Musicians: Small Muscle Athletes

By: Beth Deininger ,violinist, instructor at The Lesson Studio

When most people think of athletes, they think of professional baseball, football, soccer, and basketball players.  But what most people don’t associate with the word athlete is musicians-but you should!  Musicians train, sometimes up to 8 hours a day, learning techniques and performance practices much like sports athletes attend practices, personal training, and strategy.

So why are musicians called small muscle athletes?  Think about it.  Most instruments require subtle, precise movements in order to create the best results both technically and musically.  Woodwinds, brass, piano, guitar, and strings all have small movements that involve their hands, fingers, and fingertips.  A violin etude could be likened to the football exercise with tires laid on the field, timing how quickly you can run through them.  With that etude, we are trying to see how quickly and accurately we can navigate a course.

Another similarity to think about is performance.  What do sports athletes do? They perform under pressure, hopefully at their most optimum level.  Isn’t that similar to what musicians do?  We practice our songs and pieces, with an ultimate goal of performing them.  We may have the pressure of performing in front of one, or in front of thousands.  Both athletes and musicians train for performances, constantly honing their mental and physical talents.

So whether you are training for a regional game or orchestra placement, it is important to treat your body in the same way.  Stretches, strengthening exercises, and frequent breaks are all important.  When you practice, you should treat your body and mind as if you were out training on the field.  So let’s break down the above three categories-

Stretches:  Stretching is imperative at the beginning, middle, and end of any playing/practicing session.  Find out what muscles or areas of your body you use most when playing, and stretch them frequently.  Most music related injuries are a result of too much tension in our muscles.  One great stretch to try is placing your hand palm down onto a wall, and then lean your arm forward.  You should feel a stretch down your entire arm.  Remember that stretches need to be held for 30 seconds in order to be effective. Whatever you do, DON’T pulsate back and forth on a stretch!!!
For other musician related stretches visit this website: http://www.musicianshealth.com/stretches.htm

Strengthening Exercises:  Like all athletes, we are trying to strengthen certain muscle groups and generally become more agile.  For strengthening exercises, it is best to ask your private teacher, who will know what muscle areas are liable to be weakest and which will need the most attention.   By acknowledging that we all have weak spots in our overall strength, we have already taken the step to becoming a more successful musician.

Frequent Breaks:  I cannot stress this last topic enough.  In a world where we are all constantly running here and there, it is important that we give our brain time to focus on whatever task we have at hand.  With practicing, quality is always more important than quantity.  I can practice poorly for two hours each day, or practice with intense focus for one hour each day and make more progress.  A general rule in music practicing is that we need a ten minute break for every hour of practice that we do (we call it the fifty minute hour). So if you practiced for an hour, you would play twenty minutes, take ten minutes off, and then play for thirty more minutes.  If you only practice for thirty minutes, play for ten, take five minutes to refocus and rest, and then practice another fifteen.  You will find that your practice sessions will be so much more rewarding when you give your mind time to focus.

Now that you know that you are a small muscle athlete, get out there and stretch, strengthen, and ALWAYS take time to give your brain a break!

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