Learning how to use my body in drumming and in life

I had the opportunity of studying Alexander technique at ACAT (American Center for the Alexander Technique) for one year. Alexander technique, developed by F.M. Alexander, is an educational process that teaches a set of skills for managing one’s mind and body towards the direction of lightness, freedom and ease.

I first learned about the technique while studying at The Drummer’s Collective in 2001. One of The Collective’s administrators (Sandra Reid) was an Alexander Teacher. During my first lesson Sandra guided me through an Alexander lie down called “Constructive rest.” This self-help tool involves lying down on a firm surface with knees elevated, feet flat on the floor, and some books or magazines under the head.  This position promotes functional spinal alignment and creates an opportunity to release tension.  It’s also a good moment to focus on your breath and observe small movements while experiencing good body use. Suffice it to say my body desperately needed this.

After my initial lesson, I continued Alexander work on and off for fifteen years. Most of my early lessons were based around sitting and standing up from a chair. The chair is an Alexander tool that is used to re-educate the body’s movement patterns. My body learned new patterns for sitting, standing and being in a chair.  As a drummer and heavy computer user, this was extremely useful for me.

In 2016 I got into an unfortunate car wreck. I was lucky to have escaped without any permanent body damage but I did have nine bone fractures, soft tissue damage, and severe whiplash. I decided to take my AT practice more seriously and enrolled in the health and well-being program at ACAT in New York City.

This intensive style of study gave me an opportunity to practice and study Alexander Technique with master teachers for up to sixteen hours per week. The program also gave me a new perspective towards my drum teaching.

As private music teachers we have a ton of influence over our students (especially young beginners.) We tend to teach technique focusing only on the individual parts of the body. For example, most drum instructors teach stick technique from the hands and arms without considering the rest of the body. This specific viewpoint could be limiting for many reasons.  The Alexander approach would take a look at the whole individual and then use the technique to re-educate movements that are needed to play the instrument (without added muscular tension) thus educating the student’s kinesthetic sense. For this reason, I think it’s important for students to have Alexander Technique lessons along with learning their instrument. This combination will go a long way towards avoiding any repetitive muscle injuries further down the road.

I’ve been able to incorporate Alexander technique into my music lessons by observing my students and giving verbal suggestions. For example, if a student is engaging muscles that aren’t needed to execute a particular drum pattern I would first make them aware of what they are doing and then ask him or her to see if they could play the pattern a different way that doesn’t require as much tension.  I also utilize “Body mapping,” which is a developed modality that applies anatomy to help understand and improve movement. Many of my drum students improve their use after I explain how our bodies are built, where our joints are, and how our limbs and torsos can move more in alignment with this design. This new awareness could influence the way students use their bodies to drum which in time could inspire deeper exploration of their movements and kinesthetic sense.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Alexander Technique I recommend checking out Body Learning by Michael Gelb. This book explains what the Alexander Technique is as well as detailing some of the technique’s basic principals. I also recommend Back Trouble by Deborah Caplan for back pain and recovery.

NewGrip Wrist Support Wraps Review

David photo in woods
NewGrip is a family run business based in Portland, Oregon that started out developing gloves for weight lifting, crossfit, and rowing circa 1995. The gloves are a two part system including both hand pads and wrist supports, which can function together or separately.

Early on they found that they had a lot of customers who started using their wrist supports for daily activities like typing and gardening. The customers who really seemed to love the wrist supports were musicians and so they decided to expand their marketing for all the activities that people were using them for. I’m glad they did because a few years back when I was looking for relief for my carpal tunnel syndrome I found them online and they worked wonders for me.

Since then I’ve been mostly pain free until Jan 2nd of this year when my beautiful baby girl was born into this world. Between my daily activities of drumming, working on the computer and caring for my newborn baby, I experienced a painful carpal tunnel flare up in my right hand and wrist that negatively impacted my drumming.

So I started wearing my wrist supports as much as possible during the day and sometimes even at night. The supports had their work cut out since it seemed like every waking hour was spent utilizing the same muscles in my arms and especially my wrists. After two weeks I started feeling some relief and after four weeks I felt my playing was back to 100 percent.

