Joseph Mendoes - cello expert

How to Prevent Injuries on the Cello

Learn how to prevent pain and injury when playing the cello

In this video, Prof. Mendoes tells you how to prevent injuries and pain while playing the cello.

Released on July 1, 2015

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Now, I wanted to talk a little bit about one other issue. Actually, how to prevent injuries on the cello or on any stringed instrument for that matter. This is something I'm very passionate about. I think it's terrible that some players end up using strategies that in order to play, that are unhealthy for them. And then they end up practicing these strategies, over-practicing them to the point where they actually cause some type of, in some cases, unfortunately, serious injuries. So there's a couple of rules to follow when it comes to pain.

First of all, I can't emphasize this enough: the rule of "no pain, no gain" does not apply to us, at all. We are not really athletes. I know that gets said a lot, that we're athletes. We're really not athletes. You see, an athlete needs to build up their body to a certain extent, in order to achieve a certain level. For example, a body builder, of course, needs to get really huge muscles to win competitions. Or, a power lifter needs to develop an incredible lower body in order to lift those really, really heavy weights. In terms of muscle development, as you can see, probably here in the video, I don't have enormous arms or anything like that, and yet I can get a pretty powerful tone. You don't need a lot of energy if you're doing it correctly. You don't need a lot of energy or a lot of strength to play the cello well. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't go out and be healthy and exercise. I try to exercise a little bit by doing various things. And certainly, having muscles doesn't hurt or help your cello playing in any particular way. But I find that that is the number one cause actually of injuries: most people ignore their bodies. They think that "well, okay, I'm doing something. I could feel a tingling sensation in my pinky, that means I must be working it pretty well." No, this is bad. Always, pain, any kind of pain, is something to be avoided, with the possible exception of when you're first learning cello you can develop calluses that can be painful. And also when you're first learning, you're trying to get through a lot of information, sometimes you may hurt a little bit here or there. The problem is chronic pain. This is the issue.

So, once you've got that straightened out, then we start talking about strategies. Now strategies, a good strategy for being able to play well and also for your whole life, I think is really important to develop. Now, the number one rule that I've found that's important to observe is that every single joint in your... in everything that you use to play the cello, so we're talking about primarily the arms here, and the hands, and the fingers. Every single joint has... either it's free or either it's locked. A free joint is basically what you want. A locked joint is something that you don't want. With some little exceptions, but they're very, very minor exceptions. I won't even... they're not even worth it to go into. But that's the thing: if there's something that's locked, then that's something that can either potentially at some point cause you to have difficulty playing or may actually cause you difficulty now in terms of just being able to play expressively and all that. So that's the basic rule: if you keep every single joint that you're using unlocked and free, for example, that's the secret to a really free vibrato, is not having any joints locked. It's the secret to developing this really nice, free, bow arm, and nice free sound. And you'll notice this in all the great players. All the great players don't really have too many locked joints.

Now, some of them do, and the reason why some of these players can play their whole lives with these locked joints, is some players just have a little bit stronger physiology, just naturally. Their tendons are a little bit stronger. Their overall structure is just geared a little bit towards that level of endurance. But, since these things are so hard to tell genetically, we might as well develop the strategy that's going to help you to play your best and the longest for you as possible. But then, that number one rule is the most important. If you're feeling pain when you play, it means you're doing something wrong. Right? Like anything else. It doesn't mean that you're building muscle. It doesn't mean that you're working the right things. No. It doesn't mean that at all. It really means that you need to address whatever it is that's causing the problem and please tell your teacher. And your teacher will help you through this thing.

So, anyway, this has been Joseph Mendoes with Hope you've enjoyed this video. Please leave comments down below and I'll see you next time. Bye, bye.
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User Comments and Questions

Comments, Questions, Requests:

Kyra Harmon on October 4, 2017 @7:37 am PST
My pain is in the upper left side, between the neck and the shoulder. I was playing on a 4/4 cello and then took a 3 week break, went back to it and its back, so i played my son's 3/4 cello and it didnt hurt for a week, so i traded my 4/4 for a 3/4 and now it starting to hurt again. (i'm only 5'0 tall). I'm about to abandon playing. :(
Joseph - host, on October 4, 2017 @12:56 pm PST
Hello Kyra,

I have some ideas as to the cause, but in order to be sure I would need to see you play. There maybe something in your set up that we need to correct, such as an overly long endpin, or a different sitting position. Really, without seeing you it is difficult to say. But I am sure there is a solution , so don't give up quite yet! Would you be interested in an online lesson? I would then be able to see your position and potentially diagnose the problem.

