girl in purple shirt playing piccolo

Taking the Pain out of the Piccolo

In Corrective Exercise, Fitness, Flute, Pedagogy and Teaching by Angela

This article was originally published in 2014 and was based off the wildly popular presentation I did with GySgt.(Ret.) Cynthia K. Rugolo of “The President’s Own” Marine Band at the National Flute Association convention in Washington DC in 2015.

Both piccoloists, both in military bands and both invested in musician’s health (I took over her position as chair of the NFA Performance Health Committee in 2018) we came together to give a presentation on preventing injury in piccoloists. This article is a hybrid of that handout from the presentation and the subsequent article that followed.  A little back story: Cynthia actually had surgery for cubital tunnel syndrome due to the piccolo and my third injury was an overuse injury from preparing for a piccolo audition (to get into The President’s Own, where Cynthia was playing, not that I knew that then) detailed below.

Musical injuries seldom have to do with only the weight of the instrument (the piccolo barely weighs a pound) but the posture and the demands it puts on your body in certain positions.

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.

Step 1: Release the Knots

Find the source of your pain, be it in your forearm, closer to the wrist, elbow, bicep, etc. If you can find a tender area that “rolls” when you move it, you may have found a knot or trigger point.  This can have varying degrees of tenderness, but it represents a muscle that is basically stuck in contraction.  To help the muscle relax, find the most tender spot with your finger, a tennis ball, friend, etc. and press on it.  Hold for 15-30 seconds and the area should start to relax.  If not, move around and see if there is a more tender area nearby.  Many times we think we’re on “the spot” when really, it’s just a millimeter over.  Another note, if you feel tingling, move away from the site a little bit; tingling represents you are pressing on a nerve.  If possible, press the knot WHILE stretching the muscle.  This will also help the muscle relax.  One book I have found incredibly helpful at finding my own “knots” is “The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief” by Claire Davies. A good guide for knowing how hard to press is that on a scale of 1-10 the pain should be about a 7; any higher and you may contract instead of relax. You’ll know it’s ok to move on when the pain is down to a 1-2.

Step 2: Lengthen the relaxed muscle

Your muscle has been in a chronic state of shortness due to being contracted so long.  Now that you have relaxed it, it needs to be stretched back to its normal length, but done gently.  The two I will show you are the forearm stretch and the bicep stretch

Forearm Stretches

You can  do this against a door or wall.  What is important to note about this stretch is that the backs of his hands are not touching the surface (be it a table, door or wall).  Your fingers should point downward and hands should be low enough (if on the wall) to feel a good stretch.  The very back of the hand should not touch because if it does, the stretch is over, you’ve gone as far as you can go.  Leave some space between you and the surface and then lean gently into the stretch.  Breathe deeply as you do so. DO NOT force anything.  As the muscles relax, eventually the back of your hand may touch the surface, at which point the stretch is over.  If it doesn’t, don’t force it.  Make sure to breathe deeply, relax the rest of your body and hold for a minimum of 15-30 seconds.  With older people studies have shown static stretches may take up to a minute to be effective.  Be patient.

a girl doing a wrist stretch
a girl doing a wrist stretch

Bicep Stretch

The second stretch is a forearm stretch that goes the opposite direction.  As you can see, my forearm is brought up in front of me and my hand is curled into a loose fist.  This is very important.  If you curl into a tight fist, that defeats the purpose.  Take your other hand, and place it on top of your loose fist. Begin to bend your loose fist back around and towards your body.  Stop when you feel a stretch and then hold that, breathing deeply until the muscle begins to relax.

This can be done whenever you take a break from piccolo practice, before and after practicing.  As I mentioned before, the bicep can get very tight from being contracted and if you are very focused and intense in your practice, you may have been squeezing unconsciously.  I  have, lately, found many large knots in my bicep muscle because of this.

To do this stretch you will need to stand alongside a wall.  Put the affected arm alongside the wall.  Rotate your hand so that the back or your hand or the side of your hand is against the wall.  If the palm of your hand is against the wall this stretches more of your chest muscles.   To effectively reach the biceps, you must rotate your hand.  If it is tight, believe me, you will feel it! Once in position, turn your body away from the wall and face outward into the room until the desired amount of stretch is felt.  Hold until release is felt.

Step 3: Move the now relaxed and lengthened muscle

This is a pretty easy and self-explanatory step, but now that you have relaxed the muscle that was tight and brought it back to its proper length, you need to move it, so it can “remember” how to move within its proper length.  If any of these muscles have been chronically tight, it has been a long time since they were allowed to function at their full length and must be “retrained” so to speak.  
For the forearms, wrist circles are an easy choice.  These can be done with separate hands, or, I like to lock my fingers together, loosely, and rotate my wrists around.  Wriggle your fingers as well.  Easily.  We are going for less tension here, not more.
For the biceps, arm circles or elbow circles are good as well, just getting the arm flexing and moving gently back and forth will work fine.  

My friend, Dr. Laura Fields, a Doctor of Physical Therapy (and a flutist!) has a great series of videos on how to fix your own pain.  This video shows some other good options for the forearm, elbow and wrist.  If you want to check out her website for videos on other areas of the body (shoulder and neck are good too!) Her website is: SpineCareFitness

If you liked this article, found it helpful, or have more questions, I would love to hear from you! Check out my Instagram and friend me on Facebook! I hope to hear from you soon!