Aches and Pains

Dear Sherman, I was wondering whether you could help me. I have been experiencing problems in the last year with pains in my wrists, arms and shoulders. It is particularly bad after orchestra rehearsals – I play in a youth orchestra which meets in the holidays, and we rehearse for 6/7 hours a day, for about 9 days, and then do a concert. But it is affecting me more now in my normal practising; I have music college auditions in a month’s time, and so am practising a lot. Is it something to do with my posture? I also play violin and piano, could this affect it at all? Would you recommend learning something like the Alexander Technique – I’ve heard about it, but don’t really know enough about the benefits to make an informed decision. (I’m 17 years old, and have been playing the clarinet for 4 years). Thank you in advance for your time.


Thank you for your information and your question. I should preface the response with something about “your doctor being consulted”, but I shall not, based upon the fact that you know this, whether or not you decide to ask your doctor.

Through very long hours of rehearsing and even more of study to determine the causes of certain of the problems you mention, I feel more than qualified to respond to a musician in the formative stages of technical proficiency from one who hopefully has achieved that proficiency.

A conclusion I arrived at many years ago is simply stated as ” if we were meant to be clarinet players, certainly we would have been born with the clarinet embouchure and finger dexterity”, which of course means that playing the clarinet is not a “natural” thing. We must familiarize ourselves, our bodies with the correct ways of playing this instrument so as to SEEM as if we were born with the instrument as part of our being.

What we aspire to then is nothing short of making the clarinet seem as an extension of our heart and mind (to say nothing of fingers and mouth, etc.). Any fine clarinetist reflects ease of playing: in the sound, the posture, the breath … as they say, “the whole nine yards”, everything.

The greatest compliment we may receive is that “the clarinet seems to be a part of you”. We must always remember that the instrument is not just an instrument, but an instrument of MUSIC. Seems like a cliche? It is not.

The first thing you must do to alleviate the aches and pains you experience is the simple acquisition of a mirror, preferably a large mirror, one that reflects the entire you when you play, from the waist up. Play part of your repertoire or assignment until you begin to feel tenseness. Locate the source of the tension if you can in your mind. Repeat and this time study yourself in the mirror, I mean really check yourself out, completely. You are going to find something that you are doing, whether it is a raised shoulder, a tilt of the head, even raised eyebrows that can contribute to strain. Check you hand position very carefully. Look at them. If something looks awkward, make it look natural. If the mouthpiece looks awkward or turned in some way other than straight, experiment with the position. When it looks correct, or without being crooked, or perhaps straightening something, check to determine as to whether the tension is lessened or exacerbated. You probably have no idea of all the things you may be doing that you may not approve of when seeing them.

When I was a student, I committed all of the above and I have seen dozens of students who make the same mistakes. Let us try a list: raised shoulder; both shoulders raised unnaturally; mouthpiece turned making your head always turned when you play; bad hand position, either one. (All fingers should be curved, none tense, and certainly not slapping the keys when you play or lifting anymore than you need to change a note. Your fingers should hardly be seen moving) What about your chair and how you face the conductor: Can you see him easily? If not, you can give yourself an easy headache trying to find him. Make sure you are sitting comfortably, not slouched, but certainly not “ramrod straight”; that could mean more discomfort.

You may wish to refer to another article in my corner that talks about resting “chops” for it touches on some areas which may cause discomfort.

Playing other instruments probably do not have a bearing on your clarinet discomfort. To me, it sounds as if taking a deep breath and letting half of it out prior to playing may be of help. Also make sure you check out the position of your hands and shoulders while you play. Make yourself drop your shoulders to a normal looking posture. I know that’s part of it. And you have to check your finger position and yes … the biggest little thing: the position of the clarinet on your right thumb. You may need to turn the mouthpiece to accommodate a crooked tooth: just a fraction of a turn in either direction may help your tension problems enormously. Sit normally without playing. The position should be the same when playing except for holding the clarinet. Hold your hands loosely in front of your chest, fingers almost touching. Let gravity pull them so that they are hanging. Now bring them up into the clarinet playing position. The position remains essentially the same. If it is crooked looking … it is giving you a pain. I feel as if I had a few minutes to see you play I could tell you how to fix it.

Alexander Technic: Any technic you enroll in demands a certain adherence to their “way”, their technic. That takes time and costs money. Forget about it. I have known many many instrumentalists of all kinds who have gone that route and I have seen no improvement, but instead a lot of worry.

Remember to try to always relax when you play, and be very good to yourself. Make sure you practise what you need to, not everything there is each time you play. Rest, relax, and think … in the opposite order. Good luck and let me know if I have helped. Thanks for writing to me and my little corner.

Best wishes for good success at the college auditions. You are going to do just fine … and practise slowly … and … and, well, bye now

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