NewGrip’s muscle and tendon support increases the blood flow to the wrists, which sends more oxygen and nutrients to the problem area. You can check out newgrip.com to find out more info about the the science behind it.

They are made in the USA which is great! I also must admit they look pretty handsome on the wrists! Kudos to a great company that has helped so many people!



10 Tips for Drummers with Repetitive Injuries

David O with NewGrip Wrist Supports

Playing drums is a physical challenge. The longer you play the greater the probability of developing a repetitive-strain related condition (RSI) or carpel tunnel syndrome (CTS) symptoms. These types of injuries are also called “overuse injuries” because they are the result of repetitive use and stress to the soft tissues (muscles, nerves, fascia, tendons and ligaments etc.) of the body without allowing proper time for recovery. Sometimes an acute injury (injury related to a single event) can lead to a RSI condition. These conditions are really stressful because they linger on and can wreck havoc on us mentally. Since I’ve been dealing with these conditions for the past decade, I’d like to share some insights on what I’ve learned over the years.

1. Rest and Ice Your Body
RICE is an acronym for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. It’s the go-to first aid treatment for acute-soft tissue injuries. However, for overuse injuries rest and ice can help the most. If you’re on tour, work towards keeping your days as restful as possible. Engage in low impact activities such as swimming, walking, and stretching. After the performance, ice the overused areas of the body such as the hands, wrists, and shoulders.

2. Play with Good Drumming Technique
If you haven’t yet studied the Moeller method, now would be a good time to get into it. Although the Moeller technique won’t cure an overuse issue on the spot, it’s great for preventing these types of injuries, as well as your overall playing. I recommend Jim Chapin’s DVD entitled Jim Chapin: Speed, Power, Control, Endurance. I also recommend switching to a thicker stick which can make it easier to play utilizing a looser and wider grip. If you’re playing any heavy style of music I recommend a thick stick like Vic Firth’s 5Bs. Also check out the SD10 Swinger drum sticks which have a nice thickness to them but are a lighter weight than the 5B.

3. Coordinate Your Body Movement
I started taking Alexander Technique lessons in 2008. It’s great for any musician but I think it’s especially helpful for drummers. Basically, this movement technique helps you become truly aware of your body habits and can reduce your tension areas. The bulk of the work involves reeducating yourself to move and perform activities with coordination and ease. The Alexander Technique also helps release tension while you are sitting, standing, or lying on the floor.  You can practice this technique along with drumming (it goes very well with Moeller technique) as well as incorporate it into everything you do. Private lessons with a certified teacher are the best way to get started; however, group classes can be more affordable and are popular for beginners.

4. Practice Yoga
I started practicing yoga shortly after I was diagnosed with CTS. After two months, the tingling and numbness in my hands disappeared. If you haven’t done yoga, I recommend finding a beginner level Iyengar class. Iyengar is a form of Hatha yoga that focuses on structural alignment along with the breath. If an Iyengar class isn’t accessible than find a traditional Hatha class that focuses on self-awareness (opposed to physical fitness). If you go to a class while having a CTS flare up, it’s best to modify some of the poses. Make sure to tell the instructor before the class starts what you are dealing with.  Check out this yoga journal article about healing CTS.

5. Get Adequate Sleep
Many of us don’t get enough sleep. Unfortunately, lack of sleep is one of the major causes for repetitive injuries. Sleep helps the body repair tissues and rejuvenates the nervous system. Get to know your body and how much sleep it needs for you to have a full tank of gas before you start your day. The quality of your sleep is just as important. I’d rather get six hours of uninterrupted sleep than nine hours of turbulence. I found that good quality sleep is vital to managing any stress related condition.

6. Build Muscular Support
Once you’ve allowed yourself enough rest and low impact activities, it’s time to bring on the weights. It’s important to build some muscle support surrounding the chronically injured area. This helps circulation in the weakened area. The stronger muscles thus help support the whole area. However, it’s a balance and the trick is not to overdo it. Ease into it. Start with very light weights, low reps, and be attentive to your form and movement.

