For many years my schedule involved practicing every day and if I wasn’t practicing every day, my life felt out of balance.
Such is the mentality of most music major or conservatory students; especially when living in an environment where everyone around us has this same mentality. It becomes almost a competitive energy of whoever practices the most is clearly the most dedicated and will have the longest and most successful career.
Unfortunately, doing the same motion over and over again does not produce a stronger, more enduring body past a certain point. All bodily activities require cross-training and rest to grow in effectiveness.
The idea of this is not a foreign concept to any athlete. No marathon runner runs for six hours a day every day of the week. No basketball player shoots baskets for six hours a day every day of the week. No hockey player skates on the ice for six hours a day every day of the week. No discus thrower, well, you get the idea.
It’s about balance.
Careers that are built around the use our bodies MUST include a variety of other physicals activities as well. It’s why gym buffs alternate arm day and leg day while rotating in core and cardio. You can’t do the same motion every day and expect marked improvement in physical strength or stamina.
This is why so many musicians are suffering from pain and repetitive stress injuries.
We’re out of balance.
Many of us have heard that football players take ballet classes (yep, it’s true!). But did you know Judoka’s, experts in the martial art field of Judo, knead pastry to build finger strength? And these are Olympic-level experts kneading pastry! No one tells them it’s a waste of time. So could a pianist knead a pastry and call it training time?
Taking time to build a balanced physical practice routine will reduce your risk of injury and contribute to an overall well-being.
Your cardiovascular system can be built through aerobic exercise, will not only help with weight loss but allow you to take in increased amounts of oxygen through faster breathing and the building of greater lung-capacity. Oxygen enters the lungs, is absorbed by the blood and pumped through your muscles. The greater the blood/oxygen flow to your muscles, the greater your potential strength and mobility. The greater your strength and mobility, the fewer chances you have of straining a muscle through repetitive stress activities (read: practicing).
2. Resistance Training
Strength training with bands or weights will build on this oxygen intake. Through resistance training you can improve muscle mass and endurance as well as balance out the imbalances in your body created from practicing. For example, my right shoulder can perform shoulder presses for eternity, it's the same muscle I've used to bow on the cello for over 20 years and it’s built up quite a bit of strength as a result. My left shoulder, however, begins to tire after about six reps with a five pound weight. Through resistance training, I can isolate the one side and strengthen it. With a more balanced upper body, my muscles can hold my spine in proper alignment resulting in fewer pinched nerves after long weeks of gigging.
My lower body is also severely out of balance. You might wonder, "What’s that matter? We don’t use our lower body when playing." But actually, the glutes (your butt muscles) are what's holding your lower back in an upright and not swaybacked position when sitting. Although frequently overlooked because they're not a part of the often-desired flat stomach muscles, these muscles are what will hold your body up correctly during a three hour session.
This last component in a balanced physical practice routine involves stretching to increase flexibility and extend your range of motion. While we often think of string players, trombonists, drummers or pianists as being the instruments that "require" range of motion, practicing for too long on any instrument will restrict the range of motion you need in your daily life. No flute player wants to pinch their neck trying to check their right blind spot while driving because it's the opposite direction of their usual playing form. No clarinet player wants to sit down to type and email only to be bothered by tight wrists and forearms from their last weekend of gigs.
Having tight muscles can add stress to your joints during any normal, daily activity. Adding in stretching every morning or before a practice session or gig will keep blood/oxygen running to all parts of the body equally, improve range of motion, ease and eliminate tension, encourage relaxation and help keep the body from building up myofascial trigger points (those pesky muscle knots we learned about last week!).
To build a balanced physical practice routine we need to be treating each of these elements, cardio, resistance (strength) and mobility (flexibility), as equally valuable as time with our instrument. If every day you're going to play your instrument (and I'm a huge advocate for taking a rest day one day a week!) then try to cross-train by adding in two of the other three components every day. I guarantee your body will thank you for it!
This Thursday I'll be releasing the second podcast interview where I sit down with gym owner, personal trainer and former professional trumpeter, Michelle Lane, as she shares insights on a balanced life and fitness routine. Also, be sure to check out last Thursday's blog post and my first podcast interview with myofascial release therapist, Jenni Asher.
And if anyone actually applies the Judo cross-training technique of kneading dough, I'd love to know! Remember, our bodies should never limit our art so train like an athlete to play like a musician!
Health and happiness,