Please let me know,

Sebastian Delgado on April 29, 2017 @10:28 pm PST
Hi there is something i have been woried about for about a month i've been feeling pain in the lower part of my back and my teacher didnt gave me an explanation about this problem i've been playing cello for about 3 years and i've had some pain in my back before but there where some problems that my teacher solved and I'am really worried about it because is the first problem that really is making me play less cello
Joseph - host, on May 1, 2017 @1:24 pm PST
Hi Sebastian, sorry to hear about your back pain, many cellists suffer from it and it is too bad because it is easily avoided! Typical lower back pain comes from how you sit. The common approach to sitting with the cello is to place your feet more in front of you. This usually causes your hips to roll back which puts a lot of strain on your lower back muscles, as well as sometimes causing you to hunch your shoulders. I advocate sitting in such a way so that your knees are always slightly below your hips. This naturally causes your your hips to roll forward which greatly improves your posture. You can make your knees lower by sitting with your feet a little further back, more underneath you, and sitting on the front edge of the chair. Your feet will probably not be flat on the floor, probably you will be more on the balls of your feet, like an athlete ready to move at any moment. Starker sat like this, and while I don't agree with much of what he taught, he was totally right about this!

James Kauffman * VSM MEMBER * on July 3, 2015 @10:21 am PST
Hi, thank you for the information regarding preventing injuries while playing the cello. In your opinion, what is a player doing wrong if he or she is experiencing tendon pain in the thumb and upper forearm?

Joseph - host, on July 3, 2015 @6:23 pm PST
Hello Jim,

I am sorry to here about your problem, I know these things can be very frustrating. However to help you I need to know which hand/arm is experiencing the pain, and what type of pain is it, is it a sharp/temporary or a more constant, muted/burning kind of pain.

James Kauffman * VSM MEMBER * on July 4, 2015 @10:52 am PST

Thank you for the response, and I apologies for not being more specific. It is the left hand/arm that are a problem. The pain is a dull burning sensation that varies in intensity depending on how long I practice. If I keep my practice of the cello under a half hour, the pain is minimal. However, when I practice for 60 to 90 minutes, my hand/arm become very sore. By the way, I'm almost 60 years old so it may just be age that is catching up with me. :-)

I seem to require a lot of pressure on to make the notes sound clear (almost a death-grip). My cello is an inexpensive student model. I've observed how other players (with better cellos) seem to effortlessly press their strings and obtain a clear crisp notes.

Joseph - host, on July 6, 2015 @6:05 pm PST
Hi James,

Thanks for the details, I think I know what is causing your problem.

First of all, I would limit your practicing in duration, not in total amount for the day. Try practicing for 20 minute intervals, with 5-10 minute breaks. This will help tremendously with your inflammation, with the added benefit of focusing your mind more on musical matters rather than pain related issues. Secondly, you need to look at your string depression technique. It sounds like you are using excessive counter pressure from your thumb when you are pressing the string down. I would like you to focus on two things; practice with no thumb, allowing the thumb to hover underneath the neck, and make sure your left elbow is not too low. Practicing thumb-free will be awkward at first, but as you get used to it you should feel that there is overall less tension in your hand (one quick side-note; when practicing without the thumb, it can be helpful to play pizzicato to ensure that the string is all the way down against the fingerboard, as it is harder to tell if you are playing arco. This should ensure you get the clarity you desire while maintaining a free left hand.) The height of the elbow is also critical. If the elbow is to low, the wrist can start to bend in a way that will not allow the tendons to pass freely through the cartilage tubes that run through the wrist. Raising the elbow should automatically bring the wrist into the proper position, but if it does not, there is one more trick. Raise your arm to your side so it is parallel to the floor, then make a fist. The resulting wrist angle should be the one that is the most comfortable for you to use when playing.

I really hope this helps you, if you are still experiencing problems after doing these things for a few weeks then do not hesitate to write back, because there are other potential causes of this kind of problem. However for you it sounds like a combination of overuse and inefficient string depression technique. Let me know how it goes!

Best wishes,

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