This week I received an email from Tom who writes,
"...I'm nursing a sore left thumb joint from too much pressing against the back of the uke neck with the thumb, I thought maybe you have some ideas about how to prevent that and other injuries... "
Tom goes on to say,
"My therapist recommends alternating warm and cold water soaks, 1-3 min each to get the blood circulating, or hot or cold packs, vibration, careful stretches after heat is applied, and actually built a small brace to keep my thumb from being forced too far back."
Tom also says,
"I wish I'd taken it more seriously when it just started to ache - too easy to ignore pain when you're having fun."
Will you look at that. He just answered his own question!
Why do humans persevere with pain? I don't believe that evolution has provided us with a sense of pain just so we can ignore it. If that were true it would strike me as being a very unusual character building mechanism.
Sure, there are times when we have no choice but to temporarily ignore our hurts in order to get a job done. After all the show must go on. But the general rule of thumb, and its a very sore thumb in Tom's case, is: If it hurts - Stop Doing It.
Even animals know this. But somehow human beings believe that if they keep pushing onwards, the pain will just go away. No it won't. Don't be silly.
I admit it's a little tricky for beginner players to avoid pain. At that tender stage almost everything you do seems to inflict one kind of punishment or another. The strumming finger can hurt, so can the arm and always there are sore finger-ends caused from fretting the strings. But if you think your fingers hurt now, try playing the abrasive low strings of a guitar for a while and see how that feels! Therefore initially, as your hands get used to the new tasks it has to perform there is bound to be some soreness. However, if you notice that pain is not going away or is getting worse then you may have a problem developing.
Here are 4 suggestions:
1) Keeping part of your body in a tense state doesn't help. Your best music is played if your body is as relaxed as can be. Read more on this topic in an earlier article: Just Relax.
2) If something you are doing is giving you pain, find a different way to achieve the same sound. This could be as simple as changing the angle of your hand slightly, use a different finger to strum with, cradle the neck of the uke between your thumb and finger instead of pressing with your thumb. The point is to find whatever way you can to give the hurting part a rest. Wherever you are pressing or gripping your ukulele use only the pressure needed. Don't press harder than that.
3) Practice more often but for shorter periods. Doing this will ensure that your aching digits get the rest they need.
4) Practice in your mind. Give yourself a break from playing. Lie down and close your eyes. Imagine that you are playing a song. Visualize your hands on the strings and practice like that. I once heard of an imprisoned man who learned to play the piano on just the scratched drawing of a piano keyboard. Take note: If Nelson Mandela had used his prison-time more wisely he could be a very competent tuba player by now.
Proof of this effect was an experiment using 2 basketball teams where one team practiced for real and the other lay on mats in a gym and practiced through visualization. After 1 month they had improved by the same amount. It's a powerful technique which shouldn't be underrated.
There have been moments, after obsessively working on a new strum, that I found myself starting to hurt. This has happened in my fingers, my hands, my wrists and my shoulders. The early twinge of pain is a red flag. Your body is letting you know that it is not happy and it wants you to do something about it.
In other words: Ow is the symptom of our discontent.
This is How it Should Feel to Play Music!