Article by Kathleen Nicholson and Declan Cosgrove
Pianists and Pain
One of the big differences between learning the piano as a child, or later as an older adult is that a child has many distractions, things that are far more compelling than piano practice. Maybe you remember how it was for yourself as a youngster, having to do twenty minutes on the piano when all you really wanted to do was go out to play with friends.
As an adult, especially an older adult, you really want to learn to play, and when you sit down at your beloved piano the time just flies because you are enjoying it so much. So it is not surprising that some people develop pain in their hands and wrists.
This is something that can happen to professional pianists who often practice for eight or nine hours a day. Yes, really! They then develop tendonitis, a condition that can take a long time to treat. Other non professionals can also have pain in their hands, and this is often the result of poor technique, or tension in the hands.
So the advice for older adults is don’t play the piano for too long at a time. Particularly if you are just beginning, two or three sessions of fifteen minutes per day could be enough to start with, then after you have more experience you can increase this. Set your phone alarm, or get one of those oven timers which will let you know when your time is up, and have a break. It is also a good idea to stretch and warm up your fingers before you play, just as you would warm up before you do sports.
Playing Piano Can Have Benefits If You Suffer from Arthritis
Arthritis is a different problem and is something that many people suffer from to some degree in later life. In fact, playing the piano could be very good treatment for you. There always has to be a balance between resting painful joints and exercising them, and although piano playing will not cure the condition it could make the joints less painful and slow down further deterioration. So don’t think it’s no use trying to play the piano. If in doubt speak to a physiotherapist for expert advice on how much playing you should do at each session.
In another article called Learning Piano With Arthritis Pam who has suffered from arthritis for years, explains how using the DecPlay Piano method, she was able to ease the symptoms of arthritis significantly, to the point where she no longer needed to take anti inflammatories. Over time, her dexterity and the span of her hand increased noticeably too.
Inspirational Pianists Who Overcome Disabilities
If you wonder how you will ever get your fingers to work, be inspired by some of the amazing people on YouTube who have overcome seemingly impossible disabilities to become wonderful pianists. Look for Darius Simmons who was born with only four fingers, or Nicholas McCarthy, who has become known as the one-handed pianist. There is also a Russian teenager who was born with no hands, who performs a stunning performance on YouTube, playing the beautiful ‘River flows in you’ by composer Yiruma. How he manages to do this is almost beyond belief! It seems that nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it.
Back and Neck Pain
Back and/or neck pain is quite common in pianists of all ages and often comes from bad posture at the piano. Make sure that your piano stool is at the right height for you to be comfortable, and also not too close or not too far away. How do you know what is just right? Well, experiment to find out where is the best position for you. Look at videos of professional pianist and take notice of where they sit, taking note of both the height and depth in relation to the instrument. Beginners often try to sit too close, and this makes it more difficult to play with relaxed hands and arms.
As a rough rule of thumb, you should be sitting upright, not leaning forward, backwards or to either side. Your forearms should be parallel to the floor and at a right angle to the keyboard. Another way to think of it is that a straight line from your elbows through your middle finger should be at a right angle to the keyboard. Your shoulders should be relaxed. Your fingers should be bent and relaxed but your thumb should be straight.
Of course, traditional piano stools provide no back support. This may be fine if you only have a short time to play, but if you want to spend longer at your piano I think, having reached retirement age, there is no reason why you shouldn’t use a straight backed chair. If it has arm rests so much the better and so long as it is the right height for you, you may find this helpful. Again, experiment to find out what works best for you. If you really want to play the piano you need to find a way to make it a comfortable experience.
If you find that sitting regularly at the piano causes you pain or discomfort in your back or neck, don’t ignore it, because it is a sign that something is wrong and it need fixing. Again, do not spend too long sitting at the piano at each session, but get up after 20 minutes and walk away from the piano. Set your alarm or timer so that you can do this before any discomfort begins. After a short break you can then sit at the piano again for another 20 minutes, or whatever time you find works best for you.
For those who find that sitting at the piano regularly causes them back or neck pain, it might be a good idea to consult an Alexander Technique practitioner. There are some that specialise in posture for musicians, and lots of people have achieved very good results after just a few sessions with an expert who can show you how to align your spine when sitting at the piano.
When it comes to issues of the mind and mental health, there have been many studies on the positive effects p laying the piano has on children. There are fewer studies on the benefits for adults, but if you google ‘Benefits of learning a musical instrument in later life’ you will find some very encouraging information.
Piano - The Workout For Your Brain
Many people worry about memory loss in advancing years. Some also feel they are not able to learn anything new as they get older, but this is not true. The brain is always capable of learning new things. It has long been thought that learning a new language in retirement helps to keep the brain in good condition. Music is of course a language, and in particular playing the piano is quite a complex exercise, which has been shown to stimulate more areas of the brain than many other instruments. Playing piano involves performing different movements with each hand simultaneously, as well as complex finger movements, different levels of pressure on the keys. As with other instruments, playing music involves simultaneous visual, kinesthetic and auditory senses, which is like a comprehensive workout for the brain.
How Piano Can Help Emotional and Mental Health
You can be confident therefore that playing the piano in retirement is not only a great hobby, but also a fantastic way to keep your brain exercised and sharp. It is also very good therapy for your mental health, for whilst you are grappling with some new music, the concentration required means that you are entirely focussed in the present moment. This is true mindfulness which we know greatly benefits our mental health, and it can help in dealing with depression.
Many students in the DecPlay community have said that learning piano has brought joy back into their life, often after a loved one has died. Being part of a community that shares a common passion for music adds a social element that can help maintain motivation and make the learning process a fun and enjoyable experience.
Concentrating on the music focusses your mind away from your problems and dark thoughts, and when you are able to play some simple pieces well it can have a calming influence on your mind. Your self esteem is lifted, and if you are able to play for others you will make good social contacts as well. There is nothing else quite like it.