Is Warming Up the Best Way to Avoid Injury on the Cello?

These days the assumption warming up prevents injury seems to be a commonly accepted truth.

So why would Dounis, a master teacher, a medical doctor, a man with a reputation for successfully fixing physical problems recommend playing first thing in the morning without warming up?

To be clear, Dounis did recommend a few moments of rolling the knuckles against a palm and stretching, but no warm up at the instrument. In fact, he didn't believe in warming up. This is very controversial, but he wasn't into people injuring themselves, quite the contrary, he was the one people came to learn how to stop injuring themselves.

To help you understand this, let me make 3 points...

1. Dounis identified the main cause of injury as "unnatural movements" or poor fundamentals

The human body is a miraculous machine with many lubricated moveable joints. If one of these joints becomes locked or immoveable then it sends a pain signal to the brain. If this is ignored then it causes injuries. 

Tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel in the left hand...

The main culprit for such injuries as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome in the left hand is how you depress the string. All the joints, wrist, elbow must feel free and loose. It should feel as if all the joints are lubricated. Strength and flexibility are key. Strength is the ability to hold the pitch and flexibility is the ability to have as much freedom of movement as possible.

Touch the string as if you were playing a harmonic and then let gravity alone bring the string to the fingerboard. The wrist shouldn't stiffen and should always be able to make little circles while the finger is weighted down.

Tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel in the bow arm...

In the bow arm the grip is key. All the fingers should feel flexible like the hairs of a paintbrush, especially the thumb. Another key is the feeling that you are always pulling the sound not pushing. Pushing always stiffens the joints which causes injury. Lastly, the application of pressure should only be using leverage and not brute force. The principle leverage comes from the pronation lever of the thumb lifting up and the first finger moving downward. The maximum pressure is when the stick is inclined to the point where it touches the hair. This should be accomplished with minimum effort and a loose thumb. Finally it is crucial to take hold of the string with a dropped hand and the downward motion of the wrist.

If anything you are doing causes stiffness or pain then that will lead to injury. So the principle task is to master the fundamentals making everything conform to the natural physiological laws of playing. Then injuries rarely occur.

2. The purpose of recommending someone perform without warming up is because it is difficult.

This is the principle of extreme difficulty. In other words, if you can do something much more difficult than the required task, then doing the task will seem easy. Dounis was applying this principle to what he felt was the most common problem in students... a weak performance attitude.

This is how he prepared people for the realities of performing. He knew that players often have to play under less than ideal circumstances. His recommendation was to perform as though you had your most severe critics, respected colleagues and teachers in front of you and then play with full expression WITHOUT A THOUGHT TO CORRECT ANYTHING! You even feel the uncomfortable adrenaline response of the body. If you practice doing this everyday, then playing a concert will be a breeze.

3/ Practicing is important but it shouldn’t be the basis of your playing.

Performing should be the basis of your playing. You should be able to sit down and just play. All the musical impulses freely flowing, no technical worries and no anxiety. 

Also, he knew that one had to develop the ability to stay in the right brain when performing; stay concentrated in the expressive mode or "musical mind" and NOT allow thoughts about the details of performance to create anxiety.

In summary...

Dounis wasn’t cavalier about students injuring themselves. He knew if he could re-awaken your instinctive movements, injuries wouldn't happen. So aside from stretching type exercises away from the instrument before you play, the best way to prevent injury is by mastering the natural movements of playing.