The other day one of my ukulele students turned up to class wearing a brace on her left arm. “I’ve been getting a sore wrist,” she said. Uh-oh! She’s having a week off.
Music-related injury is much less of a problem with the ukulele than most instruments. But it’s still possible to get injuries from playing ukulele.
The ukulele is a lot easier on the hands, and on the human body in general, than many other musical instruments. In my experience, symphony orchestras are full of players with chronic music-related injuries.
A ukulele is smaller and lighter than a guitar. The strings are nylon, so you don’t have to build up calluses on your fingertips, and you don’t have to press as hard on the strings.
Also, most people are playing the ukulele for fun. We don’t have pressure to practice for hours for a high-profile performance or examination or audition.
Having said that, some people get aches and pains from playing ukulele. It’s important to look after your arms, wrists, fingers, shoulders – and the rest of you.
Playing for too long?
Sometimes we’re having such fun playing, that we forget the time and play for too long and possibly in an awkward posture.
Also, if we are generally stressed in other areas of life, this may create tension in the body, and this may result in sore fingers or a sore wrist or shoulder when we play ukulele.
Awareness helps. Youtube is a great resource, but when you’re playing along with online videos, it’s possible to disappear down the rabbit hole. Until you realise it’s 2am and your shoulder hurts because you’ve been playing in the same position for hours. If this happens to you, set a timer for half an hour so you’ll be reminded to change position. (Or log off and go to bed!)
Take it easy
When you go to ukulele sessions or music parties, plan to take it easy. Mix up the social and musical. Move around and don’t sit in one place for too long. This may seem obvious, but when you’re having a good time, you don’t notice aches and pains creeping in, until it’s too late. I know this from personal experience!
Beginners – little and often
Sometimes beginner players practice for longer than is comfortable. They’re loving it, and they’re keen to improve their playing. With most instruments (e.g. violin), students are expected to practice for long periods. But I don’t think this principle applies to adult ukulele players. In my experience, small and regular amounts of practice are enough to make progress.
As you get used to playing, you can gradually increase the amount of playing time. It’s important to stop before you start hurting. And if you do get sore, take it easy for a few days, and go back to playing for short periods.
Nine tips for pain-free ukulele
Here are some suggestions, based on my years of teaching and playing.
- Get curious about your playing position and do what you can to optimize it for your own unique needs. Ask your teacher for feedback.
Shift your left hand regularly as you play different chord shapes. Don’t play with your left hand frozen in one position.
2. If you’re turning the ukulele neck so you can see your fingers making chords, that’s a recipe for a sore wrist. Here’s a video where I demonstrate how to hold the ukulele.
3. Get in the habit of playing without looking at the frets as much as you can. Learn to play chords without looking. Start with C, F and G and move on from there. It’ll take a while, but it’s worth doing.
4. A shoulder strap will help hold the ukulele in position. That gives you the option of playing standing up. Many players find a shoulder strap helpful for playing while sitting too.
5. Use a music stand so you can read the music without having your neck at an awkward angle. Music stands cost $25 and upwards. An inexpensive stand is fine to start with.
6. Don’t play for too long, especially at first. Ten or fifteen minutes is plenty. Your playing will improve gradually over time. You can’t make it happen faster by practicing long hours.
7. Use a timer to remind yourself to stop.
8. Don’t sit in the same position for too long. Move around and play while sitting in different chairs. Stand up to play sometimes.
9. Bodywork: If (like me) you have a tendency for shoulder, neck or wrist tension, holistic practices such as pilates can be helpful. Some people prefer yoga or tai chi. Not to heal a specific injury, but to prevent injuries from developing, because you’ll be less tense and more balanced in general.
Other bodywork modalities that musicians find helpful for resolving injuries include the Alexander technique, osteopathy and Feldenkrais.
Ukulele and arthritis
Many people pick up a ukulele as adult learners. From the 50s onwards, arthritis can be an issue. I’ve seen people with mild arthritis in their hands learn to play ukulele with no problems. One woman commented to me that her arthritic fingers are less sore with the regular exercise of ukulele playing.
Others may have one or two stiff fingers that just can’t play in some positions. In that case there are usually options – e.g. different chord fingerings may work better.
Some players find specific finger exercises helpful. Ask your teacher about this.
Bigger and smaller ukuleles
Some adult players find it’s more comfortable to play a bigger ukulele, e.g. they start with a concert sized ukulele. But I know others who much prefer a small soprano ukulele. With ukuleles there’s no one size fits all. Try out a variety of sizes to see what you like best.
I know a few people who have pain problems with strumming. If the fingers of your strumming hand get sore, and your teacher can’t suggest a strumming technique that’s more comfortable, you may be better off playing with a pick. You’ll need a special ukulele pick. It’s soft, rather like a stiff piece of carpet. A standard guitar pick will make the ukulele too loud, and also it’ll wear out the strings faster.
And finally, be gentle on yourself. The ukulele is supposed to be fun, not painful.
Take it easy and play in the way that works for you.
Hi, I’m Alice
I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.
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