Sunday, November 1

Avoid Pain - My Own Ergonomic Thumb Rest

Très chers lecteurs francophones:
Je suis vraiment désolé, mais je n'ai juste pas le temps de rédiger dans les deux langes cette fois-ci. Je m'efforcerai pour le prochain coup!

This blog post, and the video it presents, are the result of observations and conclusions based on my own personal experience: they only intend to pass on my opinions in the hopes that they may inspire others to seek their own solutions with the help of health-care professionals. This blog post, and the video it presents, deal with a potential solution to the issue of prohibitive pain while playing the oboe and other instruments where the underlying problem follows the same physiognomic principles: the post and video DO NOT pretend to provide authoritative medical advice and visitors are encouraged to seek certified medical advice from registered health care professionals before using the information contained; all responsibility will fall on the person who makes any relevant decisions.

Fibromyalgia Update:

20151101_122220The first few years of this blog included more focus on my conditions of chronic pain and fatigue (fibromyalgia)... later I preferred to focus on my musical progress because it is more encouraging! Just to recall, fibromyalgia is a medical condition that affects the nervous system, causing persistent pain; the cause for this is not known and the diagnosis comes when medical science has ruled-out everything it would normally identify as a cause. No viral or bacterial disease, no cancer, no MS, no genetic or nervous disorder: nothing out of the ordinary and yet I can be in debilitating pain (literally) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 52 weeks a year - I have suffered this since the age of 32 and will likely have this for the rest of my life. In the past few years, Tai-Chi and Chi-Gong have proven very effective in fighting the condition - much more effective than medication in my case - thus making it possible for me to aim to very high goals on the oboe.

Learning to ring handbells under the excellent
tutelage of the amazing Stuart Belson
at Trinity Presbyterian Church

This year (2015) has been more difficult than the past few years, especially since the spring. I think this is due to extremes in weather patterns (very rapid changes) but also due to more involvement in musical activities, oboe and English handbells, which takes away from my time to train in Tai-Chi and Chi-Gong. Ironically, I have begun to take lessons from an advanced teacher, but the form I am learning (Old Yang Lu Chan) is very difficult and works muscles I never knew existed! So the adjustment period is long: it is less impactful now, but the first few months were gruelling.

Overall, the intensity of pain is much less than it was a few years ago; in other words, my legs, back and arms hurt less and I have become more capable of doing more strenuous work with less painful reaction afterwards. However, general muscle tension is higher all day, every day, especially in the shoulder and neck muscles. This is problematic with my computer job (too many hours seated and typing) exacerbate the inflammation in the trapezius which causes compression on cervical nerves, resulting in very painful headaches - I have not found any pills (over the counter or by prescription) that take away significant amount of pain.

Ironic pain sensitivity:

So my weekly headaches have returned. What is strange is that the actual intensity of pain is lesser (my headaches hurt less than before) but my tolerance for them has also decreased: so despite being better, it feels worse and I get more discouraged than before. I suppose this is just plain psychological exhaustion with the whole matter.

From violin technique to oboe freedom.

=> You know what? This just means I enjoy practising the oboe even more: it really means a lot to me to perform difficult music on oboe and handbells and just focus on artistic beauty for half an hour every day (more on weekends) and just forget the drudgery of "normal" life!

Presenting a potential solution for debilitating pain from performing the oboe or clarinet.

One of the reasons I stopped pursuing a career as a professional musician is that I suffered tendonitis in the thumb, elbow and shoulder. After 3 years, the condition cleared completely, but relapses continued to occur from time to time up until a few years ago. Now relapses in tendonitis from practising the oboe have stopped completely, and the reason is a very special ergonomic thumb-rest I designed. The design is the result of observing how holding the weight of the instrument impacts the natural posture of the hand and how the resulting change of configuration of the hand and fingers affects the whole arm up to the neck (inclusively). These observations reminded me of principles and exercises given to me by my violin and cello teacher when I took string techniques class at McGill University, many years ago. I put these principles into my thumb-rest design and the results speak for themselves: practising the oboe never causes pain beyond what I normally get from daily activity - tendonitis, for me, is a thing of the past.

