After a friend asked me for some tips, having developed back pain through playing the accordion, I decided that it might be useful to write a short blog so that this information is out in the public domain for others to find, hoping that it might be a helpful little resource. Exasperatingly, I was unable to stop myself from getting carried away and ended up writing a rather lengthy, in-depth article. Instead of posting that in one humongous, unapproachable lump, I thought that it might be a good idea to divide it into more manageable chunks, so here goes…
Those that know me well may know that I've had chronic pain for a long time and this is partially due to, or at least exacerbated by, the instrument that I play. Playing the accordion and experiencing back pain is far from an uncommon combination and whilst the same allegations could be leveled at the vast majority of musical instruments, I feel that accordionists have fewer helpful resources to lean on especially when compared with musicians who play orchestral instruments.
Finding ways to enlarge the overlap on the Venn diagram between playing the accordion and being comfortable in my body has been costly, time consuming and frustrating. Whilst I certainly don't have all the answers and I can only comment on my experiences with my own body, I have been on this journey for a long time and I thought that I would share what I have learnt and what has worked for me.
I'm not trying to deter people from playing the accordion, I'm just providing some tools and knowledge that hopefully will be useful when it comes to both practice and performance. Sadly all instruments have the potential to damage us and that's true of most hobbies and lots of other activities too (I see you knitters, gamers and laptop users) but if you're not aware of possible flies in proverbial ointments, you can't take any steps to mitigate them. So this is intended as a guide to minimise the chance of pain when playing.
(Everything in these blogs represents my current understanding of how playing an accordion might affect your body. Information might be from books or papers or from conversations with health professionals like Physiotherapists, Doctors or Alexander Technique Specialists but it might just be something that I've gleaned from a YouTube video or someone's blog or something that I've extrapolated to make sense of our unique situation of playing the accordion. Subsequently, I've decided to ‘show my working’ (as it were) rather than laying this out as a fact sheet where how I've reached my conclusions is unclear. However, I'm not a natural academic, so don't expect a bibliography at the end or sources to be dotted throughout. If you spot an inaccuracy, let me know so that I can amend it.)
I am not a health professional, use these blogs as jumping-off point to go and do your own research. If something doesn't feel comfortable then don't do it!
Prevention is the Best Cure
Probably the least helpful thing to hear when you have developed back pain is that you should have been doing something differently all this time. Unless you just happen to have stumbled onto this page, chances are that you've already come into difficulty and you've found this in an "accordion pain" Google rabbit hole. Having been in that situation, I know how frustrating it can be to hear that ‘prevention is the best cure’, but learning about how your body is affected by playing the accordion and making some of the changes I suggest may help to alleviate some pain.
On the off chance that you're not experiencing discomfort, this is still for you so please read on.
Increasing your understanding of how playing an accordion affects your body and getting into good habits now should reduce the chance of problems developing in future. Who knows, it may even improve your playing!
The Balancing Act
Whilst our bodies develop dominant hands and dominant feet fairly early on, they don't stop learning habits that bias one side over the other. This often happens without us even noticing, but that is what makes it hazardous. (For a quick practical demonstration, cross your arms. Before you did it, you probably wouldn't have been able to tell me which arm would end up on top but this is the way you always cross your arms.)
Almost every musical instrument encourages asymmetry
This is a problem because working your muscles asymmetrically isn't a healthy long term strategy and if we're not aware of our imbalances then we're vulnerable to them doing us harm. This is relevant because pretty much every musical instrument encourages asymmetry and this is particularly true of the accordion.
Accordions tend to be pretty heavy beasties. The heavier an instrument is, the more exaggerated this asymmetrical effect is. A casual observer might think that all of that weight rests squarely and evenly on your shoulders but as any accordionist can attest, it doesn't. When adjusting our shoulder straps, we're striking a compromise between balancing the weight of the main body of the accordion evenly across the shoulders and positioning the keyboard in an ergonomic place to play (i.e. offsetting to the left)
A lighter accordion is not a silver bullet
One solution is getting a lighter accordion but this is unaffordable or unfeasible for many. I have seen accordion stands for sale on the web but I've never seen one in the wild and frankly I've never seen the appeal even when I had to take time off playing. Such a stationary playing position doesn’t suit my playing style and it presents its own problems in terms of static muscle fatigue that I will cover later on. If you have the means to get a lighter instrument (and you're happy to sacrifice some range and bass buttons) then by all means go for it, but it’s not a silver bullet because the weight will still be unequally distributed.
When considering the effect that an accordion has on your body, I think that it helps to stop thinking of it as a musical instrument and just a heap of random objects instead. So let’s start by picturing a rucksack. To represent an accordion, it needs to be heavy so you put some bricks in the main compartment. Next, adjust the straps, make sure the right one is much shorter than the left (wait for it). Right, now put it on, no not on your back! This rucksack needs to go on your front, now it’s the left strap that is short and that pulls the whole thing over to the left.
Ok so you've got your rucksack with half a dozen bricks in it, the straps are different lengths and you have to wear it on your front instead of your back, it doesn't sound very comfortable does it? But then someone sidles over and gives you a typewriter to deadlift with your left hand, welcome to playing the accordion.
Put in these terms, I think it’s easy to see some of the ways an accordion isn’t ergonomic.