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Thank heavens for the UK heat wave of July 2013 – it doesn’t half help with being flexible and limbered-up for physical disciplines, including sport and instrumental practice. Even so, I’ve been feeling familiar aches and strains, due to intensive wood-shedding for forthcoming gigs, recordings and festivals. As instrumentalists, (all of this is applicable to piano too) how do we achieve a balance between being constantly ‘match fit’ …  and over-stretched both physically, and also psychologically? You can be sure that one follows the other. I once fractured my right hand thumb whilst chopping someone’s head in Aikido practice. (Note to martial arts enthusiasts – bone on bone is never a good idea.) At A &E , they considered me mad for pursuing contact sports along with a professional music career. But those of us who are passionate about these things know that they do often go together  – and the contradiction just has to be managed. At the BAPAM clinic, I read in their literature, that musicians are really athletes in constant peak performance mode and should be treated that way. So, we should all put some thought into self-care. It will enhance and lengthen our playing careers.Many guitarists will recognise the following issues: temporary nerve damage in fingertips, left  hand callouses peeling off leaving vulnerable skin, broken nails (arggh!), tendonitis in both plucking and fretting hands, shoulder tension, headaches, bad posture, fatigue from carrying heavy gear and the odd guitar string rebounding into the face or eye.

Not to mention electric shocks, impalement on whammy bar, guitar strings caught in teeth, overly tight trouser trouble or any number of Hendrix-type mayhem encountered by the more theatrical guitar folk amongst us. Most injuries are mundane. How many of you know that according to Total Guitar issue Feb 2006, Dave Mustaine, lead guitarist of Megadeth, gave himself serious nerve damage by…er…sleeping on his arm. Rock n Roll! Well, this is a serious article so…here’s my top ten tips of things to remember and do. These practices have beneficial meditational aspects as well as pure physical maintenance.

(The following list assumes a right handed persuasion:)

1. Classical guitarists, remember that it pays to keep those right hand plucking nails filed down just a fraction shorter than you would like. Keep filing and they will grow long and strong. Get complacent (‘oohh they’re extra long right now, great…’) and that’s when they tend to snap off.

2. Nail health – moisturise, trim, file and buff regularly. By all means do boxing and martial arts, or whatever. Using micropore to wrap nails will prevent damage to self and others. (Note to self – Micropore sponsorship deal?)

3. If you do martial arts or boxing, bathe hands (and whole body, ideally) in hot water after every practice.

4. When sawing wood, opening cans or showing off with that brand new swiss army knife, (‘hey, watch me peel this apple super fast’) just think. It’s your livelihood at stake.

5. I swear by my John Williams style right hand tirando exercises. I make my students do them and I do them every day, fast and slow. Right hand is P, I M A, yes? Do the following, loop and repeat until you are in a trance…your tendons will love you for it. Do them a lot. On your guitar, also at bus stops, on table tops, railings and on air guitar. Here we go:


P I M I A I M I     (X4)     P A I A M A I A     (X4)     P M I M A M I M     (X4)     P M A M I M A M     (X4)

 (In each case P striking 4 times traversing bass E, A and D and back to A string.)


6. My teacher, a student himself of both Julian Bream and John Williams, always used to say: If the pain/strain is sudden – stop. If the pain/strain is gradual – practice through it.

7. Breathe deeply and athletically, as a habit, as a matter of course. (Maybe easier to remember for  instrumentalists who are also singers, dancers or martial artists.) Any stress, stain or extraneous mental chatter, let flow out on the exhalation. Make sure the room you practice in is warm enough. Get the temperature right, also your posture and location and general vibe as comfortable as possible. Get up and walk around regularly.

8. Scales. Do them. Just play scales and arpeggios for as long as you can bear it. Practise and experiment with every different fingering or picking combination until you run out. That way, nothing will take you by surprise you and make you tense up.

9. Bar chords. Don’t get stressed. In jazz, you will hardly need them. Ok, with classical stuff you will need them. And rock. Also you will need to hold the bar, whilst widdling around melodically with the remaining fingers. This can strain the tendons in the wrist and make your hand ache. The good news is that it gets easier over time, as your hand span adjusts and develops. Determined visualisation can help. Imagine your fretboard is like one of those ironing boards that has a vacuum surface. Try to flatten your bar shape against the fretboard and think straight down through your elbow, into the floor. Resist temptation to use other fingers to hold the chord down. Let the imaginary suction do it.

10. I always tell my students that the LH and RH are like different brains, with different roles. They work in tandem with each other, but don’t confuse the roles. For general study and practice, the left hand is there to create solid shapes, pitches and tones – cleanly and efficiently. Unless you are doing some special claw-hammer/pull off technique, it should not be trying to express strength or force. Be as relaxed as possible. It’s the right hand that is there to express and project the volume and energy. I think of the LH as Yang and the RH as Yin. Eventually, even this doesn’t quite capture it – but it’s a useful image that can help prevent undue strain and tension. I had a vocal teacher, who described injury as something that results from: inappropriate strength in a place of release and inappropriate release in a place of strength. I found that to be a useful idea and hope that you enjoy playing with it…



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