The Harp and body: Physical Therapy for harpists and dealing with pain.

Posted In: Performing

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    jenny miller on #221398

    Hey guys, I want to talk about a problem that most (if not all) deal with consistently. Pain. Whether it’s chronic, acute, nerve pain, etc., we have all dealt with some type of pain while playing. Mostly we talk about blisters and finger pain, but I’m talking about the deeper pain, that can often keep us from enjoying playing, or even playing at all.
    Here’s my background story: When I was a sophomore in college, I was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, which was accompanied by severe upper back pain, and even tingling and numbness (and pain) throughout my arm and hands. I was afraid I would have to stop playing. When I realized what it was, it completely made sense. TOS is pretty much the over-strengthening of the back muscles (think sitting at a harp for HOURS with arms extended) and a weakening of the chest muscles (rounded shoulders–which are necessary to play!). This is one of the most common issues that harpists deal with. So what do you do about it? Here enters my amazing husband….a physical therapist. I dealt with this problem throughout my entire college career—undergrad, masters, doctorate..and the only way I (thought I) could really deal with it was to practice less and in smaller increments. However, after watching my husband go through PT school and now practicing, he taught me a LOT about what the pain was caused from, and how I could treat it, AND prevent it.
    So, here’s my mission, I would love to share with other harpists (and other musicians!) some of the things my husband has taught me, and things I have shared with him through my body-conscious teacher, Gail Barber, and would like to start a video series on Physical Therapy with the harp. Exercises, stretches, hand and body position information for prevention and treatment by a licensed Physical Therapist (husband) and DMA in Harp (me).
    Anyone interested in this? What I need to do, before I spend countless hours (and volunteer my, I need to know if you guys would be interested in this, and what pain issues have you/are you dealing with? I don’t want this to be about just my own experiences, but about trying to work as a harp community to be able to play and live better, without pain! Message below, or you can private message me.

    dianna-c on #221456

    Hi Jenny. I have hand/finger pain and would like further information about what to do about it. Thank you.
    Dianna Myers

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #241128

    I have not found physical therapists to be of much help. Their training is too limited, and their practice limited to giving standard exercises from the computer. For example, they might think you need to strengthen your back muscles more to compensate for the forward movement in playing the harp, which is partly true, but what we need more is to increase our arm strength well beyond the capacity needed for playing the harp, so that playing never gets near our limits. So if using weights, you should thrust them forward from your shoulders, it seems to me. But good posture and good position, with good technique alone can eliminate many problems. But more than that, for overall good health, strengthening and toning the whole body is quite important. Which is why we incorporated exercise into the program at Rocky Mountain Springs summer harp program.

    evolene_t on #241388

    Hi Jenny!

    I must have missed your post. I think your project is really interesting and could help a lot of musicians in the long term, even if you don’t have an immediate response right now.

    Personally, I’m lucky not to suffer from any kind of chronic pain, but I do wonder what’s the best way of sitting at the harp. Because my harp in small with a straight (not staved) back, I’ve noticed that I tend to slouch forward with the shoulders rounded, especially when I reach out. It’s quite easy to correct, but it has to be a conscious effort.
    Perhaps it would be interesting for you to cover this?

    Biagio on #241390

    Laurie Riley has studied and written extensively on harp playing ergonomics. For a start see her website:

    Play Pain-Free for a Lifetime!


    meredith-kohn-bocek on #255380

    I have carpometacarpal (CMC) thumb arthritis. I wear a brace when I play the harp, but it is very painful especially when playing octaves. I am scheduled for the surgery, arthroplasty of the thumb which requires the splitting of a tendon and relocation of part of the tendon in reconstruction of the thumb. I am very concerned about the strength and movement of the thumb for future playing of the harp. Has anyone had this surgery or know anything about it?

    Saul Davis Zlatkovski on #255580

    I strongly recommend that anyone who has soft-tissue injuries to see a radiologist who uses ultrasound for examination and to guide injections or other treatments. Dr. Levon Nazarian of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital pioneered this remarkable treatment and has trained many doctors in it, who are now dispersed around the country, so check if they trained with him. What he does is, after you get a referring prescription from your doctor, he uses the ultrasound to get a visual picture of exactly what is happening inside you. You can watch as he does it. He can see every blood vessel, artery, vein, tendon, ligament, muscle, everything but bone. He can see exactly where you have a pocket of inflammation, which is a cause for bursitis, tennis elbow; or he can see if a tendon sheath is inflamed, or if you have trigger finger. Instead of blind injections, he can then use the ultrasound to guide his needle to inject medicine into the pocket of inflammation. The first time I went to him, I had tennis elbow, and had been getting useless injections. He looked and saw that there was a second pocket of inflammation above the elbow, and that was why the lower injections did not work. So he injected the upper pocket, which also dribbled down into the lower one, and fixed it. He has also fixed trigger finger for me so I did not have to have surgery. It is remarkable! Thoracic Outlet Syndrome is similar to bursitis and can be a pocket of inflammation or a tear, perhaps, and is treatable the same way. If treated properly, then the physical therapy will be much more effective. As for strengthening the arms for playing, physical therapists always wanted me to do counter-strengthening, such as in the upper back, but when I used my weights to strengthen my hold in the forward position I use for playing, that’s when it was improved. Increasing your strength beyond what you need for playing, logically, will make playing easier and less stressful. Stronger muscles protect your joints and tendons. But that’s about as much as I know, aside from being effortless when playing. So I will be very curious to see what you come up with, along with your husband.

    meredith-kohn-bocek on #255586

    Thank you to Davis for his insight. I have had very good results with Alexander Technique. I was having serious pain in my shoulders. The Alexander Technique therapist corrected my posture and it helped me immensely. Counter strengthening is very important since we harpists do use a forward position which is also used for driving and typing on the computer.

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