Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Ergonomics and Posture for Classical Guitarists, Aches and Pains, Injuries, etc...
reginald_herring

Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by reginald_herring » Sun May 17, 2009 7:32 am

Hi, I wanted to know more about the developing condition of my left hand. I've been playing for about six months now and it's become very difficult for me to touch the pads of my left fingertips to the top of my palm. The first, second, and third fingers are now stiff at the second joints, but if I put a lot of effort into it I can still collapse them all the way down like I used to.

The stiffness seems to be worse in the morning when I first get out of bed. I'm wondering if I'm doing something wrong with my attack. Maybe I should switch to different tension strings to compensate? I'm using D'Addario Pro-Arte, hard tension.

James
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Location: Mildura,Australia

Re: Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by James » Sun May 17, 2009 9:41 am

I am assuming it's your fretting hand. Maybe it's overuse? How many hours a day do you practice? Do you have rest breaks? Do you warm-up your fingers? Perhaps you are applying too much pressure on the strings? Let go of some left arm tension if that is the case. Maybe it is your actual posture. Check it with a mirror, or get feedback from a friend. It could be due to faulty left arm position.......but that could also be due to the position of the guitar. If have only been playing for six months I would recommend you review a few of the above points. Your age may be a factor. Osteoarthritis, if perhaps 50 and above. Perhaps it is the middle of winter. Joints tend to stiffen up in the colder weather. Anyway, loads of possibilities, with quite a few I haven't mentioned. If it persists (worsens?) you may need medical advice.

reginald_herring

Re: Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by reginald_herring » Sun May 17, 2009 10:37 am

Yes, it is my fret hand. Lately I've only been practicing an hour or less per day. I suppose I could take rest breaks if I was practicing more. If by warming up fingers you mean guitar exercises, then no, other than repertoire I'm not really warming up. If by warming up you mean physically warming my hands, then no, I usually don't find it necessary since the temperature is above 70º during the day. It is possible that I'm applying too much pressure to the strings, because my guitar seems especially sensitive to fret buzz in the bass and I might be overcompensating somewhat. As for posture, I really don't know much except for the diagrams I have from books I purchased. Noad suggests a triangular approach to holding the guitar, and I'm tall so copying that exactly is hard. I use a guitar support instead of a foot stool, and since I don't always have the same chair I tend to place the suction cup in different places each time I practice. I'm not old enough yet for arthritis (I think), I'm 29.

choctawchas

Re: Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by choctawchas » Sun May 17, 2009 11:15 am

If you've only been playing for six months then that is a very short amount of time as a classical guitarist.
I'm assuming that you don't have a teacher? My first recommendation is to find one fast before you build too many bad habits.
The problems your experiencing sound like over use of the left hand without enough stretching to compensate.
Playing the classical guitar can be very hard on your body.Imagine being an athlete and never training.
You wouldn't run for an hour a day without stretching would you?

I would make sure that you have time to stretch both hands during each session.I would also use physiotherapy
exercises,yoga or any type of regime to improve your body's overall ability to cope with the demands you place upon it playing.
Think about how much time you spend on the computer,video games texting etc. All these things add up to strain
on the hands.

I would also lower the pitch of your guitars tuning to make it easier to fret until you regain your LH strength and agility.
Decrease your practice time with breaks for stretching and build up slowly to a level you can achieve without injury.

cheers,douglas

reginald_herring

Re: Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by reginald_herring » Sun May 17, 2009 9:02 pm

Douglas thank you for replying.

I've had a teacher for about three months now. He said I press too hard and that is why my secondary finger joints have stiffened (excepting the fourth finger). He sometimes stands in front of me and looks at the angle I'm holding the guitar, making adjustments. He also told me to practice less, which is partially why I'm now doing an hour or less per day. I don't like practicing so little that I fail to memorize a piece given to me the previous week. I feel that it reflects poorly on me as a student and ultimately means I'm getting less for my money.

No one has said anything to me about stretching at all, unless it pertained to running and weightlifting! I don't know of any kinesiologist recommended stretches to improve small muscle dexterity/stamina in the hands and forearms. If I did I would certainly make them a routine. I guess I should mention that I have opposable thumbs, so using my left thumb as a clamp when fretting does get awkward at times. I end up using muscles to clamp where other guitarists would just be using bone.

