Web Exclusive: Paul Bollenback’s 17 Tips On Hand Care For Students

Due to what seems to be a recent rash of over-use syndrome and tendonitis among young guitarists, I am offering some thoughts about practicing and hand health. Not all the points will apply to everyone, but these are things I have found to be true more often than not.

I know everybody wants to be great immediately, but learning to play takes time. Some would say it takes a lifetime. Patience, focus, commitment, passion, and perseverance are crucial to success over the life of a career in music. But you won’t get it in one day, or one week, or one year. And pushing too hard can actually slow you down or stop you in your tracks.

Most of all, don’t overdo it! We can all get obsessed with getting better fast. That’s fine, but don’t do it at your own expense.

In a way, it’s all about where you use your energy, how you focus that energy, how much stamina you have or can develop, and how you manage the time you have available to accomplish what you want to.

This all assumes you have a good basic technique for playing the guitar that won’t contribute to problems. If you are experiencing hand problems, it may be a matter of making adjustments to that technique, which has to be addressed specifically by the teacher and by you.

With all this in mind, here are some guidelines for practice and general hand health. These are not in any order of importance. I feel they are all important.

1) Take short breaks every ten or 15 minutes, or even more frequently if you are working on something that is physically demanding (sometimes I’ll work on something very intensely for two or three minutes, then put the guitar down for a couple minutes).

2) Work on one thing for a while, then break before you begin the next item on your list.

3) If you do practice longer, take a longer break. A good guide is 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off.

4) Eighty minutes of practicing is about the absolute maximum for a single long session. After that, you really should take a break—beating it to death is not going to get the job done. Consistent, focused practice on specific things, daily, and over time, will get you there a lot faster and with fewer headaches.

5) Do you ever get that feeling of “just another few minutes of hard work and I’ll really have it down”? This is a good time to stop and put the guitar down for a few minutes, because:

a) You generally won’t get it in one long session, but over a series of shorter sessions spread out over the day (or week, or month….or longer, depending on what it is you’re working on)

b) By not wearing yourself out on a particular piece of music, you will retain your enthusiasm to keep working at it.

c) You could be expending that energy on something else, rather than wasting it on something that you probably won’t remember when you wake up the next morning. Put it down and come back to it later.

5) Stretch before and after you play. There are stretches for upper body, back, arm, hand, wrist, and fingers that are very effective.

6) Always warm up by playing something easy, just getting your hands comfortable on the instrument. I usually play some melodies, then chords, with no tempo, just staying very relaxed. I will try to get a good, warm, relaxed sound, with no stress anywhere in my body. Five minutes or so of this should do it, then you can dig in.

7) Don’t forget that researching recordings, looking at performance video footage, listening to recordings of your own playing, and just plain listening to music are an important part of becoming a musician. Taking a few minutes out from running that scale pattern over and over to listen to how Duke Ellington’s band played “Caravan” will give you information you cannot get from just working on technical basics on the instrument. Compare different chord changes and arrangements—see if there is a lyric. Then, when you come back to the guitar, try to practice what you learned from listening or watching.

8) A word about computers: Make sure you are not wearing your hands out by gaming, surfing the net, or typing long involved documents (like this one). Bad typing skills and too much time spent on the computer keyboard lead to repetitive stress disorders (RSD), and will do more damage to your hands than any incorrect playing technique.Try to limit yourself, get a wrist pad, etc.

9) General health: You need to be strong to play the guitar. It can be physically demanding. So, get some exercise. Run, walk, lift weights (carefully-don’t hurt your wrists), play basketball (watch for jammed fingers), do something physical. You can use Chinese medicine balls, or a Grip Master to strengthen your hands. Some players crumple a sheet of newspaper using one hand only, every day, to build up their hands. Start out easy, and build—don’t overdo it. Over time, it really pays off. My classical guitar teacher, Michael Lorimer, is in his 60s and has hands that could still crush a rock. He used to do rope climbing when he was in high school.

10) If you feel some soreness after a long session, as though you had just worked out, it is pretty normal. But take a break and stretch anyway. If you feel pain, STOP PLAYING IMMEDIATELY. Give it a rest. If the pain does not go away after a day or two, you may need to go see a specialist. Don’t try to play through the pain—you will only do more damage. Sometimes a break will ease the problem, but sometimes the damage is done.

11) If you need to go see a doctor, go see a hand specialist, preferably one who specializes in performance-related injuries (Google this, there is a lot of helpful info available). A General Practitioner probably won’t know about performance issues, and will recommend you stop playing for a year, and maybe have surgery. That’s probably not what you had in mind when you decided to become a guitar player. I had one talented student who was told by a GP that he “may have carpal tunnel syndrome”, which is potentially a career ender. After a week of sleepless nights, he went to the right specialist, who diagnosed him with mild tendonitis and over-use syndrome, both of which are totally fixable. So be careful whom you go see, and don’t panic (yet).

12) Be smart about how much time you spend on the instrument, and even about how you exercise. If you have a three-hour solo guitar gig, don’t practice for four hours, run six miles, and start lifting weights that day. Save the heavy practice or exercise for days when you don’t have to perform a lot. Take a rest every few days, too—don’t even look at the guitar. As long as you come back to it, you won’t lose much. It’s healthy to get away and do other things periodically.

13) When you take breaks, stretch, walk, go people watch, check your email, listen to James Brown—do anything that is not about the guitar. That way you’ll feel fresh when you come back to it.

14) Find out what is your most productive time of the day. Working when you retain the most and your mind is sharpest and freshest means your practice will be more effective, with better results. My time is the morning, and then the late afternoon, early evening between 5:00 and 9:00pm. Yours may be different, say at 2:00am. But whatever time it is, try to stick with it. You’ll get more done, and you’ll be happier!

15) You don’t have to practice everything on your list every day, all the time. Break it up. If you have a recording session next week, that music should take priority. And the same goes for a concert performance. As long as you keep track of what you are working on, the other stuff can wait for a day or two.

16) Don’t be afraid to eliminate things from your routine. Getting rid of that scale exercise you’ve been doing for last two years will free up time and energy for other things.

17) Map out some general areas of focus. These could be five or six items (some tunes, practicing soloing on groups of strings, picking technique, a solo transcription, work on the diminished scale and it’s applications, a couple of be-bop melodies, drop-two voicings in all 12 keys, etc.). Rotate the items on your list. If you spread out your list over two or three days instead of doing everything in one day, you’ll make faster progress without wearing yourself out.

I hope this is helpful, and not too much. There is a lot that can be done if you do wind up with a severe hand problem, including microsurgery, physical therapy, and relearning or repairing your technique—but it’s a lot easier to prevent problems before they happen. So, take care of your health, build your strength, practice and play wisely!

Paul Bollenback is a New York-based jazz guitarist and educator. Read his feature interview in the April 2009 issue of Guitar Player, and visit him online at paulbollenback.com.