In the last two years practice, recital and performance anxiety have become words commonly used in our household. My daughter takes piano lessons every week. The gifted and wonderful piano teacher, Carol Chitovas, travels to our public school to share her passion and encouragement.

This week Carol asked me to speak with a group of music teachers about the issues that can hinder a musician (such as injuries and anxiety).

I first started with my ideas of what some music students/teachers might be dealing with that affect their performance and/or practice?

  • Back painsitting at computer
  • Scoliosis
  • Poor posture
  • Headaches
  • Tendonitis
  • Sprained fingers
  • Carpal tunnel
  • Low energy
  • Anxiety
  • Insecurity
  • Depression and/or feeling separate from society
  • Stress

One look at this list and you might rule out becoming a musician or encouraging others to do so, but look again. The above list is full of issues that my yoga students and Thai Yoga Massage clients ask for help with. In this age of technology many of us are sitting at a computer, desk or steering wheel. We do repetitive movements. We focus on getting our to do list done.

Yoga helps to bring balance by uniting the physical body, mind and spirit. It brings the practitioner into being instead of doing. It helps to stretch and strengthen muscles and connective tissue. It increases circulation in the body.

baby playing pianoA great musician evokes emotion because they are in tune with the “feelings” of a song. This side of creating art is more accessible when we can relax and welcome in the emotions instead of pushing them away.

Playing music can cause a lot of stress for the musician and teacher. In my research I came across a list of some of the causes of stress written by Richard Beauchamp (click here to see the full list) that he shared with doctors and physiotherapists at a BAPAM conference in Edinburgh in 1999. It is a little overwhelming, but offers so much insight. It is worth looking at if you are struggling with any stress in playing or teaching music or if you are a yoga teacher working with musicians.

Relaxation is important for playing music, especially for more difficult pieces.

In yoga you learn a fine-tuned awareness to the way the body and mind work. Focus is put towards working specific muscles and then relaxing the ones that don’t need to be used.

kids playing musicTry playing a song on your instrument, but at a much slower speed. Start to relax every part of your body. Notice which parts of your body need to still have some tension to create sound. Visualize becoming heavy in your seat. Even try slumping over a bit (don’t tell your music teacher I suggested this), then find a neutral spine. Grow tall. Get out of your regular habit of holding tension. Notice the jaw, shoulders and the breath. We really like to hold in these areas.

Playing the piano is like being an athlete; train, practice and cross train. Stretching the parts that are getting tight and strengthening the ones that are being missed, is the goal.

Musicians are unique in how they learn, practice and perform. They are also unique in skeletal anatomy. We may thinkthat every person has the same number of bones and so we are all the same, but the bones are different sizes and they work in unique ways, depending on the body. For example some people are hyper-flexible in their joints. Techniques in playing music will be unique as will injury recovery, practice, etc. due to this unique body structure. Paul Grilley has a fantastic video that illustrates this within the context of yoga. It is called Anatomy for Yoga with Paul Grilley.

warrior pose yogaYoga helps us to build stamina and breath through difficult poses. This translates to life. There are many difficult things that we do. For example it can be challenging to play music in front of an audience, drive in rush hour traffic or even to attend family gatherings.

The easiest way to relax is via breath. Your breath, when slow and deep will send a message to the brain that all is well. Holding the breath or breathing in a shallow manner will tell the body that there is danger. The body doesn’t know the difference between a sabretooth tiger and piano recital in terms of stress. It just wants to put you into fight or flight for survival.

Breath practices can be used to bring calming and relaxation or focus and alertness. For example, extending the exhale will bring more relaxation and the inhale will bring more energy. Breathing through the left nostril will calm and the right nostril will bring focus.

For a full chart explaining pranayama (breath practices) click here.

Remember to warm up the muscles and joints before practicing your instrument, but also try doing some stretches in the middle of your session.

If there is an injury or reluctance to play try using other tools of practice such as:

  • piano boyListening to the music
  • Studying of the time period/artist
  • Visualize playing the instrument
  • Walking outside
  • Dance
  • Singing

One of the most powerful things that yoga has given to me is self-acceptance. I see that my tendency towards perfect has also reached my piano playing daughter and I would imagine that this is common with many musicians.

My grandfather told me that he stopped playing guitar because he made mistakes. When I was a child I didn’t hear the mistakes. I only heard the music and loved to sing along.

What kind of music are we missing because some don’t think they are perfect enough at playing? Everyone is imperfect and unique. Yoga helps us to embrace this.

I have created a Yoga for Musicians example flow (below) as an example of what breathing and stretches can be done before and during a practice session. Feel free to share this with your yoga guides and healthcare providers to develop a practice that is suitable to your body at this time.

Thanks to Carol and all of the music teachers out there that give so much time and energy.

Yoga for Musicians (and their teachers)

  1. Three Part Breath
    Lie down on your back or sit comfortably. Bring hands to belly with the fingers just touching and the middle fingers meeting and the belly button. With each inhale allow the belly to expand. On the exhale relax the belly and let the belly button tuck in and up towards the spine. On the next inhale again let the belly expand and then allow this breath to also expand the ribs (at the back and sides of the body as well as the front). On the exhale, relax ribs, relax belly and again tuck the belly button back towards the spine.On the next inhale repeat the expanding belly, ribs and then allow this to go all the way up to the collar bones. On the exhale, relax collar bones, ribs and then belly.If it is helpful imagine a glass filling with water on the inhale and then emptying from the top down on the exhale or imagine a wave moving in on the beach as you inhale and then imagine it receding as you exhale.
  1. Hand Circulation Warm Ups
    Wiggle fingers quickly, then shake hands and wrists, allow arms and elbows to get involved in a gentle shaking movement that will increase circulation, move the lymph and synovial fluid.
  1. Shoulder Rolls
    Inhale shoulders up slowly, exhale and roll them back and down. Try this with the arms at the sides and then with hands on top of the shoulders.
  1. Shoulder Shrugs
    Inhale shoulders up, hold the breath (contraindicated in pregnancy) and then exhale and release the shoulders with a nice audible ahhhhhh sound.
  1. Empty Coat Sleeves
    From standing, gently swing one hand to the hip, then the other hand to the opposite hip, then swing hands to opposite shoulders. Let the hands and arms swing in a relaxed way. This is a great brain exercise as well as you move from hip, hip to shoulder, shoulder.
  1. Neck Rolls
    Make a gentle ‘yes’ movement with your head, looking up and down, then move to a ‘no’ movement with the head. If this feels comfortable then try a half circle movement – chin down to chest, then half circle one ear towards the shoulder, chin back to chest and half circle on the other side.
  1. Hand Stretch
    Either holding the opposite hand or using the floor – stretch with a press to the back of the hand and then the palm.
  1. Fascia Release of Hands
    Using either a raquet ball or squash ball (I bought mine at Canadian Tire), press into areas of the hands to release the fascia (connective tissue). You can roll it between your two hands or on to a table.
  1. Chest Opener
    From standing hold on to a belt, scarf or yoga strap with arms extended overhead on the inhale. Move the strap from the front of the body on the exhale, inhale back overhead and then exhale to the strap behind you, staying a while in any spot that needs a little extra stretching. Make sure not to move into any spot that brings pain. Instead practice this as a gentle movement as often as possible.
  1. Breath and Movement
    In yoga we match movement to breath. It is this union that brings calm and focus. From sitting, raise one hand up as you inhale. Lower the hand as you exhale. Inhale and lift the opposite hand, exhale and lower it slowly. Notice the pause between the inhale and the exhale. Notice the length of your breath.