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Pain vs. Gain on Piano...

...and, most likely, a whole host of other instruments.

It's a valid worry, to be fair, because we are told numerous times throughout or lives that 'no pain = no gain' and this - to some end - is correct.

However, the problem is that when we incorporate it into something that we do as a hobby as opposed to something we deem as necessary (e.g. learning the piano vs. keeping fit) then it begs the question - is it worth it?

And I too have been debating this question too a few times as of late.

Anybody who knows me well knows that I suffer chronic pain and - surprise, surprise - its biggest manifestations usually occur in the hands. I have made peace with the fact that I will never be as good as I once was in certain respects (for example, my fingers used to be much more nimble and my wrist used to be much less prone to aching), further making peace with the notion that I will, unfortunately, have to take some pieces or passages slower of alter them to my current capabilities.

But any pro pianist will insist on the like of preparatory exercises, scales, arpeggios etc. - and quite rightly too. And I do do them. hurts!

And if it hurts a professional pianist such as myself, the chances are it will hurt a beginner pianist. Particularly late starters (the hands will be more naturally inclined to learn new movement and technique when younger, but this absolutely does not mean that it is ever too late).

So the question remains: is it worth it?

Is it worth me putting myself through 15 minutes of preparatory exercise induced pain every morning on the off chance that I might be able to play occasional pieces of music more confidently?

My initial answer is absolutely, 100% yes.

But also you have to be realistic.

Don't Over-practice

Once you have mastered a piece of music it is essential that you recognise any parts that are causing pain and practice those in a more controlled and isolated environment. It is unlikely that an entire piece of music will cause pain - it will just be certain passages as a result of rapid movement or unusual hand positions / fingering. Therefore, it is essential that in order to learn these passages you focus on them slowly and carefully so as to minimise strain, and only attack them once during a practice session at speed (for example, when you perform the whole piece).

Furthermore, if you are a performing pianist, it is essential that you pinpoint what causes pain and where and you create a set list of pieces that reflect what you would be comfortable doing at any given point. For example, if you've just performed a rapid Baroque piece that took four minutes of solid concentration and complex fingering, unusual hand positions etc. - then maybe don't follow it up with another. Slow down for your next piece.

It sounds obvious, I know. But consider it for your own good both mentally and physically.

Rise Above Imposter Syndrome

The unfortunate, hard hitting truth about all musicians (and artists) is that you will never be as good as the person or performance you idolise of a piece of music. Never.

Yes you can play the notes. But perhaps you can't play it as quickly or accurately. Maybe you don't have as much feeling. Maybe your dynamic is too loud or too quiet or generally you can't get the expression.

But the fact remains - most of this stems from your own mind as to how a good piece of music should be. Impressive piano playing is not about speed (although I dare say it does impress!). You can play any piece of music well without recognising it to a fellow performer or - dare I say - even the original composer's full intention. If it hurts to go too fast, perform it a touch slower. Or add rises and falls to the tempos (accels and rits).

The point is, as much as it is important to practice pieces and to practice the technical side as well, it is not an immediate guarantee as to your success in performing a piece of music 100% accurately and at speed. Know, respect and honour your own limitations and you will always deliver the best performance that you can of a piece.

Remember to Exercise

It seems that this is mentioned in ever beginner piano book, yet it is one that is surprisingly often forgotten about once we reach a certain stage. Whether you use hand massages, stress balls, power balls, warm water, stretching techniques - anything really, it's important to keep exercising the hands and the wrist to ensure that you can attack a piece of music as best you can.


So, is it worth the pain?

Unfortunately, yes it is.

HOWEVER - pain, not strain.

Providing that you allocate a designated amount of time for practicing certain techniques or movements then you should be okay. For example, I do my 15 minutes of Schmitt or Hanon each morning. And I can't tell how much it hurts! (especially Schmitt!). Still, once it's done I ensure I have a break - just five minutes or so - to let things settle a bit and then I look at the next thing to practice and ensure I follow the points I've listed above.

It's worth mentioning - as I'm pretty sure I have before - that all efforts to practice scales, arpeggios, preparatory exercises etc. are not in vain. If you purchase a book of technical studies and practice it daily but only ever get to the end of the first page then that's okay. You're still building up strength and technique and moving on when you are ready to move on. Every little helps.


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