backView[3]Address the real problems: body structure and freedom of movement

Over the years, I've seen many mechanical gadgets sold in music stores and even through medical prosthetics laboratories. What has struck me is that in almost all cases, some time after the purchase of these stands and supports, oboists and clarinettists continued to suffer prohibitive pain due to injury or irritation in the muscles and nerves. Some of these musicians eventually "returned to normal" by adopting lifestyle changes including continued therapy with the Alexander Technique, Pilates, Tai-Chi and other such "soft" approaches: these recovered musicians no longer rely on any implement at all!


topViewIt seems that many solutions lead to believe that distributing the weight higher up to bigger joints will solve the problem: the idea is to put the weight on the stronger parts of the hand. There is some merit to the idea, but if it does not prevent pinched nerves due to poor posture in the neck or strained joints in the thumb and wrist, then moving the weight simply does nothing.  Furthermore, if a stand, support or other implement requires the arm or neck or torso to remain immobile, then tension builds up in areas that affect the spine: do study how nerves come out of the spine and how essentially all strength and action eventually originates from the spine: the spine MUST remain free to move.

When the problem really is strength:

20151031_170714_LLSSome people have asked me if the Imperial oboe by Dupin or the Ludwig Frank Brilliant model might not make the instrument too heavy (because of their large bells) and thereby promote tendonitis. My answer to that is simple: if the difference in weight (compared to a regular Lorée or Marigaux or Yamaha or Howarth or Fox) is a serious problem for you, perhaps you'd better take up the recorder or the baroque oboe. However, most musicians do have one source for potential injury: a disdain for strength and fitness training... I mean, we are artists, not athletes, right? WRONG: lack of physical activity is a huge source of stiffness, pinched nerves and simply leaves your body depleted of energy and powerless to perform to the very high physical requirements of playing a musical instrument. If the following two points must be considered for proper health:

  1. mobility of the nerves and joints (wrist, neck, shoulders, spine and hips)
  2. relaxation and looseness of while playing the instrument: be sure to use the appropriate muscles, not those for lifting or pushing heavy objects

Both points imply no pressure or constriction on the body. When they are both well addressed, most people should be strong enough to play any modern oboe and even the English horn (possibly even the barytone oboe) with no straps or pegs or anything.

My favourite way to remedy that is Tai-Chi because it is gentle and artistic, it builds mental focus and concentration (very important for sight-reading) AND MOSTLY it strengthens the small stabilizer muscles that are left weak by almost all traditional sports and athletics. When these muscles are weak, bigger power muscles (those that are trained by sports) take over without ever noticing the difference: problem is, the big power muscles also cause strain on the joints and compression on the nerves! Strong stabilizer muscles leave the body loose and ready to perform music fast and with fluidity.

20151031_170718_LLSWhy no patent?

My own personal success with this Ergonomic Thumb Rest ("my gizmo", as I call it) has been so dramatic that I wanted to patent it, with the hopes of licensing its production to some company. But at IDRS 2013 in Redlands CA, two things happened (I had been hiding my gizmo, nobody saw or heard about it):

  1. I saw the thumb rests of Fossati and Püchner (although different from my gizmo) address the issue, possibly just as well.
  2. I had started talking with a professional oboist (and long-time teacher) who described to me the thumb-rests she gets her students to build for themselves and her description was nearly identical to my gizmo.

By definition of domestic and international patents, point #2 means I cannot patent my design (or only such a small part of it as to make a patent virtually useless). As of today, November 1st 2015, when I put up this blog post and video on You-Tube, my design is now disclosed to the public and no one in the world, by patent law as I understand it, is allowed to claim intellectual property - unless a patent application had already filed some time before. I am unaware of any such patent application: if I am wrong, please send me a letter of "cease and desist" with all the pertinent information and I will remove my You-Tube and this blog post.

Solution: free design!

Because I cannot patent it, I cannot manufacture these ergonomic thumb-rests in great quantity. Disclosing and giving the design freely to all allows anyone to produce it (using the same or different materials and methods) and many more musicians can benefit from it. To my limited knowledge of law (please verify with a real lawyer) full disclosure means that as of now, anyone can manufacture and distribute these.


I really hope this helps many, many more musicians enjoy pain-free and full-potential music performance, just as it has helped me maintain and raise the limits of my abilities on the oboe.