The Free-Reed Journal
Articles and Essays Featuring Classical Free-Reed Instruments and Performers

The Accordion: A Back Breaker

Part Two: Warm Up Before You Play!!

Stretch Before You Squeeze. . .

by John Bonica, L.P.T., N.Z.R.P.

This is the second in a series of future articles about protecting your body from potential injury and unnecessary stress while playing or practicing your accordion. Many books are written on sports injury and its prevention. We believe this is the first time in the history of the accordion that preventing ''accordionitis'' has been addressed from a medical/biomechanical stand point. The author has 28 years of clinical experience in treating and preventing spinal and bodily injury. He has also played accordion for 35 years. His focus in his clinical medical experience is on the specific potential injury problems we accordionists face and will in the next several issues address all aspects of injury prevention and self treatment so that we can all have long pain free playing careers. Editor.

In my first article a few issues back I discussed how not to hurt yourself while playing your accordion. I covered in broad and general terms a number of concepts and tips which we never consciously think about, but need to be aware of so as to prevent hurting ourselves. When we're having fun, we don't heed our bodies. That's when we get hurt! Most injuries that we sustain sneak up on us slowly and unobtrusively. Naturally we tend to ignore the warning signs because they don't hinder us or cramp our style. Besides we 're having FUN. Playing the accordion is not work. If we were at work we'd notice the warning signals much sooner.

Our bodies are wonderful things. They convey to us via the brain, pleasure, temperature, touch, pressure and PAIN. Most of us do not listen adequately to our bodies' messages and consequently run into difficulties which might have been avoided if we had paid attention to early warning signals.

This issue I want to address the subject of adequate warm-up preparation prior to practice or playing, for fingers, wrists, forearms and shoulders. We will in the future discuss the neck and back as separate issues, but at this point remember the old song "the neck bone's connected to the - knee bone", and keep in mind that the song's message is valid - one part of the body affects all the rest in some way and the right way is to be totally aware of the whole body.

First a little basic anatomy and physiology. (don't go to sleep now!) We accordionists rely on our brain sending messages to the muscles of our fingers, wrists and forearms of both arms primarily, to selectively and repetitively press down keys or buttons while moving freely and constantly over both keyboards using different pressures and dynamic actions simultaneously. No small feat! All this takes place while we continuously alter the distance between our arms as we open and close the bellows. No instrumentalist playing any musical apparatus works under this sort of mechanical disadvantage! Our instrument is constantly changing shape (wrestling alligators! - just watch Dick Contino!) giving us perhaps the greatest physical challenge of any instrument in the orchestra. So we have to prepare ourselves for the encounter.

To do the job we need to bring into play (no pun intended) muscles and ligaments primarily, and capsular ligaments (the thick ligament surrounding every joint in our bodies). Muscles require oxygen to function, which is conveyed via the blood supply by way of arteries and arterioles (little arteries). If we don't give the muscle enough oxygen, then the waste products (metabolites) will remain in the muscle and cause the pain we have all felt the day after performing unaccustomed exercise. If we don't use our muscles (be they leg muscles, vocal cords or forearm/finger muscles) the blood supply is reduced because it is not being utilized regularly, causing the blood vessels to shrink down. The ligaments however respond to non-use by tightening up, causing a loss of flexibility and in some cases aching in the fingers, wrist, elbow, and even shoulder. So often we blame good old "arther" (Arthritis) for our aches and pains in the extremities when really it is merely ligament tightness, poor blood supply to the muscles and lack of range of motion!

So don't give up because you feel stiff and achy - get to sketch out and exercise and you will be amazed at how your "arthritis" disappears!

Remember, there is a lot of myth and mysticism surrounding "arthritis". First off, except in rare instances of Rheumatoid arthritis (a severe crippling blood born disease which destroys joints by an inflammatory process) the pain you feel in fingers, wrists and elbows is not "arthritis". More correctly it is labelled arthrosis, a non inflammatory ''cold'' slow degenerative process which affects mainly weight bearing joints like the hips, knees and of course, the spine. Bone has no nerve supply and therefore is painless in itself, but the covering of the bone (periosteum) is very sensitive.

