RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Ergonomics and Posture for Classical Guitarists, Aches and Pains, Injuries, etc...
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Danny_Hahn
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RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by Danny_Hahn » Thu May 24, 2018 3:14 pm

If you are right-handed, have you ever tried playing the classical guitar with a left-handed strung guitar? If you have, you immediately discover how difficult it is, and in fact the more accomplished you are as a player the more likely you will find it to be. The reason is obvious: You have spent years training your hands to do two entirely different things. Of course, you would only try it as an experiment or a joke if you are perhaps with somebody.

However, about three years ago, I was faced with a dilemma: Either re-learn to play left-handed or never play the guitar again. I had already tried playing left-handed about 15 years ago, for about three years until I gave up. A serious neck injury made playing the guitar impossible, regardless which side I played. Then three years ago, with a lot of treatment, the neck became well enough to try the guitar again.

Right-handed I could still strum the guitar, and even finger pick, but only using my thumb, middle and index finger. However, the right-hand ring finger was useless. It had been damaged. Tendonitis doctors had called it. The injury came suddenly, and without warning, playing the Agaudo's sextuplet study in Em, Exercise 19 in his Nuevo Metodo para Guitarra. I played too fast for my ability. I immediately noticed it, although there was absolutely no pain involved. But there was no strength nor control anymore. I had simply pushed myself too hard. I should have known better. Back in the late 1980's and throughout the 90's teaching the guitar had been my full-time occupation. I kept my injury silent from my students and the guitar shop that provided me with a steady flow of students. So I continued the best I could. Most of my students, generally 30-40 people each week, where not classical guitarists However, quite a few were, and I could still play using fingers p, i and m. In slow arpeggios I could strike the first string with my m finger, and this way I even passed a Grade 7 exam, as well as playing occasionally at restaurants and other functions. Just I could no longer play fast arpeggios using p,i,m,a - nor of course tremolos. I did have treatment, including physiotherapy, acupuncture and even a steroid injection by a doctor.

I don't know if anyone else in the forum had experienced such a problem. I have perhaps a weakness with muscles and tendons in my fingers, which is perhaps relatively uncommon, but I know I also pushed myself too hard and too fast, and with a poor right-hand technique. I had never practiced scales nor arpeggios until I did my two guitar exams (Grades 4 and 7, with nothing before or in-between). Having pushed myself too hard and too fast had provided me with a guitar teaching job (after having played only for about 4 years) and the odd performance, but in the long run it proved to be a grave mistake.

Actually, having just written the last paragraph, I realize that although my condition was extreme, I have read of other guitarists suffering from RSI or some similar problem. This even includes advanced players such as Aaron Shearer. I have only recently obtained his three volumes of Learning the Classic Guitar. The first volume speaks at great length about training the fingers, and includes an entire chapter on RSI, and overcoming it. It is a method book to be studied in conjunction with volume 2, which only contains basic pieces no harder than Grade 2 level. However, his advice does seem to be also useful for more advanced students, and thus I will certainly read through them and see how it may be of help for me.

I am now practicing pieces around the Grade 6 level, only left-handed now. However, this time I had been far more careful, learning from previous mistakes. I do now practice scales, slowly and carefully. I practice now also arpeggios, both as scales and chords, and use as my textbooks the Sargreras's guitar method. I have played carefully through each and every lesson in the first volume, and probably close to half in the second, and am now working through the third volume. I have just counted the number of Sagreras studies that I have committed to memory, and it is 16, and had picked them either because I liked them, but more often because they serve as a training routine on some particular guitar technique. My speed arpeggios and tremolos are coming along now nicely. I have supplemented these studies by those by Carcassi, Sor and Tarrega. There are also many other types of pieces that are in my repertoire, from John Downland to modern pop and jazz arrangements for solo guitar, as well as flamenco, folk and fingerstyle blues. Roughly about 80 guitar pieces.

I thus practice about four to five hours a day, sometimes more. However, here again lies the problem. I realize I must be careful. Being now retired and on a pension, and having a wife who does not mind my obsession, I could again face a similar problem playing left-handed. I'm now in my early sixties, and injuries now come quicker than in your 30's. Just yesterday, as I was memorizing the fast arpeggio passage of Villa-Lobos Prelude 4, I felt a soreness and fatigue in my middle and ring fingers. It was a warning sign for me to stop. This time I had the wisdom stop. I am after all retired. I neither need to teach nor perform professionally ever again. Fortunately, no real damage was done to my fingers, just some soreness. Thus I took a rest today, and tonight the soreness is wearing off.

But there was a warning sign. The Moral of the Story: Too much practice, even with a good right and left hand technique can still cause irreversible damage. Too much practice does not make you perfect, but rather may damage you in not playing properly ever again. This chance is compounded when playing with a poor technique.

Anyway, I'm finished now with what turned out to be more of a 1,000 word article than just a posting. I am sorry for its length. It was my first topic posting in the forum, so it served more in introducing myself and the problems that I encountered on the guitar, and thus a warning more to myself. My postings will be a lot shorter next time. But if it does help somebody avoid the mistakes I had done, then my lengthy post had been worth it.

Wishing everyone all the best and enjoyment on your guitar,

Danny

PS
I have just now typed RSI in the forum's search engine, and have read a number of them. I was amazed just how many also suffer with RSI. If you have any advice, or questions, or have suffered a similar problem, or would just like to have a discussion, I would love to hear from you. :merci:

astro64
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Re: RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by astro64 » Thu May 24, 2018 3:23 pm

From your description is sounds somewhat like focal dystonia. You will find a lot of information if you look for that.

