Since high school, back in the late 1990s, I played with a neck strap to take the weight of the clarinet off my thumb. About year ago I was able to get rid of this aid, which has enabled more freedom in my playing.
Because of my background in dance and gymnastics I have been exploring different physical movements that anyone can do. This has helped me strengthen the muscles needed to support my instrument in the best possible way. Here are three moves that have been a huge help!
1. “Port de bras” exercise
Don’t worry. This is a lot easier than it sounds, and is best done with a mirror. Start with your arms relaxed and by your sides. Keep your shoulders pressed down at all times. Slowly bring your arms up in front of your body, and keep them rounded like you are holding a large beach ball. Keep raising the arms until they are above your head, but not behind it. The best way to do this is use your peripheral vision, you should be able to see your pinky fingers above your head without having to look up. Check your shoulders. Did they raise? If so, lower them and think about having a long neck. Now open the arms to your sides and keep them round and slightly in front. Finally squeeze them back together as if you are hugging that beach ball again. Keep the shoulders down and back.
Repeat this exercise with a feeling of resistance, as if you were in a swimming pool filled with pudding. On the third time through, once you round the arms, bring them to your playing position. Did you notice any change in your posture? Are your chest and shoulders more open and relaxed? The fourth time through, transition to a reverse playing position as if you are that bad stock photo with the left hand supporting the instrument and the right hand above. Is there a difference between the two sides? If you supported the instrument with your left hand, does it feel more relaxed? Can you transfer that feeling to the right side? Repeat the exercise two more times going through your playing position, and reverse playing position.
By keeping the shoulders down and back during this exercise, it will encourage us to utilize our larger muscles in the back to help support the clarinet, transferring the weight away from the thumb, the elbow, the shoulder, and into our strongest support structure, our back.
2. “Wrist fishies”
I know this one sounds weird too, but it feels good and is very simple. Put your palms together and interlace your fingers. Now relax your hands, pressing the heels of your hands together begin to slowly roll the writsts right over left, and then left over right. In gymnastics we would say we were fishes going for a swim, and the kids would create a narrative. If we saw a shark we would swim faster. If we saw our friends we might swim slower. If we were exploring a shipwreck we may swim backwards. Play with these ideas. The rolling of the wrists will help create a feeling of flexibility and support. Fluid will lubricate not just the wrists, but also our elbows. Do this exercise until you feel a warming in the forearms. Keep the wrists relaxed at all times. Gymnasts warm up their wrists and we should too!
3. “Dynamic finger stretch”
This one truly is magical. A recent trend among professional athletes is dynamic stretching. The concept is stretching through movement, which will not only engage, but also elongate the muscle. Tony Horton says, “Activate, then elongate.” Utilizing this concept, I have applied this to my fingers, enabling more strength and flexibility in my hands while playing.
Sit down, and place your right hand on your thigh. Sometimes I place my hand on the same, or opposite thigh. This provides a different stretch. Experiment with this and find out which one you prefer. Use your left hand and grab the knuckle of the thumb. Lift up until you feel it engage and then give one more slight pull to elongate. Release the thumb and let the finger drop. Do this five to six times. Then move on to the index finger. Always grab the first knuckle away from the hand. Try to keep the fingers curved and relaxed while going through this stretch. Stretch all the fingers on the right hand. Now flip your hands over, so your palms are facing up. What do you notice? Is one hand more open and relaxed than the other? Now line up your hands, palms facing each other and spread your fingers. Do the fingers of the stretched hand extend further than the other hand? Now stretch the opposite hand, remember to “activate then elongate,” with each finger.
Once finished enjoy these new sensations in the body, relaxed shoulders, supple yet supportive wrists, and fluid and relaxed fingers. Now pick up your instrument and work your normal warm up routine, long-tones, scales, and articulations. If you work these movements everyday you practice, you will be saying hello to healthy posture and playing habits, and goodbye to that neck strap in no time.