I wouldn't mind lowering pitch of my guitar, but with the D'Addario EJ46 hard tension strings I get fret buzz pretty easily on the A and D strings. I have a Savarez 540J high tension set, so maybe I should put them on and see what happens. I would be willing to drop the pitch to 430Hz, but anything lower than that and I'm afraid I'll have trouble learning to tune by ear.

Aurore

Re: Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by Aurore » Mon May 18, 2009 4:05 am

Your teacher might be on something. This might be worth a try - keep in mind I'm a beginner too. Play a chord or note, then go from not enough pressure in LH fingers (no sound) and play increasing by steps, to very buzzy finally to just the point where a good sound is heard and back down, again in steps, to no sound.

Basically find that minimum level of LH pressure needed to produce sound; get the feel of less pressure and much more relaxation in the hand.

For hand stretches I use those from Learning Classical Guitar part one - Aaron Shearer. There might be others out there. Memorizing pieces can be done without the guitar in your hands as well, play the piece in your head, visualize the RH fingering, LH fingering, tempo, notes, position on the fretboard and so on; or if you know how try writing the music without looking at the original.

Sounds like you are doing a lot of good things and enjoying music, good luck

choctawchas

Re: Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by choctawchas » Mon May 18, 2009 7:17 am

Hi Reginald,

If your guitar is difficult to play I would suggest seeing a competent luthier and have your guitar
set up so its easier to play.My concert guitar is extremely demanding on the LH so I can empathise
with you and your issues.I have reset the action on my guitar so that it is easier to play but
I've decide this year that I need another guitar (non-spruce) to balance both the type of sound I want and
also have a guitar that is a bit easier on my body. I'm 52 years and I've been playing CG for 12&1/2 years
and small things over a long period of time can be very destructive to your playing mechanism.If you can understand
at this early stage how important it is to take a long term view of your playing mechanism you may be able to survive
and still be playing at a high level for many years.Take care and become aware!

I would strongly recommend booking a session with a physiotherapist or professional who understands
what your strengths and weaknesses are and can put together a program that will help you balance
the demands that playing CG put on your body.I now play anywhere from 3 to 5 hours a day 6 days a week
and without the supporting yoga/physio and stretching I wouldn't be able to play for more than an hour.

It sounds like you have a good teacher but please don't put pressure on yourself to memorise pieces too quickly.
A piece of CG music is like a good friend, it takes time to get to know and appreciate them.

cheers,douglas

reginald_herring

Re: Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by reginald_herring » Fri May 22, 2009 7:00 pm

Aurore thank you for the book suggestion. I have placed an order and will try the exercises.

Douglas at one point you suggested tuning the guitar below concert pitch. What about normal tension Savarez vs. hard tension D'Addario? I tried to get specs for tension on the Savarez, but they don't seem to have anything on their site the way D'Addario does. Without trying a bunch of different strings it would be nice to know in advance the tension levels of a given set. What type of physiotherapist would you recommend?

In regards to my left hand knuckles, I think the problem is twofold:

1. I've noticed that indeed I use too much pressure to depress the strings. This is perhaps augmented by using stiffer strings, and in some instances my initial reaction to some frets requiring different amounts of pressure to avoid buzz.

2. In the classical position, in part due to my height, I've had to raise the guitar neck closer to vertical in order to maintain what my teacher suggests as top of neck to eye level placement. I've since discovered that placing the guitar on my right thigh with the support allows me to have the neck closer to my center mass with less vertical rise to eye level. This has enabled me to square the approach of my first three fingers to the fretboard more easily, thereby displacing the secondary joints less. I liken hitting the strings acute to the phalanges to a bowlegged or knocked kneed runner. So far it's been a good compromise between flamenco and classical positions for me.

MichaelBo

Re: Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by MichaelBo » Sun May 24, 2009 2:08 pm

