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Know Your Limits by Bailey Firszt

As a musician who has successfully recovered from injury, I frequently get asked what to do about playing-related pain. The road to pain-free playing involves many factors—exercise, relaxed technique, smart practicing, etc.—but the first (and most important) step that I tell people is to know your limits. Know when your body is asking you to rest, and accept how much or how little you can play each day. Fighting against our own limitations is one of the quickest ways to exacerbate an injury, but conservatory students have a hard time listening to their bodies when they are pleading with them to stop!

It’s easy to feel like we’re going to let people down if we sit out of a rehearsal or come to a lesson unprepared because we had to stop practicing. But remember, you are more useful to your teachers and colleagues by preserving your health in the long-term, even if it means not playing in the short-term. Your physical health needs to be your #1 priority, no matter what other obligations you have—especially if you’re experiencing pain. Practically speaking, knowing my limits means that I try never to play more than six hours a day, as I’ve found that six is simply my body’s maximum. I try not to hit that maximum every day, because if I do I usually have to take a few days off to recover, and I would rather play a moderate amount every day than oscillate between two extremes. Playing fewer than six hours a day means that I have to supplement physical practicing with mental practicing. For example, I usually learn my orchestra music by listening to the whole movement with my part in front of me and marking just a few sections that I really need to practice; I still come to rehearsal prepared without using up my reserve of playing hours.

Maybe knowing your limits means that you put your instrument down every fifteen minutes, or you mental-practice more than you play, or you don’t schedule any gigs on the same day as important rehearsals. Whatever it means for you, you will be the most successful if you accept your limitations and find creative ways to work with them, not against them. Embracing our limits can restore that feeling of control over our own bodies that we so often lose when we can’t play as much as we would like. And remember that while our bodies may be limited, there is literally no limit to what our minds are capable of. There are so many ways to grow as musicians besides physically playing, so find what works for you and do it. Your body will thank you.


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