Caring for your hands
Occasionally I devote one of these lessons to some aspect of lute playing in general, rather than focusing on a specific piece of music. This time I’m looking at hands, which we often neglect unless and until problems arise. In my opinion this issue is particularly important for lutenists because so many start playing fairly late in life, often without regular tuition. The following information is aimed at preventing injury, and is common knowledge on the professional musicians’ circuit; however, it seems not to filter down to the beginners’ level where it is often most needed. I am not a medical practitioner of any description, so if you do have a hand injury or feel pain when you play I urge you to consult your doctor. Do not ignore it.
Let’s start with the absolute basics. It’s a good idea always to wash your hands before you play; this is much easier than cleaning a dirty lute, and much cheaper than replacing grimy strings. In addition, immersing your hands in hot water for a minute or two before you play is very effective at softening the skin, which improves both touch sensitivity and tone, and relaxing the muscles of the hands, which aids flexibility. You’ll get the most benefit from this if you immerse your hands over the wrists, not just your fingers. Soap and water can be quite drying to the skin, though, so avoid harsh soaps and use an effective hand cream on a regular basis to keep the skin in good condition. This does not have to be an expensive brand; the active ingredient in most hand creams is lanolin, which can be bought in plain inexpensive form from a pharmacist. Whatever you choose, make sure that it is thoroughly absorbed into the skin before you play, to avoid greasy residue on your lute. I prefer to use a fairly heavy plain cream on the whole hands on a regular basis, and I keep a small tube of much lighter, less greasy cream in my work bag so I can put a tiny bit of this on my fingertips if necessary when I’m playing. These very simple things can have a surprisingly dramatic effect on how your hands feel when you play.
Try to avoid playing with cold hands; cold muscles work more slowly and less efficiently, and are much more vulnerable to injury. For those who play concerts this is often impossible, because so many concert venues are freezing in the winter, but try to keep your practice area at a comfortable temperature. If you do have to play in cold places dress warmly, use wrist warmers, and try to have a hand warmer of some kind available so you can warm your hands between pieces or during rests.
A physical warm-up is as important to musicians as it is to athletes. Before you start to play spend a few minutes stretching and flexing your shoulders, your arms and both hands. Hand massage tools can also be a very pleasant and effective way of relaxing and loosening the hands; several different kinds are available. I find that the corrugated tubular kind are particularly good when rolled between the palms of the hands. Chinese balls are also effective, though they need some practice to use.
Lute-playing can work several different sets of muscles quite hard. In the fretting hand, the muscles which close the hand, those which enable small intricate movements in the fingers, and especially the muscles supporting the thumb are the ones most likely to get tired. In the plucking hand the muscles which allow you to stretch your hand out can tire if you are constantly working at the limit of your reach, which is common on baroque lute, archlute or theorbo. The entire hands should be warmed up gently by fully opening and closing them several times, spreading the fingers, massaging each finger, and massaging the palms of the hands, especially the muscles at the base of the thumb and those on the little-finger side of the palm. (Technically these are called the thenar eminence and the hypothenar eminence respectively, and they are the places where you’re most likely to feel discomfort if you do too much barré practice or stretch too much with your little finger.) All of this warming up can be done away from the lute; you can effectively combine these exercises with full-body stretches to get yourself loosened up and ready to play.
Nails on both hands need careful trimming irrespective of whether you pluck with them or not. Good quality nail clippers will cut the nails cleanly and accurately, whereas cheap ones will often just chew the nail and may catch flesh. It’s fairly impossible to sharpen them, so they will need to be replaced occasionally. If you prefer to use scissors they should be dedicated nail scissors with curved blades, and they must be sharp. Glass files are kinder to the nails than metal ones, and are very good for tidying up corners. If you actually pluck with your nails you’ll need some fine polishing papers too. Although these points may sound obvious, I have often observed students struggling to stop chords cleanly when the main problem is over-long nails on the stopping hand.
When you’re actually playing your lute, try to develop good habits of hand use so that you don’t strain muscles. Never use more than the minimum pressure required to fret a note cleanly. The further you are from the fret, the harder you will have to press, so aim for precision rather than brute force. If you get sore fingertips on your fretting hand, this can be a clear indication that you’re fretting too hard. Be careful that you don’t automatically fret harder if you play a bit louder; it doesn’t achieve anything except a more tired hand. Don’t waste a barré by covering more strings than you need; many players automatically put a barré over 6 courses, even if the context only calls only for 3 or 4. If a big stretch is called for, try to spread the stretch across your whole hand; often you can reach back with your index finger and forward with your little finger at the same time, rather than keeping the index finger in line with its fret and making your little finger do all the work. Keeping your frets in good condition and replacing them regularly can also significantly reduce the amount of pressure you need to get a clean note. If you are working on something which is challenging for your hands’ stamina, break your practice session down into several shorter sessions, or alternate work on the challenging parts with something quite different. For example, if you’re learning a piece full of barré chords, give your fretting hand regular breaks and practise something else, like working on your tone or your plucking-hand speed.
If you overdo your practice and find that some muscle is hurting, STOP and rest your hands. If you are feeling just a little muscle discomfort, immersing your hands alternately in hot and cold water can help significantly. The temperatures should be as extreme as you can comfortably tolerate, and something like 1 minute in cold water alternating with 3-4 minutes in hot seems to work well for most people. If there is swelling finish with cold water; if there is no swelling finish with hot. If you have muscular pain in your forearm from playing too much, the same water treatment can help, but the arm will need to be immersed to the elbow.
All of these measures to minimise stress on the hands are particularly important if you have any hand problems such as rheumatism, arthritis or Dupuytren’s contracture; all are quite common in mature beginners, the last more commonly in men. If you are affected by any of these conditions, the good news is that the lute’s demands on one’s hands are much lighter than those of many other instruments. Follow your doctor’s advice for your condition, and be particularly vigilant about getting and keeping your instrument in optimum condition, and making ergonomic use of your hands. There is lute repertory suitable for almost all physical limitations, even if your condition does not allow you to stretch over 4 frets, use a full barré, or play elaborate chord shapes.