Tendon issues

I’m also curious as to what the tendons in my hands look like and whether or not it might not be worthwhile to see a hand specialist. Part of this is pure curiosity on my part, just to learn what the anatomy of the tendons in my own hand looks like. Part of it is also to determine whether it is not simply impossible for me to maintain tone in my middle finger’s distal knuckle while reaching out with my fourth finger.

I strongly suspect it is, because I cannot imagine it being any other way. When I see people maintain tone in the middle finger’s distal knuckle when placing the fourth finger, I literally feel as if I’m watching a Martian with a triple-jointed leg jumping rope. Even trying makes my palm and the back of my hand burn. The middle finger distal knuckle doesn’t become weak when I try to reach out with my fourth finger. It becomes dead.

And again, nothing else causes pain like this. Nothing. At all. I can crochet for an entire two-day weekend, and I feel no pain. I type for hours, and I feel no pain. I can play piano for hours, and I feel no pain. This one simple movement makes my palm and the back of my hand burn, and it is demanded in conventional harp technique.

I would like to visit a hand specialist just to see what they can tell me about the very particular anatomy of my hand. If they can’t specifically show me the anatomy of the tendons in my hand, then I will not visit twice. If I can’t learn why my hand will not execute this movement, I will stop taking lessons and continue as an autodidact, or I will see if my teacher is open to the idea of just assigning me the pieces that she would have assigned me originally, and just letting me figure out fingerings that work for me — and if that means a cornucopia of thumb slides, then so be it.

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RFL and adaptive technique 2

Another thing I’d like to remain aware of is, if I can pursue this as research, I do not want to just attach it to a college and study a bunch of 19 year old hardcores. The people that need to be examined must include:

  1. Child students,
  2. College-age kids,
  3. Professional harpists in their 30s, 40s, 50, and beyond,
  4. Amateur harpists in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond, and
  5. Adult beginners.

POSSIBLE NONSENSE FOLLOWS: College-age kids in a conservatory are more likely to do dumb things like damage themselves or move forward in the face of pain to adhere to an ideological standard or the way their famous teacher says they should do it, but at least be aware of technique controversies. Child students are more likely to not know other ways of doing things other than how their teacher says to do it. Professionals are more likely to have relaxed in a rigid adherence to ideology, amateurs are less likely to know about controversies, and adult beginners are less likely to have been indoctrinated (and possibly less likely to make the mistake a lot of pros and conservatory kids make, where they hurt themselves and imagine that it means they’re making progress).

All of them will have different approaches, different assumptions to work around, and be more or less prone to injury as a result of varying amounts of time using their preferred technique.

Just as musical technique has to be understood by studying a large variety of people, so does the research technique itself.

Other things that will impact this but that won’t be under consideration might include overall hand length, hand width, arm length, and harp/harpist height. For now, just focusing on relative finger length and how it impacts optimal, low-tension technique is probably more than enough.

Relative finger length and adaptive technique

I am mulling more and more about the ways that people’s hands vary, and how technique has to adapt in order to enable everyone to play. There tend to be a few assumptions underlying harp technique that I think are damaging and that should have been recognized and dealt with by now.

In order to deal with them, a few new assumptions have to be introduced:

  1. Overall hand size matters less than we think, while relative finger length matters more,
  2. People’s hands can probably be sorted into a few basic categories based on their relative finger length, and optimal low-tension technique can and should be developed for each basic handshape,
  3. Harp pedagogy must be aware of this in order to prevent injury and attrition, and
  4. This goes beyond Salzedo v Granjany.

I think I’d like to examine this more closely, or at least work up a general approach and then see if there is a way to actually research it — to sort harpists’ hands into different categories based on relative finger length (what I’m calling handshape, but which probably needs a better term*), examine the kinds of injuries each handshape sustains, and create a set of basic guidelines for the optimal low-tension technique for each handshape.

This would allow people to teach to the student’s particular hand rather than trying to shoehorn every student’s technique into the one that works for the One, True Handshape … and ending up damaging people.

* Maybe just RFL should be used, an abbreviation of “relative finger length.”

I’ll give it more time, but …

… I really have a decision to make. Once again, I’m doing that little Chopin thing I arranged, and my hands don’t hurt, even a little bit.

I try to do the “conditioning” exercises, and not only can I not do them without my third finger completely collapsing, but my hands hurt after like ten repetitions. Over the back of my hand, down my arm, and in my palm. This is bullshit.

Why am I doing this to myself? Why am I measuring my ability level by a bunch of things done by people who have had their hands cut up and sewn back together because of injuries, all of whom have personal neurologists, tendon specialists, chiropractors, and surgeons because of the damaging crap they’ve done to their hands? Why am I trying to get some kind of approval or something from a world where the “right” way to operate this device plainly destroys people’s hands, and they seem okay with this?

