Nobel prize winners in science are twice as likely to play a musical instrument.
But while many make a natural transition into the fields of biology, chemistry and physics and still enjoy music as a hobby, those left-brain creatives of us who commit ourselves to the arts rarely find our minds drifting off to scientific pursuits or readings.
So here’s a crash course in the biology of our muscles:
Our body is made up of involuntary muscles (like the heart) and voluntary muscles, called skeletal muscles, which move when we tell them to. Our skeletal muscles are made up of myofibrils, strands of long proteins of actin, myosin and tintin that are organized into filaments (slender, thread-like objects). These myofibril strands repeat into longer sections called sarcomeres.
When we contract our muscles the sarcomeres shorten and the actin and myosin filaments slide past one another causing micro tears in the protein strands. The more we contract the more tears we create.
This is the basic premise of any strength training or bodybuilding. A lifter creates micro tears as he contracts the muscle holding the weight and as he rests proteins come in to repair the tears and the muscle becomes stronger. When the protein rebuild is greater than the protein breakdown, muscle growth occurs.
This means that any repair, whether a replenish or a growth, happens while we rest.
What happens when we don’t rest?
When we push our bodies either too long, too often or spend large amounts of time in poor postural positions, our efforts will result in muscle tension, muscle damage or metabolic stress. All three of these states can lead to pain.
Our body has a wonderful, built-in response to pain. It begins to build calluses or scabs or muscle knots in an effort to minimize damage and prevent further injury. A muscle knot occurs when muscle fibers begin to stick together and adhere to one another in an abnormal way causing a scar-like tissue to form. This is all in an effort to minimize a perceived damage.
The location of a knot in our muscle or fascia (connective) tissue is known as a myofascial trigger point. It is comprised of tense muscle fibers which have been contracted for too long or too often. They will either produce immediate, intense pain (active trigger points) or lay dormant until pressed on (latent/hidden trigger points), revealing a dull aching sensation.
Most muscle knots (myofascial trigger points) stem from:
- repetitive stress activities
- heavy lifting
- poor posture
- tension from emotional or mental stresses
- prolonged sitting
Reading this list is like reading my everyday activities as a musician. I repetitively practice or perform on my instrument, overusing certain muscle groups. I cart my large cello to and from teaching and gigs. I sit for a prolonged period, locked into a position which may or may not have “good posture” and I am under the constant stresses of performing, playing perfectly or wondering where my next gig is coming from.
Basically, I’m a collection of myofascial trigger points.
Because the average musician cannot take off a significant amount of time easily to rest we need to be conscious about the rest we can achieve. Building a time into practice schedules for relaxation or a week into our yearly calendar for a do-nothing vacation are great starting spots.
But if we’ve already done some damage by creating myofascial trigger points and know that we will be consistently engaging in activities that create them, then we need to seek out specialists who deal with these issues and see them as regularly as we practice.
I cannot emphasize this enough:
HAVING A KNOT OR PAIN FROM PLAYING CAN STILL HAPPEN EVEN IF YOU ARE DOING EVERYTHING RIGHT.
Yes, injury happens and not all pain is good. But because musicians engage in repetitive stress activities that lead to overuse very easily, even if every movement is correct, we can still have pain present.
A great athlete gets their muscles looked at regularly because they use their muscles regularly. But too many musicians walk around in constant pain because of the belief that pain is a personal problem or stems from a mistake.
Seeking out experts in the fields of myofascial release can begin the healing process. Breaking up knots will help the body begin to repair the micro tears in the muscles through proper protein rebuilding rather than forming an internal “scab” in an overused muscle area. On Thursday, I will post information from an interview with Myofascial Release Therapist, Jenni Asher, along with a podcast of our full interview and places where you can begin finding prevention help or treatment.
If your body is necessary to your career, then it needs to be treated with the same necessity that you treat your instrument. You can always buy a new set of strings, but you can’t buy new biceps. So take care of your muscles by training like an athlete to play like a musician.
Health and happiness,