Health and Wellness

Zooming Back to the Basics

“My old pain/discomfort is coming back.” 

“My hands hurt.” 

“I’m getting headaches all the time.” 

“Why am I noticing so much more discomfort when playing my flute, violin, viola, double bass, drum set, or singing?”

“Why am I so tired all the time?”

“I hate this.” 

Unfortunately, I think that many of us can relate to these statements during this unprecedented time of upheaval world-wide.

Feedback like this was what I received from my college Body Mapping students in the first weeks of remote learning done via Zoom. It was pretty clear to all that the tremendous increase in computer time was the major contributing factor for all of them and also for me. Even though they were noticing symptoms while playing or singing, the issue was mostly unrelated to the instrument. This is fairly common, even with normal circumstances. As musicians, we tend to be very good about ignoring our bodies and concentrating on the music. Then, when we are looking for feedback from our bodies and notice discomfort, we automatically assume that it’s instrument related. Often, there are other factors contributing to the issue and we only notice with flute in hand; for example, many of us hold the phone and text in ways that can contribute to hand, wrist, and neck pain. The phone might be the problem, but we think it’s only the flute.

In my college course, we had to stop with new material and return to the basics. Many of the basic body mapping principles presented in previous Flute Examiner articles apply here.  Movement is movement, after all.

#1 – It is your responsibility to take care of your body.  Period. 

#2 – Consider what’s happening with the relationship between your head and your spine. Your skull meets the top vertebrae of your spine at the AO joint. If this is new information for you, stop right now and go read this article (http://thefluteexaminer.com/pain-in-the-neck/). It’s very easy to get stuck in forward head position with the chin pointing up, back of the skull dragged down and the whole thing forward in space towards the computer screen. It is crucial to maintain fluid, dynamic balance here. Many  neck, shoulder, and upper back problems are actually head problems in disguise.

#3 – Check the height of monitor. Ideally, you should be able to see it without having to do crazy things with your head. If you have a separate monitor, it is easy to raise the height of the monitor. You don’t need anything fancy – a stack of books or a box will do. If you have a laptop or are using a tablet, this is more of a challenge. See #4 to find out why.

#4 – Check the height of your keyboard. Just like playing the piano, when you elbows are at a 90 degree angle, your fingers should be right over the keys. If you have to hunch over and round your shoulders forward, the keyboard is too low. If you feel that you have to hike your arm structure up towards your ears to get your hands to typing position, then the keyboard is too high. You can make the keyboard higher by using another stack of books. For laptops – the perfect height for the monitor is too high for the hands and the perfect height for the keyboard is too low for the monitor. Split the difference and be mindful of the fact that you have choices.

#5 – Check the height of the chair you’re sitting in. Maybe your body needs to be higher or lower.

#6 – Remind yourself that your arm structure attaches to the axial skeleton at the sternoclavicular joint. This is in front, where collarbone meets the sternum. If this is news to you, stop reading and go read this article http://thefluteexaminer.com/missing-pieces-of-the-whole-arm/). It is not necessary to hike arm structure up around the ears to move hands in front. There is movement at the SC joint and shoulder blades follow along. The movement should be forward in space, not forward AND up.

#7 – Are your hands coming towards the keyboard from a neutral position? Your pinky fingers should be roughly in line with your forearm. Many times, we are organized around our thumbs.  Click here  (http://thefluteexaminer.com/why-so-many-flutists-have-right-hand-pain/)to read about neutral hand to forearm relationship. If you’re not sure what your hands looks like while computering, have someone video you with the camera directly above your hands. This is very revealing. 

#8 – Are you doing crazy things with your fingers or thumbs? Many people are not even aware of the fact that they hold their middle finger, ring finger, or both up and away from their computer mouse. Try this for a few seconds and notice if you feel extra work happening throughout your forearm. The thumb can be held in strange ways when not being asked to hit the space bar. Weird thumb and finger things can happen when typing on a tablet instead of a keyboard. You may notice some thing on your video (see #7 above) that involve fingers and thumbs. Take a look.

#9 – What’s happening with your jaw? Are you clenching? If so, stop. Where’s your tongue? Is it jammed up against the roof of your mouth? If so, stop doing that. A good resting position for your tongue and jaw should be this: lips closed, a little bit of space between top and bottom teeth, tip of the tongue resting gently behind the top teeth (same place where we articulate as flutists) with the rest of the tongue just resting comfortably. Jaw and tongue tension go together and can contribute to headaches.

#10 – Most importantly – you need to find multiple ways that can do you computer work.  Sitting (or standing) in one position for 8 hours a day is no good for anyone. Maybe you can stand at your computer for a while. Then, move to working at your desk. Maybe you can put the computer on the coffee table and sit on the floor. The idea is to cycle through as many different work arrangements as possible. I encourage my students to rotate every 10 minutes.

~ What do you do when your setup (computer, microphone, webcams, auxiliary monitors, etc) cannot be easily moved? Move yourself as often as you can. Shift your weight back and forth between your rocker bones as you sit in the chair. Move your legs and feet. How many different ways can you sit in the chair? 

~ What do you do when you have to sit through an hour long meeting and you can’t turn the camera off and wiggle? This happens and sometimes you don’t have as many options. Self care becomes important. You need to move around after the meeting is over – BEFORE you go onto the next thing. This is similar to what happens when you’ve had a marathon large ensemble rehearsal and you cannot just move around when you choose. You do the best you can in the circumstances and know that you have to care for yourself AFTER rehearsal.

#11 – Take more frequent breaks. Get up and move around. Go outside if you can. Schedule movement time away from the computer if you’re teaching online lessons all day. Set a time on your phone. You are in charge of your movement at the computer! 

#12 – Look away from the computer screen often. Ideally, look at something far away outside.  This gives your eye muscles a chance to focus on something else that’s farther away than your screen.

#13 – Hydrate – read this article (http://thefluteexaminer.com/water-works/). I’m sorry, coffee doesn’t count.

#14 – Practice constructive rest. This comes from the world of Alexander Technique. Get down on the floor, lying on your back. Knees are bent and feet are on the floor. Arms can be at your sides. The goal is allow your body weight to sink into the floor. You can scan your body for areas of tension and see if you can invite the tension to release. You can observe the quality of your breathing. I do this regularly during flute practice and computer work. This is easy to do at home, not so easy to do in an office. Constructive rest is a requirement for my college class – 10 minutes twice a day. Regular practice of constructive rest will make a big difference.

#15 – Be kind to yourself. None of us is perfect and we’re all doing the best we can. While remote teaching and learning is not ideal, it is better than nothing. It’s ok to feel that you cannot possible spend another minute in front of a screen. That’s fine – go practice your flute instead!  Your computer will be patiently waiting for you.

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