I wasn’t hurting when I did it myself, by myself, my own way. I mean, if I play my own music, arranged by me and written by me for me to play, my hands don’t hurt. They never did. Why the fuck am I trying to force other people’s dots on myself in a way that obviously damages the hands of the people who play them for a living? Why the hell am I not sticking with my own goddamned way? I don’t play OPD on the piano. What possessed me to fall right back into them on the harp?

You know …

My hands weren’t hurting like this until I started taking lessons and getting exercises assigned to me that were supposed to do … something … I don’t know. Make my hands operate like everyone else’s. Like the hands of all of these professional harpists, most of which have been cut apart and sewn back together multiple times.

When I was arranging and playing things on my own, I had fun, learned things, and my hands didn’t hurt. They started hurting when “conditioning” exercises started being a thing for me.

I’m really angry about this. I wanted to take these lessons and not only learn how to do things in a structured way but just get the hell out of my apartment, where I mostly stay like a hermit, and maybe meet other musicians and socialize even just a tiny bit. And I like my teacher. I look forward to seeing her. She’s a really nice person — chatty, experienced, intelligent. But goddamn it, my hands hurt now. They never hurt when it was just me arranging things and learning to play them myself.

Is there a way for me to get out and meet other (amateur) musicians and socialize with them that doesn’t involve lessons, is what I’m wondering. Can I get the hell out of my own head without damaging my hands? I mean, these professional harpists all have tendonitis, nerve damage, rotator cuff damage, back pain … and yet their way is the right way? I mean, my hands never hurt like this when I was playing piano, and still don’t. Never.

There probably isn’t a way for me to do this, not that doesn’t involve folk music, which I’m forced to admit I don’t like and have no ear for. 😦 Even when I bought my “Irish” flute, I just started blowing opera out of the damned thing, and now I’m doing 12th century plainchant.

I’m a weird little freak alone in her own little world again, just like the past 51 years. I should just admit it’s a permanent state and stop trying to connect with other human beings finally.

Left hand improvements

I’ve been working on a nice exercise that my teacher gave me for my left hand, and through forced relaxation and going out of my mind looking for just the right hand position, I think I’ve made some progress. I’m trying now to work a sense of lightness and “floating” into my left hand and maintaining the relaxation. I’m also working on moving this new awareness into my right hand as well.

There is a thread on the Harp Column forums (on which I lurk but do not participate) about harping as one ages that’s been intersecting with this in my thoughts. The question that was raised on the board is about how to cope with an aging body as a harpist … and I’m not sure that I agree with where the question comes from.

I’ve heard of so many injuries and hand surgeries that young harpists (20s/30s/40) have had that I’m wondering if the problem isn’t that harping as a middle-aged adult is the problem but rather the accumulation of low-level injuries to one’s hands as a young person.

A young person will learn to play harp and, if something hurts, they may think that they’ll just power through it because they have to, or they may think they’ll be okay — the way that young people all over the world seem to live on the principal of their bodies rather than on the interest. They do things perhaps unwisely because their youth will insulate them from consequences. For very young kids, it may also be that the teacher is simply pushing them into doing something in a way that will damage them later on.

That only lasts so long, though. Eventually the rotator cuff, ganglion cyst, and tendonitis surgeries will start to crop up.

But when you are doing this as an adult, particularly a middle-aged or older adult, you are under no illusions that your body will magically save you. You are much more likely to pay extremely close attention to playing in a healthy way or thinking to oneself, “It hurts if I try to do it this way, so I’m not doing it that way. I need to find another way.”

This is similar to how I’m approaching the use of my left hand. I can’t communicate how much attention I’m paying to doing this in as low-tension a way as possible. (I already know I have a deeply buried ganglion cyst in my right wrist, so I’m hyper-aware of what’s going on with that hand.) I know that using my hand in a certain way makes my fourth finger joint feel like it’s popping out, so I will not do that. A youngster may do it anyway thinking they’ll get used to it, or that doing something uncomfortable makes them “hardcore” or something. At 51, I’m have to confidence to trust my judgment and know, “I need to find another way to approach that.”

So I’m not more likely to have injuries; my greater awareness of the possibility of injury is making me less likely to damage my hands. If I manage this correctly, I hope I’ll never have a harp-related injury.

There just seems to be a feeling — and this is the case in a lot of realms, not just music — that “if young people get hurt doing X, then of course older people who do X will get hurt even more!” In reality, I think there’s a strong chance that young people are getting hurt doing X because they are more heedless of the possibility of injury … and middle-aged to older people who do it may be smart enough to avoid injury in the first place.

After all, that pain-is-weakness-leaving-the-body-boo-rah nonsense is the stuff of kids. Adults know that pain is your body’s way of telling you to find another way to get it done.