Physical Fitness for Musicians
As classically trained musicians, 99% of the advice we hear regarding practice is on how to practice. Slowly. With repetition. Note by note. Phrase by phrase. The list goes on and on. But the missing 1%? That missing 1% is the one type of practicing able to strike fear into any aspiring virtuoso. The one type of practicing we’re to avoid at all cost: mindless practicing.
I’m very good at mindless practicing. I can mindlessly practice slowly. I can mindlessly practice with repetition. I can mindlessly practice note by note. I can mindlessly practice phrase by phrase. This list also goes on and on. And that’s because until an unexpected detour on my Musikal Journey, I often assumed the opposite of mindless practice was purposeful practice.
My Musikal Journey began at the age of 14, when I received a violin as a Christmas present. At that time I was an aspiring gymnast, but at the advice of my mother (“You can play violin when you’re 80, but you can’t back flip,”) I decided to focus on music instead of an athletic future.
15 years later, I found myself working as a professional musician. Though I had achieved a monumental goal in my career, I also knew my life wasn’t in balance. My progress on the viola seemed to have peaked, and since I wasn’t able to practice gymnastics regularly—the strain on my wrists was too great—I didn’t have any outlets for the mounting frustration I was experiencing.
Then I heard about a springboard diving course for adults. Afraid it was too good to be true, I checked it out and signed up for two training sessions per week. To my excitement, it was very good and very true. It had everything I loved about acrobatics minus the physical strain detrimental to my playing. Only months later did I realize a much greater benefit: My physical fitness activities had a positive impact on my music making.
Springboard diving isn’t a sport about absolute strength, speed or endurance. 2008 Olympic gold medalist Matthew Mitcham refers to the sport as one of absolute precision. And to be precise one must be aware. Over the months of training, I had gained both a new sense of awareness and greater awareness in my preexisting senses.
Transferred to my music making, the awareness I gained from diving broadened my approach to my instrument. No longer were exercises simply defined by their names. No longer were scales in broken-thirds ascending one string a study on intonation, but rather an exercise in awareness regarding the speed, weight, and articulation in my both of my hands. They became exercises in knowing myself as a musician, knowing my instrument, and knowing myself on my instrument. The musician that seemed to have plateaued was replaced by a musician inspired by curiosity and creativity, and the upward journey resumed.
But the benefits didn’t stop there. Not only has diving impacted my mental faculties, but it’s also improved my overall well-being. Within weeks of exercising regularly, I experienced a significant increase in energy and enjoyment in both vocational and recreational activities. I was becoming not only functionally fitter, but also mentally and emotionally.
Springboard diving, however, isn’t the right sport for every musician. Rightfully so. After all, not every musician is drawn to the same instrument. We as musicians, however, are all drawn to music. With that in mind, here are three key components to look for when finding the exercise program right for you.
1. Look to improve your cardiovascular endurance.
By increasing your cardiovascular endurance you not only improve the overall health of your heart and lungs, but you raise your level of sustained effort in various activities. As stamina improves, so does one's overall energy reserve, meaning general rehearsals just hours before a concert and days with 15 students back to back become less draining and the recovery time needed from such effort is reduced.
MH Picks: jogging, swimming, cycling
2. Look to improve your flexibility.
As musicians, we know the danger of limiting ourselves to a repertoire filled with pieces far below our technical limits. Our bodies, however, need the same attention. Stretching our muscular tissues improves our range of motion, and the healthier and wider our range of motion is, the more we’re able to refine our coordination for movements of all kinds. Whether teaching or rehearsing, many musicians spend extended lengths of time in relatively stationary positions, and increasing flexibility is also an excellent way to combat stiffness.
MH Picks: yoga, pilates, diving, tai chi
3. Look to improve your core strength.
When core strength increases, your body begins to work more efficiently. The stronger your core, the more strength you have in other parts of your body, leading it to function like a well-integrated and stable machine. Hours spent in an uncomfortable chair during orchestra rehearsal can take a toll on one's body as well as playing, but when combined with consistent, gentle stretching, improved core strength can remedy soreness and help avoid injuries that may prevent one from playing.
MH Picks: pilates, yoga, tai chi
Look for these components as you find the form of exercise best suited to you and you’ll soon discover benefits unique to you and your music making. However, before you begin any exercise program, be sure to see your personal physician for approval.
Finally, many athletic options offer yet another benefit: social time. Diving teams, cycling clubs, hiking groups, and yoga studios are all fantastic opportunities to meet other people with similar interests. After class, why not grab a coffee or beer and make a new friend? As musicians, practice rooms become our homes for significant periods of our lives. Therefore, we must be mindful to create time for socializing.
I look forward to exploring these topics in future posts and until then – I wish you good health on your Musikal Journey!