The point of all this is that just because you feel stiffness and aching in wrist fingers and elbows as you get older, don't feel you are getting past managing your accordion. This kind of pain and stiffness can be overcome by diligent stretch and exercise without going to gyms or spending anything on expensive equipment. I n the absence of actual joint destruction (i.e., fracture) a joint will function without pain provided it has an adequate range of motion without compression, ligament tightness or muscle tension over the joint. Prevention is worth a thousand cures!

Here are some basic stretches and exercises you should perform before playing or practicing to ensure good function, maximum efficiency and to minimize risk of injury. Doing these regularly will improve your practice efficiency and your technique. Take the time to do them - a few minutes before you pick up your accordion is all that is necessary but the rewards are great.

Remember - stretch slowly and repetitively (4 or 5 times for each stretch). Ligaments only respond to slow stretch.

1. Begin by washing your hands in hot water, drying them thoroughly.

2. Pull each finger gently but firmly in turn, gripping the whole finger with the opposite hand. (Don't forget the thumb).

3. Slowly but firmly stretch the web of the hand between thumb and 1st finger of both hands.

4. Interlock all fingers and loosely but rapidly oscillate wrists alternately. Stay relaxed!

5. Using thumb placed over the knuckle, stretch each finger backwards (Hyper-extend) several times.

, 6. Stretch strongly at the elbow with one hand supporting the back of the elbow. Try to make your arm straight. In this position, turn the palm up and down to stretch the forearm muscles several times.

7. Lastly, with hands by your sides, shake fingers and wrists rapidly and loosely while shrugging the shoulders up and down for 10 to 15 seconds.

There are lots of variations on the theme, so add a few to the above and see how the mysterious aches and pains will disappear. Remember, do nothing that causes sharp pain. Little and often, slow and gentle does the trick.

Next issue I will deal with another aspect of safe, pain free playing.

Reprinted from Accordion World, (Portland, Oregon: Spring 1991). Used with permission.

The Classical Free-Reed, Inc. staff gratefully acknowledges volunteer Terry Knight who assisted in the production of this article.

About the Author

John Bonica, L.P.T., N.Z.R.P., is the founder of Pacific Spinal and Orthopaedic Manual Therapy Clinic, a subsidiary of Rockwood Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Clinic, P.C., located in Portland, Oregon, USA.

Born in New Zealand in 1942 of Italian parents, he grew up in a musical family in which his grandfather played accordion. Mr. Bonica played drums, percussion, flugelhorn, bugle and string bass before turning to the accordion at age 15. He taught himself by ear and learned the Chopin "Minute Waltz" by listening to a recording by Charles Magnante.

After some time, he realized the limitations of playing only by ear, so he taught himself how to read music so he could enter competitions. He won the New Zealand Championship several years in the duet, trio and quartet divisions. He won second place at the New Zealand Open in 1978 in the solo division.

Mr. Bonica emigrated to the United States in 1980 to teach spinal specialists and continue his practice of spinal therapy. He has recorded four CDs of Italian and European folk music utilizing a MIDI orchestra ensemble. Other activities include writing and publishing (he was editor and publisher for Accordion World magazine from 1989 until 1994), sailing and photography.

Part Three: Oh, My Aching Neck and Back!!!
Preventing the Pain that Playing Can Cause. . .

by John Bonica, L.P.T., N.Z.R.P.
Part Four: Is Your Wrist Slowing Down Your Fingers?
An Anatomical Discussion of the correct Wrist, Elbow and Shoulder Position for the Treble Keyboard

by John Bonica, L.P.T., N.Z.R.P.
Part Five: Oh, My Aching Neck and Shoulders!
An Exercise Program That May Help!

by John Bonica, L.P.T., N.Z.R.P.
Part Six: Special Instructions for Low Back Patients
by John Bonica, L.P.T., N.Z.R.P.
Part Seven: The Great Accordion Myth!
Is Lighter Really Better?

by John Bonica, L.P.T., N.Z.R.P.

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