How to Exercise as a Musician
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
The prevailing philosophy during Greco-Roman times was that for the betterment of the human being, two elements were needed. First was Musicus: the exercise of the mind; it contained the quadrivium of music, math, science and astronomy. Coupled with this was Gymnasticus, or the exercise of the body.
Musicians (pianists in particular) have some of the highest rates of performance injury of any profession. Part of this is due to poor practice and over-practice; however it is important for the mental, physical and spiritual well-being of the artist to keep a regular physical routine. Our bodies are the highest technological machine in existence, and as such need to be properly maintained!
I want to go over some sports and meditative routines which I have found particularly useful.
Swimming is one of the best cardiovascular exercises that you can do. Lane swimming exercises every muscle in the body, and for instrumentalists who spend a good portion of their time sitting for work or practice, it is extremely important to stretch and elongate the pine. Before the pandemic I was swimming one hour a day, six days a week.
Nature Hiking. Nature is God's canvas. The health benefits derived from walking in the forest, hiking up a cliff or mountainside or just going to a beautiful floral garden are myriad. Throughout the ages, poets from Shakespeare to Goethe to Stephan Mallarme wrote rapturously about nature, and their writings in turn inspired generations of composers throughout the centuries to compose music inspired by nature. Thus when performing works like Jeux D'eau, or Walscenen (Forest scenes), you will have an invaluable hands on frame of reference. In terms of vascular and metabolic proficiency, walking and swimming are just about as good as it gets! Canada boasts an incredible natural landscape. Even in the metropolitan centres one does not have to drive more than half an hour to find a beautiful nature park or provincial park.
Racquet sports. This is a tricky one in that some racquet sports are better than others for musicians. Tennis and racquetball should be avoided for musicians as the tendency is to damage the tendons and cartilage in and around the wrist, elbow and shoulders. Racquet sports such as badminton and ping-pong, however, are much better as they require much more agility and suppleness in the joints, as opposed to a locked swing motion.
Team sports: team sports can be wonderful tools for so many reasons. From a music vantage, while participating in chamber music one quickly learns that one needs to be skilled, a team player, committing to a common vision, and emotionally sensitive to the needs of others. Team sports can teach all of this and more. For pianists I would highly recommend soccer (football for our European readers). The greatest tenor of the last 100 years, Luciano Pavarotti, is noted to have been a very skilled footballer in the Italian Second League during his youth. As a precaution, team sports with a lot of heavy physical contact such as tackling/roughing are undesirable.
Golf: Golf is most commonly thought of as the businessman’s game. With that said, you would be surprised at how many musicians are good at the game. It requires pinpoint precision, strong mental focus, and stamina over the long term. Some of the golf courses in central and northern Ontario are beautifully landscaped and very scenic. Provided you don’t use the golf cart, it can be quite a workout!
Organ massage. This one you likely didn’t see coming. One of my hobbies and passions is Eastern philosophies and meditative arts. In the Chinese practice of Chi Gong, various movement and massage postures, coupled with breathing techniques, are done in an effort to balance the subtle art energies of the body, and to harmonize the mind and the body into a state of oneness and calmness. A fascinating book to read is The Tao of Revitalization by Stephen Thomas Chang, an internationally revered TCM doctor as well an MD. This book looks into the massage of the organs as a means of promoting health and good energy flow in the body. It is a compelling read and the exercises have made immeasurable changes in my own experience.
Meditative techniques. The human body is made of the skeleton, the inner organs and the subtler energies. What has been known in the East as Chi/Qi (China), or Prana (India), has been the foundation of many meditative techniques and practices. As such, learning techniques to get in touch with this energy flow can have untold benefits on one’s mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. I highly recommend Krya yoga.
Happy practicing, and keep exercising the mind, body and soul!