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Yogi Ponappa
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Re: RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by Yogi Ponappa » Fri May 25, 2018 12:36 am

Hi Danny_Hahn,

It's good to see you stuck with music regardless, and managed to make the switch to playing left handed. And yes, pushing too hard too soon is rarely worth it.

But if I may speak to the situation you described, that precipitated your switch to playing left handed, here's seconding what astro64 said above - as someone who works with dystonic musicians, the symptoms you described sound remarkably like focal hand dystonia, rather than an RSI problem. I say this particularly considering your right hand ring finger's inability to work and yet the absence of any sensation of pain. Given where you are with playing left handed, and what you might want to do regarding making music going forward, I doubt you'd want to do anything about addressing the right hand A finger issue as such, but for information's sake, you might like to go through this information page I wrote about the condition: https://musiciansdystoniaresolution.wor ... d-to-know/

You can also see affected musicians showing problems that may resonate with your experience if you search on youtube for 'focal dystonia'. In particular, to see what I suspect your issues may have looked like, you might search on youtube for 'FD issues: involuntary A flexion', and have a look at the first video that comes up.

Best wishes, and hope you keep making progress as you enjoy the ride!

Yogi
'haatha' yoga

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Danny_Hahn
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Re: RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by Danny_Hahn » Sat May 26, 2018 3:51 pm

Hi Astro64 and Yogi. Thank for your for information. Until your posts I had never heard of focal dystopia, but have just looked it up on the Internet, inluding your recommendations of articles and YouTube video clips you advised, Yogi, and that is exactly what I have. The ring finger would curl inwards when picking the guitar with the right hand. Now that I am playing left-handed the ring fing can adequately fret the string, but it can in certain positions be a bit of a problem, eg the simple C chord gave me supringly troubles, and took me quite a while of re-training. Now I manage the chord well enough. Yet more difficult chords in classical guitar music may also given some problems, but here again through re-training or simply using different fingererings to that given in music sheets solves the problem. It is surprising that doctors, including a neurosurgian did not say anything about focal dystopia, but my problems happened in the early 1990's, so perhaps it was not well known at the time. Will definitely do more research and see what treatments may help. Thank you again

All the best to both of you,
Danny

:merci:

astro64
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Re: RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by astro64 » Sat May 26, 2018 4:58 pm

Good luck Danny!

ronjazz
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Re: RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by ronjazz » Sat May 26, 2018 6:32 pm

focal dystonia really was discovered and diagnosed in the late 90s. since it is a neurological issue, you may find it easier to recover more of your fingerboard technique now that you're using your right hand to select the notes and chords. You might try isolating your right-hand "a" finger and very slowly working it for a few minutes, then work it with the other fingers one at a time. for instance, playing an "f" on the 4th string 3rd fret, repeatedly,
lifting the fretting finger each time, at a slow metronome tempo, maybe 40 beats a minute, do that for 3 minutes. the play e-f-e-f with 2nd and 3rd fingers, again very slowly for a while, then f-f#-f-f# with 3rd and 4th fingers. while you cells may have smeared a bit when using the right hand to pluck the strings, now that you're depressing them instead, you may find the neurological issues much easier to overcome. perhaps 10-15 minutes daily over a few weeks will really improve that finger. I know that is how I am overcoming dystonia, although I haven't switched hands; I practice extremely slowly with no tension (tension brings about dystonia) for 2 hours each morning, and I avoid playing any of my old repertoire. It's taken me some years, but my technique is becoming more fluid and secure virtually every day.
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Karen
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Re: RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by Karen » Mon May 28, 2018 1:23 pm

I thus practice about four to five hours a day, sometimes more. However, here again lies the problem. I realize I must be careful. Being now retired and on a pension, and having a wife who does not mind my obsession, I could again face a similar problem playing left-handed. I'm now in my early sixties, and injuries now come quicker than in your 30's.
I also sympathize with the dangers of playing too hard/much when retired and having the time. As an older, retired beginner I am trying to be very careful not to injure myself despite having great difficulty putting the guitar down. Playing guitar is like an addiction. I have resorted to setting a timer for 20 minutes to remind myself of the time so I will remember to take breaks. I often “cheat”and go a little longer but have learned to reset the timer when I do this so I can still be aware of how long I am actually playing. I have to keep reminding myself that if I want to play the guitar I have to behave! Rest breaks are particularly important to the older player, especially when trying to train hands to do something new.

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Yogi Ponappa
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Re: RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by Yogi Ponappa » Tue May 29, 2018 2:39 am

Good luck with your journey, and however you decide to negotiate the issue, Danny!
'haatha' yoga

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Stephen Kenyon
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Re: RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by Stephen Kenyon » Tue May 29, 2018 11:28 am

I'm curious how your ex-'a' finger can now work as "3", since as such it's even more integrated into technique. It also crossed my mind that I'd have tempted to join - form if necessary! - an ensemble, since simple alternating is normally all that's required.
Best of luck anyhow!
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Danny_Hahn
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Re: RSI and the Confessions of a Guitar Nut!

Post by Danny_Hahn » Tue May 29, 2018 1:20 pm

Thank you all for your kind thoughts, and advice. Also to ronjazz for the detailed advice and instructions, and it gives me confidence that you had the same problem and were able to overcome it. It is true, Stephen, that my right-hand ring finger can be a bit troublesome when holding certain chord formations, not many, nothing like the trouble I had when compared to when I had been fingerpicking with my right hand. I will follow ronjazz instructions, as well those of Yogi with his detailed articles and instructions, which I have already downloaded and will read them very carefully. He really seems to be very knowledgable about the subject, and it's very much appreciated what he has written. Thanks again to all. I will keep you informed of my progress.

Best wishes,
Danny
:)

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