How can you find a way to play guitar after you've injured yourself on the instrument? This article reviews three books that give a much more nuanced and in-depth explanation of proper Classical Guitar technique. Two of the three suffered injuries that suspended their careers for years; these two authors found incredible insight into their playing mechanism and were able to return to the stage. Their successful healing, and the success of those who study with them, is a testament to the ability to refine technique to overcome tendonitis, focal dystonia, and other injuries.
Note that, while there are medical professionals who specialize in hand therapy (more on that below), it is quite difficult to find medical professionals who specialize in treating musicians. This is for one reason, although it's cause is rather insightful. The vast majority of professional musicians have found safe ways to practice and do not injure themselves. After all, if they were routinely injured, their careers would suffer. The vast majority of musicians who do injure themselves are students. And, like most things with students, there's not a whole lot of money that can be made there.
Here are few books that will hopefully help you regain your abilities as quickly as possible, with more information on Certified Hand Therapists at the end of the article.
Disarticulation Method: Lute Society of America Journals 47-50
I had the good fortune of stumbling into Pat O'Brien's studio through sheer dumb-luck. Pat had had a very, very serious bout of tendonitis as a younger player and, after two years of incredible pain (he would wake up at night from the pain) and self-study, found a way of playing that allowed him to return to concertizing. Through the guitar grapevine, word of his ability to help injured players spread across the country. His techniques were able to help students who had conditions as varied as tendonitis and focal dystonia. Eventually, word of his work spread, and you can see him quoted at length in "The Hand" by Dr. Frank Wallace. Some of his ideas are also presented in Madeline Bruser "The Art of Practicing."
Most of Pat's ideas have yet to reach the mainstream teaching community, in part due to their unconventional nature. Additionally, many people have misunderstood some fundamental tenets of Pat's technique. However, Pat's understanding of anatomy was unrivaled in the guitar world. His exercise always came with a firm grounding and clear explanation of the hand and upper limb's functional anatomy.
I suspect Pat relished in his outsider status and knew that genuinely helping people required teaching everyone as an individual. He never wrote a method book, only going so far as to make a few video recordings for students. Unfortunately, Pat died suddenly in 2014. For many years, Pat was a towering figure in the lute world. The Lute Society of the Americas dedicated four issues to Pat's teaching; it is the best record of his teachings. Fortunately, many of the contributors had recorded their lessons with Pat, and there is much overlap between the issues. This overlap will allow you to fill in some of the gaps by comparing and contrasting the different explanations and exercises that Pat gave to different students.
If you find Pat's Disarticulation Method useful, please consider donating to the Lute Society of America in his memory.
Playing with Ease
Leisner is one of the most famous guitarists to recover from a debilitating injury, and this is likely due to the level of success he had before his struggles. As one of the quartet of prize winners from the famous 1975 Toronto International Guitar Festival, he began a promising career. Nine years later, his struggles with focal dystonia started, and, before long, he retired from the stage.
Like Pat, Leisner struggled to find helpful medical professionals but successfully healed himself after years of careful study of his body. Leisner focuses first on the large muscles, making sure that his student's head, shoulders, torso, and legs are well-aligned, before diving into the nuances of how the arms and fingers work. Where Pat O'Brien says that you must distribute the work of playing the guitar through many joints, Leisner emphasizes playing with the large muscles. I think this is one point where the two teachers agree but use different language to explain their ideas.
Throughout Leisner's book, he provides numerous pictures, clear instructions, online video supplements, and simple exercises that you can use to understand and develop the concepts he presents. I find these exercises to be extremely useful in identifying and eliminating tension in my playing.
Leisner's book begins by explaining anatomy and his principles for correct movement. This chapter covers the material you'll see in basic method books like the Shearer Method and extends into essential anatomical concepts covered in all 3 of the resources on this list. After you've understood these principles, Leisner's book guides you into the proper posture in minute detail, giving specific instructions on relaxation and posture on often-overlooked tension areas such as the jaw and tongue.
