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A few days ago, I started learning Marasy8's arrangement of the "Champion Cynthia" theme from the core Gen IV Pokémon games. I asked a question requesting fingering advice for the first fast (180 bpm) right-hand section, and decided on the following sequence:

5 - 2 - 3    1 - 4 - 1    4 - 5 - 4    3 - 1 - 3    1 - 3 - 1    1 - 2 - 4    3 - 2 - 1

E Bb C# F# Bb C# F# G F# E Bb C# F# Bb F# G A F# E C# Bb

It seemed to have suited me well enough and I was able to start working on getting both hands up to speed. After about 30 minutes worth of repetitions with tempos approaching 170-180 bpm as I progressed, I could feel moderate soreness throughout my fingers which became more significant as the minutes went by; spreading to the metacarpal regions of my inner hand, followed by my wrist and forearm. Allow me to point out here that while there is a very present "burn" from a buildup of lactic acid, this seems to be an independent issue. It was only really noticeable while playing these notes, and didn't affect me when I went onto play other pieces right afterwards.

I found that it subsided after a few seconds of rest and stretches, and was virtually undetectable after a couple of minutes. The pain would, however, return more readily upon resuming from such breaks, making practicing much more onerous than usual. I've made a reasonable effort over the past few days to consolidate my technique and try to reduce tension wherever possible, slightly alleviating the soreness but nowhere near enough for me to continue practicing without some concern.

Are these normal "stress" pains from playing at these speeds for extended periods of time, or is an issue with my fingering or technique more likely to be the culprit? I'd be happy to link a video of my playing in an edit if necessary.

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  • Do you practice with more "general" technique exercises too? How often? How much of your studying is spent on technique in respect of the "playing" part? Jan 10 at 17:15
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    It might depend on lots of factors. Obviously, having a good technique (and constantly practicing it in the correct way) is the first requirement. Do note that, even with the "good exercises", if your posture (and I mean the whole body posture, from the fingers up to your spine, neck and legs) is not correct, you'll probably face problems at some point, even if they don't seem related. Being able to stress your body in a safe way requires good and dedicated workouts. You also need to be sure that you're always relaxed (which is a hard thing to do when patterns are difficult and fast). Jan 10 at 18:06
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    Remember that playing an instrument (including your voice) is physically challenging not less than any physical sport. Athletes spend most of their time doing exercises that are sometimes completely unrelated to their actual activity, and usually less time is then used for the "actual" sport they practice. As a percussionist, I spent most of my education practicing with technique about 40-60% of the overall studying time for some instruments. Also remember that warming up is very important: if you begin your practice session with that piece at the "maximum speed", it will not be good for you. Jan 10 at 18:15
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    One thing to consider (& I don't know the piece but I have passing acquaintance with the genre) this kind of track was never made to be played. It was generated as a piece to be heard, not played. The techniques involved in getting it to 'release' state may have never, at an extreme, involved anyone in the studio ever actually playing it all at full speed, ever. If you're struggling a bit with the repetition, console yourself with that.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 10 at 18:16
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    Finally, scales are good and important things, but they are not enough: they only allow to improve some finger patterns, which are only a very small part of the countless possible patterns you'll ever face while playing any piece. Consider this: look at the fingering above, and ask yourself how much of that fingering matches what you do when playing scales. Jan 10 at 18:18
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Speed comes from training yourself to use only one muscle at a time. To compensate we also use ergonomic movements and the laws of physics. Pain, fatigue, morning stiffness and cramps are symptoms that you are doing something wrong.

Each muscle moves one bone in one direction and then there is an opposing muscle that moves it back. Whenever you use two muscles simultaneously to move one bone, the tendons get caught in a tug of war and one of them will lose. That is where cramps and tension come from. Right off the bat pianists engage both extensor and flexor muscles when they play from the fingers or isolate them (such as the dreaded Hanon exercises). Pianists also abduct their fingers (spread them out) and flex simultaneously. They also radial deviate or ulnar deviate.

The muscles that move your fingers are in your forearm. If you feel pain in the fingers and palms, those are tendons. Tendons are like pulleys which move your fingers from the muscle in the forearm. You probably covered all this in HS biology. There are muscles which permit you to move in dorsiflexion, palmar flexion, radial and ulnar deviations. Then when you flex your fingers AND have one of these twists, you are using two or more muscles on one bone.

Stretching muscle is okay because they have a rich blood supply. We heal through our blood. If you stretch a muscle, you tear muscle fibers and the body rushes warm blood to the site of damage to begin repairs. That gives us the ILLUSION or warming up. You are not warming up, you are creating damage. If you are VERY unlucky to stretch tendons, you risk micro tears. Since tendons have negligent blood supply, which is why they are white, the body can't repair the tear so it places scar tissue there. Scar tissue doesn't stretch so the next time you stretch or move improperly you get a bigger tear. Eventually the tendon becomes inflamed and the pain moves up into your wrist and the inflamed tendon presses on your median nerve (aka carpal tunnel syndrome). These are your long flexor tendons and run inside the tunnel which is compact with no room for expansion.

The cure is simple: Learn to move properly. Find a new teacher who knows biology and physics. Improper movement or bad habits are hardwired into your brain from the first time you touch a piano, like swimming, walking and riding a bike. It is very difficult to retrain yourself but some people can do it.

Pain is a SYMPTOM that you are doing something wrong, don't treat the symptom, treat the problem, which is how you move.

And it is not good enough to "play slow," "relax" and "practice more." Practice doesn't make perfect if you practice incorrectly, even if it is slow. Perfect practice makes perfect.

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    2nd paragraph: "Whenever you use two muscles simultaneously" -- better: "Whenever you use two opposing muscles simultaneously"
    – Aaron
    Jan 11 at 1:19
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For anyone interested, I was able to quickly reduce the discomfort I felt when practicing at higher tempos (barring lactic acid buildup) by increasing the height of my seating set-up. I noticed today that the cushions on my makeshift bench (fashioned from a nightstand and some throw pillows) had flattened over the months, making it more difficult to utilise the weight of my hands and forearms while playing. I guess I was able to get away with it for most pieces I worked on, but the speed demanded here meant that my fingers and hands were doing much more work than they otherwise would have, resulting in pain and stiffness after many repetitions of the section during my practice. Swapping out cushions worked for now, but an upgrade to a proper bench is definitely in order.

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