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After I practice for a few hours on the piano, I feel a strain in my hands (I don't know if strain is the right word, It doesn't hurt or anything. It actually feels good because I feel like I have exercised my hands properly). In any case, I usually stop practice at that point, because I don't want to injure myself (RSI style). My questions are:

  • From where does the strain usually originate: muscles, tendons etc.

  • Is there a way to relieve it or deal with it beside resting. I mean something in the line of soaking my hands in hot water :).

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

Tom has already started a metaphor with runners. You do not train for a long-range distance (such as 20km or marathon) by running this distance. You have to help your body become the kind of body able to run such a distance. And it includes drinking water, many breaks, changes in lifestyle.

Health of the hands is not separated from the general health.

Practicing several hours without pause is the best way to injure yourself physically and waste time because your system will have low efficiency and recall.

This is sometimes counter intuitive because the first few times you train extremely hard, you have very quick results . But working too hard and in a quick and relentless progression does not work on a sustained period.

There is no magic bullet or quick fix when you feel strain in your hands.

  • Always start your practice session by very gentle warming of the hands, wrist and fingers, oxygenation exercices, like a dancer or a singer.

  • Be sure that your seat is at the correct height and distance. Be on a lookout for any backache, any strain in the shoulders, bad blood circulation in your legs, etc.

  • Cut your practice sessions in small units (5, 10, 15mn) between which you can stand for a few moments, drink, walk, speak, inhale and exhale deeply.

  • Always try not to produce forte sound by sheer force and pressure, but by a lighter but fuller engagement of the body, posture, place of fingers on the keys ...

  • Make slightly larger breaks every hour and do not practice more than two hours in a row (even with small breaks inside).

  • Try to schedule one of your schedule sessions just before or just after a nap or sleep so that you can let your body and mind rest more fully.

  • If you are not in a city or if you are near a park, be sure to walk or run lightly in outdoor every day you practice

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+1 for providing further details and tips. :) –  Tom Wijsman May 9 '11 at 13:49
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+1 for mentioning seat height - this was one of the reasons I developed RSI. –  rshallit May 9 '11 at 16:55
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After I practice for a few hours on the piano

Do these hours include pauses? If you don't pause you will indeed get finger strain.

For the same reason you can't run for an extended time; well, you could but it would takes practice. When you first start running, you won't reach half an hour or you will be extremely strained/tired afterwards.

How are runners able to run an half hour?

They regularly stop running to walk a bit and when they feel rested enough they will start running again, which allows them to take an half hour of practice instead of being burned out after 15 min. Over time, they need less rests as they become trained, and thus can run an half hour with less issues.

How do runners get rid of the strain?

They stretch, you might benefit from this too. Look for exercises:

Loosens stiff fingers, hands and wrists.
Completed daily for a few months, hands will become more flexible.

Stretch Now - Exercises - Hands

Your good feeling is merely a warning sign that you are doing too much without giving your hands a rest.

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+1 for the running metaphor. –  ogerard May 9 '11 at 13:47
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