placement. How do I really know? Could you please advise me on this issue? Thank you so much!

    • from Beth Grace: One should never feel ANY pain or discomfort while playing the piano. Pain is our body’s way of communicating to us that we are moving incorrectly, rather than an indication that we lack experience. The best plan is to seek the advice, when you are able, of a good teacher who can evaluate your posture and show you the correct movements from the beginning. Building a solid technique from the ground up will lead to future success and avoid a lifetime of problems.

  2. Dennis

    College 4 years IUSB piano major. One Senior recital short of a degree in piano performance. Had a Grad assistant at ND. Could not finish either because of so much pain. It got to the point of not being able to move. So………..I stopped. I’m now 69 years old and just finding out how to solve some of these problems by myself from videos like this. Still having some pain. Don’t know if its age or incorrect positions. Or both. Would like to do that recital before I leave this place.

    • Glad to hear you’ve found this article and the videos useful. You might also benefit by meeting with someone trained in working with these problems, who can assess your hand/finger positions and posture, see correlations with pain, and provide direct feedback and suggestions.

  3. enid

    I have just started playing the piano again (I stopped for over a decade) and I already stressed out my RH within just 2 weeks of practicing. So I figured, I must be doing it wrong and stumbled upon this site. My forearm feels a little tight and my fingers have tingling sensation (at rest) and my ring finger feels worn out especially when doing RH arps; so I’ve stopped playing for the third day now.

    I’d love to relearn the piano technique–and keen on not ending up with more injuries. I’d be re-starting from lower level lessons just to establish THE better way of playing (i.e. without straining). By the way, should I get a teacher? Or is it possible to learn this on my own?

    Thanks for this videos. I feel more inspired.

    • The discomfort you mention here is an excellent indication that your hand positioning, posture, and possibly more are needing to be adjusted. Much of it is about unlearning old habits that cause problems. Ignoring these warning signs could easily result in even greater problems. It would be very helpful to get a teacher who addresses all of this in addition to being an excellent teacher.

  4. Jan

    I am in my 70+ learning piano which has been fine without any pain or dicomfort but have now developed severe weekness in my fifth and fourth fingers of my left hand which appears to be entrapment of some area of the ulnar nerve, diagnosis is still underway, this makes it very hard to play chords or hold down my 5th finger as the finger is too weak. My question is should I carry on trying to use that hand or rest it? I get great enjoyment from the piano, and do not wish to stop learning, and do not want to make matters worse. I think it is very important to know about correct position and placement at the piano, but it seems to me that not many teachers know what to do if there is a problem. Can you please advise me with this issue.

    • Many piano students have learned to play in ways that have led to injuries. Our recommendation is to not try to push through and play right now, but instead to rest your hand. We hope the author of this article will add some input as well. In the meantime, we hope you’ll find other ways to enjoy music until you are able to play without further injury to your hand.

  5. Johan

    Dear Beth, I saw a few of your youtube videos on injuries. I do have pain in my thumbs from time to time and I want to prevent it by learning your way. Is there a way I can do this without a teacher? Do you have instruction or videos showing how to learn be tension free at the piano?

    • Johan, thank you for your message. I’m so sorry you’re having pain. There are many helpful resources online at GolandskyInstitute.org. Edna Golandsky also has a blog and has posted a number of helpful videos on YouTube. Visit Ednagolandsky.com to read her blog. There are also 10 DVD’s explaining the Taubman Approach which can also be purchased online through the GI website.

      I am happy you’re recognizing that your thumb pain isn’t natural and that it is possible play pain-free. I don’t know of anyone who has had success fixing problems and eradicating pain without a teacher. However, the Golandsky Institute has teachers in many locations (see the Golandsky Institute website) and many of us teach by Skype.

      Warm regards,
      Beth

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