Tabla injuries

I have been wanting to write a blog post on injuries arising from tabla playing and practice, as this is something I have recently experienced. Playing almost any kind of instrument typically involves many hours of repetitive movements of hands, wrists, fingers as well as shoulders and other such joints. This includes all of the Indian instruments as well as Western instruments such as piano, guitar etc. Many musicians face repetitive strain injury over many hours of practice and some seek professional help to deal with their issues. There have been cases where people have left their injury unattended to the extent that they were no longer able to perform or play and had to quit their instrument. A terrible misfortune for any aspiring musician!

I will devote the rest of this post to focus on tabla players’ injuries specifically, however much of this information is generally relevant to any other instrument as well – both Indian and non-Indian.

First of all, a clear distinction should be made between “strenuous practice” and “pain”. If one goes running, cycling, or indeed plays tabla for a few minutes, one will feel muscle strain which will eventually turn into muscle fatigue over minutes and hours of practice. If running, you would typically stop and walk for a few minutes once you feel out of breath or your legs are starting to hurt, before resuming your run. It should be exactly the same with practicing your instrument – play to your capacity, but when you feel you are starting to strain, return to a more manageable speed. At no point is it normal to feel pain while playing tabla. It is normal to feel some amount of “strain”, but not “pain”. Pain is your body telling you that it is unable to cope with what you are doing and needs to stop. Any advice to “play through pain” is simply wrong and should not be followed under any circumstances. Unfortunately, there are many musicians who have been given this wrong advice. I have a few theories about the reasons behind this. I think part of the problem is that Indian classical music is still largely dominated by people who are from musical families or who, at the very least, have been playing their instrument since early childhood. This is in contrast to many Westerners and non-Indians who would in many cases only have picked up their Indian classical interest and/or instrument later on in life. Those who grew up playing their instrument in India would therefore be accustomed to the postures and movements of playing the instrument. Sitting on the floor, for example, would come naturally to them, whereas it may not for a “non-native”. There is therefore much greater scope for error and  injury, however, the Indian musicians who have been trained since childhood in the traditional manner are often not equipped to understand this. I therefore say again: Do not attempt to “play through pain”. You risk long-term injury and open yourself up to the worst case scenario of having to give up playing your instrument – I have actually seen this happen to a good friend of mine. The good news is that most physical ailments can be corrected through proper posture and/or a proper practice regimen.

One specific observation I wish to share from my personal experience – I have found that for me personally, it’s best not to sit on a cushion while playing or practicing tabla. For the last couple of years, I had been in the habit of sitting on a soft cushion while playing, and I discovered that this was actually causing additional stress on my shoulders and back, which was leading to pain in my forearm. More in-depth explanation follows.

Tabla playing requires careful and coordinated use of the shoulders, back, forearms, wrists and ultimately fingers to make the intricate and complex movements required to bring out the exquisite tonal qualities of this unique percussion instrument. Beginner tabla players will tend to focus their movements on hands and wrists. However, as one gains more experience as a tabla player and starts to increase their speed and volume, they will typically (or at least should be) start using more of their shoulders and eventually their back to generate force and power. This shift is gradual. However, if done properly, this means that most of the tension in the body of an advanced tabla player is in their shoulders and back, which is ideal because these muscles and joints are much stronger than those of the arm and wrist, and therefore much better suited to long and hard practice.

In order to properly engage these muscles, one needs to be sitting on a strong and stable foundation. My experience suggests that sitting on the floor is the best way to obtain this stable foundation. Sitting on a carpet, a rug or a very thin cushion may be OK, as long as it doesn’t compromise the stability of your posture. I had got into the habit of sitting on a large, soft cushion, thinking that it would be better to be slightly more elevated when playing the instrument. What I found was that this was actually detrimental to my posture, and led to pain in my forearm. The reason for this is that sitting on the cushion was, I believe, compromising the stability of my posture. This ultimate would have led to greater tension in my upper back and shoulders, as they were having to compensate for the lack of a stable foundation. I was experiencing pain in my right forearm for the last 1 – 2 years and could not work out what the problem was. I tried to change my posture … practice more/less … but could not work out the root cause. After several visits to therapists without much change, one day I developed a hunch that using the cushion may be contributing to the problem. So, I started to practice without the and voila the pain in my forearm was gone and has not since returned! I was rather amazed that this simple change could have so profound an effect, hence I thought to share this information via this blog post in case it is relevant to anyone else out there.

