As a musician, you are likely to spend much of your time practicing. But how much time do you devote to keeping fit? Everyone knows that exercise is good for a person’s health, however did you know that fitness and exercise for musicians can also improve your performance?
In this blog, we discuss being fit to play…
Fitness and exercise improves performance
Sports medicine and performance research has well established that being fitter and stronger is probably going to mean you perform better, get injured less and have a longer career. Sportswomen and men do not get fit from playing sport – they get fit to play sport.
Professional sports have millions of dollars invested in strength and conditioning programs, GPS tracking of on-field movements and intensity, injury surveillance, early management and strict recovery protocols. They even have a fully or partially employed team of doctors, physios, exercise physiologists, strength coaches, psychologists, massage therapists, nutritionists and specialists, all on speed dial!
In the performing arts sector, the dance world has embraced these concepts to some extent, but it’s really only in the past 10-15 years that we have seen dancers “cross training” using weights, modern physical conditioning science and recovery techniques. Professional companies measured the cost of injuries and then implemented more stringent balances between dance floor time and body (and mind) care time!1 Dancers are learning that you can’t just dance and expect to be fit to dance.
But what about training and exercise for musicians?
Musicians, generally, have not embraced these concepts. Unlike dance, a musician’s physical appearance has not historically been important to the final product of the artistic performance. Hence, the physicality of one’s body has not been in the forefront of musicians’ training.
The physical demands of instrumental performance are often only considered when things start to hurt. A study from Germany2 indicated the average age of onset of pain related to playing, in professional orchestral musicians, was 35. This indicates a realm of physical performance that is low load, high repetition – pain creeps up on you and can ‘suddenly’ take over your career or passion. There are no high impact injuries nor torn muscles from sudden explosive force (like dance or sport), but research3 shows that over 80% of professional orchestral musicians in Australia have had pain related to playing, that has interfered with or stopped them playing. Most musicians rely on the “gig economy” – with no guaranteed income, worker’s compensation or income protection insurance. So realistically, pain and injury will hurt more than just their bodies.
Music is physical.
Yes, music can be expressive, creative, therapeutic and passionate but to create music on any instrument (even digitally) musicians need to use their body as well as their mind. Musicians of all levels and ages will benefit from:
- being fitter and stronger
- physically warming up before playing
- eating to perform, and
- having a recovery protocol for after playing
In short – condition, prepare, play, recover (CPPR).
Exercises musicians can do to increase fitness levels
It’s easiest to break down your physical condition into two areas – cardiovascular fitness and strength. The latest W.H.O exercise guidelines4 recommend a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise (most people can get that fast walking) and 2 additional strength training sessions involving major muscle groups. I suspect some reading this will not be achieving that minimum.
Any gains in fitness or strength are made by challenging your body to respond to a load just greater than it is used to – challenging but achievable. You have to start low and slow, and build up to your target. Musicians should understand this concept as no one starts playing with a concerto – one must first learn the scales.
General cardiovascular fitness is gained, depending on your physical ability, by activities like walking, running, swimming or boxing, but all should be approached carefully and built on gradually.
Likewise, to gain body strength, start slowly and build gradually. Simple bodyweight exercises like calf rises, squats, bridges, dips and push ups (start on the wall or a bench) are enough to get you going and improve your general strength. From there you can progress to resistance bands or weights and just see the difference it will make to your playing endurance – reduced fatigue, less pain – and often, improved performance!
Balance exercises are a very interesting area and can be surprisingly beneficial, particularly in the older musician. The ability to transfer body weight either standing or sitting can be an important part of injury reduction and also performance enhancement.
Is a warmup necessary for musicians?
A general body warmup before playing will increase the local muscle temperature and many people comment how it mentally places them in a performance space as well. Simple arm circles, body twists and leg swings are an easy way to start a routine that of course will flow into warmup on your instrument.
Recovery strategies are rarely seen amongst the musicians I have worked with (until I work with them!) Hydration (water), nutrition, some simple stretches and mentally ‘winding down” are proven sports practices based on a large body of research. Sleep is a huge area of current research and in musicians is currently rarely measured nor discussed.
CPPR – condition, prepare, play, recover.
Most musicians just play – until they can’t. Embracing sports science principles can not only minimise pain or injury, but improve performance and prolong careers.
For more information on fitness and exercise for musicians, pain or injury management or other aspects of musicians’ physical demands, call 3342 4284 to book an appointment with David Peirce at PhysioTec.
1. The “Cost” of Injuries in a Professional Ballet Company.
Ruth Solomon,B.A., John Solomon,Ph.D., LyleJ. Micheli, M.D., and ErnestMcGray, Jr. Medical problems of performing artists Dec 1999
2. Frequency, severity and predictors of playing-related musculoskeletal pain in professional orchestral musicians in Germany Steinmetz et al January 2014
3. Musculoskeletal pain and injury in professional orchestral musicians in Australia.
Bronwen Ackermann 1, Tim Driscoll, Dianna T Kenny Medical problems of performing artists 2012
4. World Health Organization 2020 guidelines on physical activity and sedentary behaviour. Br J Sports Med: first published as 10.1136/bjsports-2020-102955 on 25 November 2020.