Due to an upcoming audition, I have been practicing a lot more piccolo lately. I truly love piccolo, and really enjoy playing it, but like so many have found out, when you get out of school and are in “the real world”, practice time can be at a premium, so skills can get rusty. Then, when a playing opportunity or audition comes up, we have a tendency to rush back into playing hours a day and our bodies (especially as we get older) just aren’t up to the task. Increasing your playing time on any instrument is something that should be done gradually. However, there are times that this is simply unavoidable and there are the ensuing aches and pains to come along with the sudden increase in activity.
The body was meant for movement, it was not meant to hold isometric contractions for long periods of time. For example, the other day, I got so caught up in my practicing and what I was doing that the first time I looked up to take a real break an hour and a half had gone by! I tried to put down my right arm and almost had to physically straighten my arm back out. Needless to say I was quite sore the next few days. To enjoy playing so much that this happens is a blessing and a curse, so in addition to setting an alarm to go off every 30 minutes to remind me to take a break (you may need less time) I have developed some strategies to prepare the body for piccolo practice.
Is piccolo practice different on the body than flute practice? YES! We may hold the instrument to the same side and use the same fingers to press the keys, but just because the instrument is smaller and weighs less, does not mean it can’t pose physical challenges. A few things I noticed were the development of knots in my forearms. I saw a sports massage therapist for that and once he had taken care of those issues, I went back to practicing. The knots appeared elsewhere, namely my biceps, especially the right bicep.
What I discovered is that through my intense practicing, I had begun to not grip the piccolo, but press very hard with my right thumb, which created a knot by my elbow. I also discovered that playing piccolo, while not being heavy and causing the back pain that extended flute playing can cause, because the right arm is held to the side and contracted so much (and when under intense practicing conditions, you may end up contracting your arm unconsciously, adding to the problem) that the arm ends up staying in contraction for a long period of time. And some say musicians aren’t athletes! Tell me, would you do a bicep curl with a dumbbell and hold it up for an hour plus? Of course not, but that’s essentially what you are doing when you don’t take a break from piccolo practice.
Here are some warm up stretches to do when your muscles are tight and pre-practice. Remember, you only want to hold a static stretch on muscles that are tight.