7. Stretch Before You Play
It’s common sense to always stretch before doing any strenuous activities. However, sometimes we forget–once we see drums our primal instincts take over and we are too excited to do anything except make noise. The good news is we don’t have to stretch immediately before playing to gain the benefits. I like to stretch at least an hour before a gig and then focus on keeping loose and warm right up to show time. I do a combination of yoga and hand stretches–getting into the stretch details would entail a separate post. For now, check out this samba drummer’s stretches if you need a few ideas: http://www.puppetista.org/drums/stretch.html

8. Integrate Supplements
There are many supplements that can help with CTS and RSI. I’ve researched and tried many supplements that are reported to help with either inflammation, neuropathy or both. Here’s what I’m currently taking:

There is a ton of information regarding all these supplements and their potential benefits and side effects. You can also find research papers from the NCBI regarding most of these supplements. In addition to your own research I recommend working with a professional doctor or healthcare professional that is familiar with integrative supplementation.

9. Eat Whole Foods That Can Reduce Inflammation and Avoid Nightshades
Since both CTS and RSI symptoms are caused by inflammation it makes sense to eat foods that can give you anti-inflammatory benefits (and stay away from foods that cause inflammation). Eating whole foods while avoiding anything processed is a great start. If you’re on tour, choose a supermarket over any type of fast food restaurant. If you have concerns about telling your band mates why you can’t eat at McDonald’s, (believe me I’ve been there) simply mention that you need full control over what you put into your body.

It’s taking me a while to change my diet but the results have certainly been worth it. I’ve slowly added more raw foods into my diet while reducing dairy and most forms of gluten. I also like to add whole foods and herbs that are well known to reduce inflammation. Avocado, ginger, basil, and willow bark have worked very well for me.

Dr. Linda Mundorff recommends reducing the consumption of alkaloid-containing fruits, vegetables, and spices (many in the nightshade family of plants) that may trigger inflammatory-related joint problems.

      • Tomatoes
      • White potatoes
      • Eggplant
      • Sweet and hot peppers
      • Pimentos
      • Paprika
      • Cayenne pepper

10. Be Patient 
Although I’m mentioning it last, it’s probably the most important tip in beating any lingering or repetitive injury. These type of injuries can be mentally draining because of the length of time they effect you. We get used to our bodies healing in a certain time frame. I was freaking out after six months of dealing with my right shoulder tendonitis. I started doubting my technique as well as my body’s ability to heal. It wasn’t until I accepted the condition and made a long term commitment to heal that I started making progress.

Musician Earplugs

Musician Earplugs with Etymotic Research Attenuators

Twelve years ago, I bought a pair of custom molded musician earplugs with Etymotic Research filters. I remember liking them a lot because they were comfortable and evenly reduced low, mid, and high frequencies. As luck would have it, I only wore them for a few years because I carelessly lost them after playing a show in upstate New York.

Since then I have tried every non-custom type of earplug. The foam plugs turned sound into mush. Hearos were a little better, but were not comfortable to wear for long periods of time. I’ve used in-ear monitors, which helped manage the sound. However, without that technology, I constantly found myself playing without ear protection during rehearsals and gigs.

A few months ago, I decided it was time to purchase another pair of custom musician earplugs. Since I was happy with my first pair of ER filters, I didn’t have to spend time researching what I wanted. However, I did have to decide between ordering a do-it-yourself “impression kit” for the ear molds or having professional audiologist do it.

I decided to go to an audiologist because I was also way overdue for a hearing test. It’s more expensive to go this route but Etymotic Research claims to get more accurate molds from the pros.

Ear Mold for Custom Fit Earplugs

Musicians Earplugs have interchangeable attenuator buttons that come in three levels–9db, 15db, and 25db. I went with the 9db and the 15db–both seem to cut down enough of the dangerous levels. If I’m singing and playing drums I need the 9db so I can hear myself better. For everything else I’ve been using the 15db. The molds plus the filters cost about $180 for the pair. Add another $40 if you want to get more than one pair of filters. If you’ve never wore them but are interested in getting a pair, then I recommend the 15db as a good baseline.

Here’s the link to their site: http://www.etymotic.com/hp/erme.html