Musicians' Health Collective

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Pull your Cello Case (or Suitcase) Better

This image juxtaposes external shoulder rotation (left) with internal rotation (right).  Image from

This image juxtaposes external shoulder rotation (left) with internal rotation (right).  Image from

So I spent a little extra time in an airport yesterday, and in between walking laps for fun (when my flight was delayed), I watched people carry their belongings.  Some push their rolling suitcases, some drag their bags, some push on carts, and everything in between, but one thing that worries me is how your shoulder is involved to PULL a bag on wheels (This includes cello and other rolling objects).  Last month I covered how carrying things (cases, purses,etc,) affects us, so let's look at how pulling things can affect us.  Basically, you can pull with the palm of your hand facing forward (shoulder externally rotated) or thumb towards your hip, palm facing back (shoulder internally rotated).  

Now theoretically, all movements of the shoulder are valid, but given our habits of poor posture, and internally rotated shoulders, most of us should not be pulling weight in internal rotation.  Musicians already are prone to nerve impingement and other maladies, simply from overuse, misuse, and abuse, but we don't think about how we carry our instruments that often.  Pulling your case with your shoulder externally rotated is the most stable and supported position for the shoulder.  Period.  That means thumbs out to the sides, palms forward.    Sustained pulling in internal rotation, especially when coupled with misalignment and shoulder shrugging = possible pain in the shoulder and neck.  

Image of disembodied torso pulling a bag in EXTERNAL ROTATION courtesy of consumer reports.

Image of disembodied torso pulling a bag in EXTERNAL ROTATION courtesy of consumer reports.

It sounds super simple, but this above image shows a good way to pull a case, and the image below shows a less stable position.  I realize this is perhaps one of the least popular topics to discuss, but quite practical, seeing as most people in airports are juggling a suitcase, a cell phone, a small child, a purse, and a bag of food.   Trust me, you don't want to be googling the question "I hurt myself pulling a suitcase (or carrying a handbag). "   (There's not a lot of resources for that, by the way).    Notice that this couple, with their matching orange lego suitcases, have different pulling techniques.  The woman on the left is pulling in internal rotation, and the person on the right is pulling in external rotation.  They both have purses/crossbody bags, so  who's going to have a happier shoulder at the end of the travel day?  Person on the right, for the win!  Try both positions the next time you travel (or pull your case) and see how each positions affects your strength, your posture, and your ability to pull.

Image of matching suitcase people courtesy of me, following people in the airport.

Image of matching suitcase people courtesy of me, following people in the airport.

Travel Tips

Last year, I flew over 65,000 miles, including three cross-continental journeys, which to me, is a lot.  In the process of doing so, I've established a bit of a routine in preparing for flights and long trips which has been quite helpful.

1. Bring your own food, especially if you have dietary restrictions or preferences.  Nothing is worse than being rushed in a connecting flight and hungry and vegan/gluten-free/paleo.  Most airplane food is carb and sugar heavy, which means that you don't feel particularly full, or particularly good afterwards.  I bring those little nut butter packets, some Kind bars, some fruit, or hard boiled eggs to fill in the gaps.


2.  Bring some hand sanitizer, preferably one that smells good.  I have never seen the fold down tables or arm rests cleaned in an airplane, so I'm going on good faith that someone at sometime during the day cleans them...

3.  Don't drink a lot of caffeine, even if you have a 6:00 AM flight.  Not only will coffee make you jittery and dehydrated, it usually isn't very good on an airplane.  I usually bring some teabags and ask for hot water on the plane, just so I don't end up having a Lipton Landing experience.  (Or I just drink water).  That way, I can have at least a fighting chance of sleeping on the plane or at my final destination.

4.  If you've been feeling tired and weak, bring some emergen-c or something similar.  Nothing is worse than traveling for a concert or audition and feel mid-flight that the plague has stricken you.  Emergen-c might not prevent a full-out affliction, but it might delay the effects and make you a little happier for the flight.  In addition, always pack a basic first aid kit-Benadryl, cold meds, Advil, etc.

5.  Try to be nice and patient.  Airports, much like the DMV, bring out people's unsavory sides.  I often see folks snapping at flight attendants over not having their beverage of choice, and small children mowing down the elderly to get to the bathroom.  Musicians tend to panic a bit about getting their instruments unboard (for good reason!), but patience, calmness, and kindness, will probably serve you better in the long run than yelling about the cost of your instrument to an airport employee who is being unhelpful.

6.  Bring your music in your carry-on or case. Sometimes, you just don't want to risk having things lost.

7.  When people ask if your viola/violin is a banjo/ukelele/bass, try to be nice, even if the question is absurd.  The airport, much like the subway, is a fishbowl, and not everyone will be have musical knowledge.  You may end up having an interesting conversation, but most likely, you'll just hear how the passenger played kazoo/sitar/euphonium in middle school.  (Although I did have a family that thought my dog was a rabbit, even though they could see her chihuahua face, so...use your judgment). 

8.  Try not to sit in a chair in the waiting area.  Your whole day will be sitting (or really, slouching) in a big chair.  Stand!  Sit on the floor and wake up those hips! Squat by the electrical outlets!  Creating some movement pre-flight will definitely help your spine and hips to be happy.  When I have a long flight, I often hide in a less popular area of the airport and stretch it out.  Even better, if you're not lugging a lot of luggage or a cello, try to walk in the airport as much as time allows.

9.  Keep limber on the plane!  See here for thoughts beyond those weird pics in the back of the plane magazine.

10.  Bring things to read.  Bring earplugs for international flights.  Get one of those weird neck pillows if you're on a long flight.  Bring headphones, and maybe a hairbrush.  (I've forgotten all of these things at some point.)  Make sure your bags have your name on them.  And lastly, have fun on your trip, whether it be for an audition, concerts, festivals, weddings, or family time.

Here are some more suggestions from the internet:

Katy Says: Travel Notes

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