On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me,
A long commute to my holiday gig.
Car time. It’s an inescapable part of the musicians life and career and no matter what stage of your career you’re in, the holiday’s will usually provide you with some extra work.
Good news: extra paychecks! Bad news: extra car time in holiday traffic.
A photo of the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles at Thanksgiving.
While you may think of traffic as more of a stress on the mind than the body (because, I swear, it is!), those extra minutes (or hours) you spend behind the wheel can have a repetitive stress effect on your body the same way playing does. In fact, after a 2006 study conducted in the United Kingdom, they actually developed a term for it: “Repetitive Driving Injury”. Add that to the repetitive stress we’ve already developed from playing our instruments and it’s a recipe for disaster!
So each week from now until Christmas I’ll be discussing a different postural issue that shows up in both my playing AND my driving.
First, my jaw, neck and shoulders.
I know, in an ideal world I will forever keep my back straight with my hands on the steering wheel at ten and two. But after just ten and two minutes of sitting in traffic and only being about 1.2 miles away from my apartment, posture and position are forgotten.
When I drive, I tend to steer with only my right arm.
Because it has stronger shoulder muscles from 20 plus years of playing the cello. By comparison, my left shoulder is weak, it can’t control the wheel/car on it’s own as well. As a result, it takes a break on the window sill and I round forward through the right shoulder, hunching in and causing my neck to stick out increasing jaw tension.
That same 2006 study I mentioned earlier found that 74% of people complained of a stiff neck after driving. This increases jaw tension that can lead to TMJ (Temporomandibular joint syndrome) and aching headaches. Keep in mind this study was eleven years ago, when commute times were much shorter!
The average American now spends 26 minutes commuting one direction each day. This time is greater in large cities.
I spend an average of 45 minutes in the car commuting one direction. Add that to a three hour session or rehearsal where I sit in almost the exact same position and, by days end, I’ve spent, at minimum, four and a half hours locked into a posture that induces headaches, jaw tightness a stiff neck and shoulder pain.
The best solutions, outside of getting a new car, a new career or a shorter commute, (which are nearly impossible for those of us freelancing!) is to maintain good driving postures and to recover with stretching. Here are a few tips:
Car Set Up
- Adjust your head restraint to be level with the top of your ears.
- Make sure the steering wheel is close enough that you can rest your wrists on it without needing to stretch.
Body Set Up
- Keep your shoulders and arms close to your body and relaxed.
- Center your head over your heart.
- Turn the wheel with your whole body, from your core, rather than twisting or sinking into the turn.
During the Drive
- Do shoulder raises at red lights by breathing in and squeezing your shoulders up to your ears and exhaling as you release.
- Tilt your neck side to side by dropping your ears to your shoulders while you keep your eyes on the road.
- Contract your shoulder blades by squeezing them together, pressing them into the seat, and sliding them down your back.
After the Drive
- Take a full body stretch by reaching your hands up overhead in a Y position, pull your thumbs back to open through the front body and be careful not to to sway in the back.
- Open the armpit chest by interlacing your hands behind your back and focus on sliding the shoulder blades down the back body as you pull down with your hands. Imagine the shoulder blades hugging your spine rather than pushing back from your rotator cuffs.
- Visualize tracing a circle with your nose in the air in front of you. Focus on keeping the circular shape to avoid crunching in the base of your neck.
This week when you climb into your car to drive to the next gig, notice what is going on in your jaw, neck and shoulders. Is it similar to your playing posture causing compound stresses? There's a video up demonstrating the "During the Drive" stretches on Instagram so make sure you're following @MusicianHealthResource for regular updates and tips.
Any great athlete takes time to stretch in order to add longevity and ease to their practice and performance. Your body should never be in the way of your art! So take time to train like an athlete to play like a musician.
Health and happiness,