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May 31, 2014
WARNING! Finger-smasher!

I smashed the tip of my middle finger (left hand) a couple weeks ago.


I cried. Seriously. The pain triggered an outpouring of pent-up emotion from a difficult morning, and I wept!  The finger turned black and blue, and it still hurts…should probably go get it checked out, even though I wonder what can be done about the tip of a finger if it’s fractured…

(How did I do it, you ask?  I walked by the open sliding hall closet in the picture and quickly slid the door shut…but didn’t get my finger out in time. Lesson to self: slow down when you’re in a hurry!)

If you’ve been following my blog, you might remember that about a month ago my relationship with my violin was becoming newly inspired, and I was enjoying playing in new and quite wondrous ways. Obviously, smashing a finger has put an abrupt (and temporary, I trust!) end to those explorations… Which is what has inspired this post.

So, here’s the question:

What if you’re an instrumentalist and you hurt a hand or a finger and can’t play for some time?  What do you do?

If you’re like most musicians, you’ll probably panic.  But panic isn’t going to make you heal any quicker – it’s just a waste of energy.  So, how can you make the best of your time away from your instrument?  There’s no need to stop practicing, just because part of your body is in pain.  Assuming your injury is temporary and that healing is likely, one of your very best friends is proficiency in the skill of mental practicing.  Actually, it’s good to cultivate your mental practice skills away from the instrument on a regular basis, even when you’re in good health, because the benefits are so rich.

In fact, research from Harvard has proven that the brain learns just as much from using the fingers to play an instrument as it does from simply thinking about using the fingers to play the instrument!

Not only will it increase your overall musical proficiency in a general way, but the skill of mental practice will be there for you as a backup practice plan during those times when you are unable to practice with your instrument, for whatever reason (like when you’re squished like a sardine on an airplane on the way to a performance).

My favorite way to teach mental practice skills to my students is while doing constructive rest in semi-supine position.  You can lie down in this way and practice even in unusual places and situations where you’d never take your instrument.  There are so many ways to practice mentally.

Here are just a few of the great benefits you can reap from mental practice:

You can mentally practice anywhere, anytime!
  • Release from much worry when something happens and you can’t be with your instrument; because it just isn’t true when you start thinking, “Oh no!  I can’t practice now!”
  • If you practice in constructive rest/semi-supine, you will be associating a calmer state of being and well-aligned posture with your music-making, which will transfer to when you play with your instrument in hand.
  • You will be practicing your music with far fewer of your usual habits of muscular tension.  You’ll save a lot of energy, which you can re-direct to your creative mind.
  • It’s much harder to play on “autopilot” when you don’t have an instrument in hand and you can’t hear the sounds it would produce.  You are compelled to eliminate distracting thoughts, because they will immediately take you out of your practice session and this will be obvious; this greatly improves your powers of concentration.
  • If you can play through a piece in your head, you REALLY have it memorized, beyond “muscle memory”.  This is a great way to test how well you know a piece.  It increases your confidence in your memory and your skills when you can do it even without the instrument.
  • It’s quiet, so it will never disturb anyone (this is really handy when you’re in a hotel room or waiting area with lots of people around and you can’t just take out your instrument and start playing).

Do you practice mentally on a regular basis?  How do you do it?  Do you benefit from it in any ways other than what I’ve mentioned above?  We’d love to hear about your experience!

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Alexander Technique, alexander technique cincinnati, focus, mental practice, music, musicians, practice, thinking, wellness

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  1. About 3 years ago I broke my right arm near the wrist. I didn’t have to wear a cast because I had a plate inserted to strengthen the bone. I couldn’t play my flute for about 6 weeks, but I could use my hand to play the piano- better angle for my wrist and no weight to hold. I played simple scales and exercises and found that my fingers gained strength from that, so that when I was ready to take the step I could transfer to the flute. I also found that having the surgery increased the blood supply to my fingers, so there was an upside to a nasty accident!

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Barb, which I’m sure will be inspiring to others. It’s so interesting that you were able to transfer your practicing to another instrument. And how fantastic that the accident gave you the silver lining of increased blood flow to the fingers! There are advantages to everything, once we look.

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