If you are experiencing pain or discomfort (beyond what can be considered acceptable limits of any strenuous activity) please feel free to contact me to share your experience.

I would like to also share a couple of online resources that I found useful during my personal research into this topic:

The Body Mechanics of Playing Tabla

Tabla Players and Ulnar Nerve Injuries

Arm Pain from Playing Tabla

Keen to hear your thoughts and comments – please leave your thoughts in the comments field below, alternatively feel free to send me an email (shivabreathes at gmail dot com). 

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5 thoughts on “Tabla injuries

  1. I had been playing Tabla for about a week when I noticed that my right ankle which was sitting underneath my left thigh whilst practicing the tabla sitting on the floor, was hard to walk on. It was not painful, but it felt different. I realised what the problem was. I was spending upto 3 hours in that sitting position, although I did stretch my legs out once every half and hour. I sat on a single bed duvet which was folded up on top of a laminate floor. I then began putting that right feet over my right in order to reduce the pressure which was on it. My advice for anyone practicing sitting down for more than 2 hours is to take breaks every half an hour and get up and walk around a room. Do some ankle rotations and take a day break if you experience muscular tension. My own bodyweight is about 94kg and the heavier your legs, the more pressure is on the ankle.
    Another issue I noticed whilst practicing dhire dhire was my right ring finger bone began hurting. I then wrapped rubber bands around the bony areas to reduce impact and I believe it has helped. I also wrapped rubber bands around my right index finger. Basically wherever the bones of the fingers were impacting the daya. Another thing I noticed about a week into playing tabla, was my left hand palm area below the left thumb hurting. This area experiences friction when doing ‘ge ge’ as your trying to create that boin boin sound.
    I also realised my problem. The baya was too high angled and thus I was putting pressure on it more, but in general ge ge makes your press into the skin of the baya to produce that sound.
    My advice is take it easy and begin to understand whether it’s the angles of your hand positions or the repetion of the blows that are causing the problem. Most likely both. Take a break for as long as possible until you feel no pain ot muscular issues in your hand. Do only a maximum of two hours riyaaz. Most beginners like me are likey to practice more in order to get the sounds right. This is not healthy as your engaging in repetitive strokes and this is what you call is repetitive strain injury. You must take breaks every half an hour. Stretch your legs out and lie on the floor. Get up and walk around the room. Begin to experiment with the best and most naturap positions for the hand. Another issue I noticed whilst playing whilst sitting down, was my back issues. Again it was to do with hours I was sitting down with my spine curved. I would occasionally stretch out and straighten my back in order to relieve the discomfort. My advice in that area is to practice on a table like a dinner table whilst keeping both drums close to your body. Again standing for an hour like that will cause lower back issues, but the spine is straight and not curved unlike sitting down.

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    • Thanks for your lengthy comment. Couple of things which I think I would like to point out: 1) It is not a good idea to stand up and play, as this is not a natural position to play tabla, 2) It is also not a good idea to sit on a soft duvet while playing. This may be contributing to your back issues. I do not recommend sitting on anything but a rug while playing or practicing. Your body needs to be in contact with the floor. Obviously sitting on a hard floor is not ideal but on a rug is fine. I have seen and experienced many problems sitting on cushion, duvet or any such soft material. This creates more tension in the body as there is not a firm foundation to sit on. Please try this out and let me know how you go. I was until recently sitting on a cushion to play, or resting my back against a wall while seated on the floor. I have completely stopped that and now sit directly on a carpeted floor or rug. Big difference. My lower back issues have largely gone away. I do agree with your suggestion to take breaks every half hour.

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      • I am using a single duvet which has been folded up. My floor is laminate flooring and I do not own any rug yet. The reason why I use the duvet is so the bones of my feet do not compress against the floor with my left thigh above it. I will experiment with a lower sitting, but if I am uncomfortable, I will revert back to the duvet. Today I woke up and experienced pain in my right forearm after a dha te re ki ta practice session of 4 hours I say. The hand position for the forearm whilst playing tabla is not natural. Just like how now there are ergonomic mouses which keep the wrist in a natural position. Tabla playing keep the wrist in an unnatural position. I was in fact playing beyond fatigue. The hands need to be rested every 15 mins or whenever you notice that your playing, but the hands are fatigued. I stop for a day whenever I am in pain and usually I am OK. I personally feel the dholak is a more ergonomic and more natural hand position playing drum.

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