Leisner then dedicates two chapters to the right and left-hand mechanics, focusing on each part of the hand (thumb, fingers, palm, wrist). He also explains when you need to override his general guidance (i.e., fingers are not instantly released during tremolo). The chapter on left-hand mechanics dives into vibrato, barres, and shifts.
Once the basic mechanics and positioning are understood, Leisner shares exercise to help you discover how to play with your large muscles. For example, he emphasizes the sensation of gravity pulling your hand down ("falling") as the primary sensation in right-hand thumb technique and "falling up" as the sensation of plucking with the fingers. "Falling up" uses a muscle in front of your armpit. Activating this muscle can lessen the burden and fatigue on the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the hand. As always, he gives exercises and online videos to help you understand his aims.
The book concludes with helpful sections on Leisner's approach to practice and preparing for concerts. I think that they're a valuable contribution to discussions and ideas about how to practice; reading them alongside other excellent materials on improving practice efficiency will benefit you.
Iznoala's book is the most comprehensive book on guitar anatomy and technique. That being said, this isn't a book for beginners or even intermediate players! The aim of this book is entirely different than the O'Brien lectures or Playing With Ease. To my knowledge, Iznaola never experienced a debilitating injury, so this book isn't his unique perspective on how to develop a healthy and sustainable technique. Instead, Iznaola presents a comprehensive and well-sourced book that is far more academic in prose than the other books on this list. His opinions and concepts are certainly given weight; however, he also talks about the repercussions of subtle differences in technique that are required due to anatomical differences between players (tall vs. short, long vs. short fingers). He also includes anatomical analysis of some of these differences.
This book comes with a DVD that clarifies the anatomical movements and many of Iznaola's unique ideas and frameworks regarding performance. While I find the DVD useful, I wish it spent less time clarifying universal anatomical language, as this information is not difficult to find in other sources. While Iznaola does discuss some normal variations in technique, I would have preferred if Iznaola had spent more time on these sorts of variations and less time spent on general anatomical terms (as these can be found elsewhere).
Because this book is so well-sourced and contains a ton of conceptual information, it can help you precisely understand what is happening anatomically in these players. However, the book is so chock-full of these subtle variations that a passing familiarity with some of them helps digest the contents. For example, Iznaola dedicates a small section of the book to the Flexor Digitorum Profundus and the importance of developing a "padded" stroke to increase independence. This muscle and the "padded" stroke is precisely what Pat O'Brien talks about in his lectures. While the book doesn't waste words, all explanations of technique are done purely in anatomical terms. The text is very dense, and it is sometimes difficult to know if you've completely understood the author.
This book is one to study and read with your guitar nearby; you'll often find the need to grab your guitar and test out what he's saying to ensure you understand the concepts. You won't get much out of this as a casual reader. However, the reward is a thorough understanding of how the human body and the guitar interact.
My Cubital Tunnel Syndrome Resolution
This short, simple fix is just for anyone who may stumble on this page looking for solutions to their cubital tunnel symptoms. I began to get a tingling in the left pinky-side of the hand a few years ago. After some research online, I realize that I spent much of my day with my elbows somewhat bent. The key realization was that I also spent much of the night doing the same; I tended to tuck my hands under my pillow as I slept.
I broke myself of this habit by improvising an elbow brace for a few weeks. I did this by wrapping a towel around my elbow and fastening it there (I used two cam straps I had lying around).
The tingling quickly went away and hasn't returned since.
See A medical Professional
Most adults are unaware that there are medical professionals who specialize in hand therapy. In fact, I only know this because my wife is one of them!
Certified Hand Therapists are trained as physical therapists or, more commonly, occupational therapists. After their primary training, many undergo a fellowship with specific hand therapy training. Working closely with hand surgeons, they work on all issues from the shoulder to the fingertips. All Certified Hand Therapists have taken and passed the rigorous and difficult Certified Hand Therapist Exam.
If your issue is urgent or you do not find a solution in these books, I strongly suggest you find a hand therapist to work with.
Have you had an injury on the guitar? What have you tried to heal yourself? Has any of it worked? Let me know in the comments below.