Just my 2 cents as someone with similar problems. First, you should always seek medical advice if problems persist or worsen and don't EVER play with pain - you could be causing much more damage. I am 56; have been playing for 42 years. For the past 18 months I've notice increased difficulty in flexibility, stiffness, knuckle pain, cramping in my fretting thumb, wrist, and arm, and a general feeling of clumsiness (feeling like my hand and fingers are big and fat). Like you, I'd welcome any advice the fine people on this site might have. Here's what I do: I try not to abuse my hands. That is, I try not to overdo things like working in the yard, plowing, building, etc,. where I use a lot of hand and finger strength. I also take glucosamine/chondroitin daily. Prior to playing (which is worse for classical than for my "regular" guitars, banjo, mandolin, violin, etc.), I warm up. Physical warmth (heat) is not a bad idea, but warm up usually include a series of stretching and fluid motion. It's difficult to describe here, but anything that stretches and separates the fingers and rotates the wrist helps. I wonder: does anyone have a source for a book with pictures for this kind of thing? I interject that you can warm up anytime during the day (watching TV, in meetings, etc.); not just when you are going to play. After the warm up, I do a few string exercises which separate and stretch the fretting fingers - especially the pinky. These exercises are designed to make the fingers work independently. Then I'll do a few chord changes, starting slow then increasing to rapidly. The warm up usually takes only 5 minutes or so. Then I'll practice and play but during all of this I never play if pain begins and I keep playing short. On some of my more difficult, and new, pieces I find that I can play only two measures before I have to take a break. I find that learning new pieces is more effective if I take them in short, many bursts instead of long sections. Read that: play briefly and often. The brain has an easier time of storing data that way and tends to reject what is distasteful (long, drawn-out memorization) anyway. And it's very important to relax - both hands. Akin to rubbing your tummy and patting your head, what one hand does, so does the other tend to do. Concentrate on enjoying the guitar; not working at it - that's why they call it "playing" as opposed to "working" the guitar! Finally, posture is extremely important and, again, I am calling on the wonderful folks at this site for more help. The classical is meant to be held further to the left (for a right handed player) than other guitars. This puts the lower bout closer to being under your face. I put the waist over my left leg. I find that sitting fully upright with a foot elevator under my left foot helps a lot. Also, I try not to hold the guitar so I can see what my picking hand is doing, that is, I hold it with the bottom of the bout close to my abdomen as opposed to toward my knees. And I tend to keep the head stock higher than with other instruments. Try different elbow positions (in, out, front, back, etc.) to find out what is comfortable while allowing you to make the difficult and stretching chords. I wonder: is there a book with pictures, that shows proper and suggested posture and holding techniques and pictures? That's about it. As I said, I also would like very much to hear from other folks. For everyone under 50: See what you have to look forward to? Mike

choctawchas

Re: Stiffening Left Hand Knuckles

Post by choctawchas » Tue May 26, 2009 6:46 am

reginald_herring wrote:Aurore thank you for the book suggestion. I have placed an order and will try the exercises.

Douglas at one point you suggested tuning the guitar below concert pitch. What about normal tension Savarez vs. hard tension D'Addario? I tried to get specs for tension on the Savarez, but they don't seem to have anything on their site the way D'Addario does. Without trying a bunch of different strings it would be nice to know in advance the tension levels of a given set. What type of physiotherapist would you recommend?

In regards to my left hand knuckles, I think the problem is twofold:

1. I've noticed that indeed I use too much pressure to depress the strings. This is perhaps augmented by using stiffer strings, and in some instances my initial reaction to some frets requiring different amounts of pressure to avoid buzz.

2. In the classical position, in part due to my height, I've had to raise the guitar neck closer to vertical in order to maintain what my teacher suggests as top of neck to eye level placement. I've since discovered that placing the guitar on my right thigh with the support allows me to have the neck closer to my center mass with less vertical rise to eye level. This has enabled me to square the approach of my first three fingers to the fretboard more easily, thereby displacing the secondary joints less. I liken hitting the strings acute to the phalanges to a bowlegged or knocked kneed runner. So far it's been a good compromise between flamenco and classical positions for me.
Last week I tried a set of Savarez Corum Alliance normal tension strings and cannot believe the difference from the
Hannabachs I'd been using for years! Much easier for the LH, wonderful balanced tone and more responsive.I would highly
recommend giving them a try.

The idea for tuning down a whole or half step is just a temporary measure while your LH recovers.

I've also been using an idea I read about on Douglas Neidts site.
I soak both hands in very,very warm water for 5 minutes and then plunge them into cold water for two minutes.
I do this three times.If I 'm starting a practice session I end with soaking my hands in warm water instead of cold.
You might want to give this a try and see if it helps.

Any qualified physiotherapist should be able to assess your individual issues and provide you with exercises
which will balance your muscle groups and hopefully keep your playing mechanism running without injury.
It would be a bonus if the therapist has worked with musicians before but I don't think its a critical factor.
Your teacher seems to be giving you sound advice, as I said before 6 months is a very short amount of time to
develop the skills base required for C.G. It is easy to push yourself too hard and too fast at this stage.
Please take care.


cheers,douglas

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