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Musicians and exercise: Can a keep fit regime make you a better string player?

I have always loved sport. But I was always told to stay away from activities that involve using my hands. ‘Choose whichever sport you like as long as it’s just your legs you need to use. You can’t afford to injure your wrist or break a finger or get tennis elbow, can you?’ my violin teacher said. And I agreed, taking a certain pride in having to refuse to play some of the sports I loved best. After all, I was to become a violinist and I couldn’t afford to get injured. And wasn’t one meant to suffer for one’s art?

But some thirty years ago sport and physical fitness were not given the importance they are assigned today. Unless you were a professional sports person, exercise was considered an activity you engaged in only if you had time to spare. And if you were a musician, it was a truth universally acknowledged that any performer who engaged in physical exercise was a rare breed indeed. After all, one did not need to be physically fit to perform.

So when a couple of years ago I was forced into a break from performance (no, it had nothing to do with an exercise-induced injury!), I decided finally to quench my thirst for sport. I had always loved kicking a rugby ball around (with hands well tucked into my pockets, of course, lest anything should happen to them), so I joined a semi-professional rugby team. I worked on this sport much in the same way as I’d practised the violin all my life: I trained every day and I trained relentlessly. My rugby practice included three gym sessions on alternate days, two training sessions in between, and a match once a week. I ate the right foods, drank lots of water, stayed off alcohol and allowed for rest and recovery. I trained to be performance ready.

On the day of my first match, when play was over and I hobbled off the pitch, I felt my heart pounding in my ears. Of course, I had been exerting myself for the entire match, so that was to be expected. But as I made my way to the changing rooms, that all too familiar feeling of exertion and exhilaration suddenly transported me on to the stage, my heart pounding against my chest, violin still in hand, those last notes still hanging in the air, the audience applauding. It was then that it hit me. Despite the similarities in the preparation for match and performance, and in the feelings post-match and post-performance, I had never quite prepared for my musical performances in the way that I had for my matches. I had never engaged in physical exercise prior to my concerts to make sure I could keep up with the rhythm of performance as I had done when preparing for my upcoming matches. Yet, I was always convinced I was ready to perform… well, musically at least.

From couch to 5k

So, for the time being, let us concentrate on something a little less daunting and definitely more accessible than rugby. Let us imagine going out for a short run. I think you would agree that most of us would manage a slow 100m run, right? So let us start there, running the first 100m, and then gradually increasing that week after week until a couple of months down the line you can go for 5km without stopping to catch your breath. And then you decide to enter your first 5km race. After all, you are now no longer a stranger to running and you can definitely do the distance. The only difference is that unlike the leisurely runs around the neighbourhood that you have been used to, this one is a race. But you apply anyway and try your luck at running your fastest.

On the day of the 5km race you give your utmost and probably achieve a personal best, but chances are you do not win the race. After all, although you trained to complete the distance, you never trained to complete it in the shortest possible time.

But now you have taken a fancy to running and would like to improve your placing, so you eagerly enter the next race, which is happening in a couple of days’ time. On the day, you run as fast as you can once again, but this time you feel slower, heavier – tired, even; and by the end of the race, not only do you realise that you have lost your placing, but also you have sustained an injury. All this is predictable, considering that you never trained to run your fastest and you never trained to run consecutive races – to sustain a high level of physical exertion repeatedly over a number of runs.

But what does running a race have to do with musical performance?

Practising vs performing

If you are wearing a smartwatch right now as you sit and read this article, you can tell what your current heart rate (HR) is. A resting adult’s healthy HR is around 60–100 beats per minute (bpm). The more efficient your heart function and the better your cardiovascular fitness, the lower your resting HR will be. HR also varies according to age and health, and the intensity of the activity you engage in. If you measure your HR during violin practice, for example, it would be somewhere between 80–110bpm. This means that in the practice room you rehearse a recital programme at no more than 110bpm. But what is our HR actually like when we perform under pressure?

In a 2008 study (‘The Energy Cost of Rock Drumming: A Casy Study’, by Marcus Smith et al.), rock drumming is shown to be an intense and physically demanding activity with a mean HR value of 155bpm and peak HR values reaching 179bpm, which is well over the predicted maximum for the 52-year-old subject of the study. This means that if practice HR has been around 110bpm, the subject has not adequately prepared for playing at the average and peak HR values reached during performance. In a way that is similar to the case of your first 5km and subsequent races outlined above, the chances are that injuries will follow, as the player continues to perform unprepared at high levels of intensity day in and day out, in a busy schedule that hardly allows time for rest and recovery. If you are an orchestral musician, by the way, you are particularly susceptible to serious playing-related musculoskeletal disorders which, if left untreated, can threaten your career.

But in your defence you say that you are a string player, not a rock drummer, and that therefore the above-mentioned high HR values cannot possibly apply to your playing. And if your HR values during performance are not as high as they are in rock drumming, then you do not need to change the way you practise.

Although there is no research published yet on the physiological demands of music performance on string players, and comparisons cannot properly be made between string playing and rock drumming, there has been a study investigating the physiological demands of performance on pianists. Owing to the nature of the instrument and the genre of music played, data from this research might be more readily relatable to string players.

The findings of this 2011 study (‘Investigating the physiological demands of musical performance’, by Terry Clark et al.) suggest that pianists perform at a mean HR of 108.95bpm, with certain pieces registering a peak HR of 173bpm. This means that whereas the average HR is relatively low here when compared with that during rock drumming, peak HR is similar. Therefore, while the average HR in piano playing is comparable to a bout of moderate exercise, such as going for a brisk walk, peak HR can be compared to a high-intensity activity, such as running. The difference in energy expenditure during piano performance also shows the intermittent nature of piano playing and the fluctuations in intensity between the pieces and within each piece (table 1). What these findings suggest is that cardiovascular fitness plays an important part in musical performance and that physical exercise could be a valuable part of a musician’s training.

Working towards cardiovascular fitness

Back in 2004, Adrian Taylor and David Wasley (‘Physical Fitness’, in Musical Excellence: Strategies and Techniques to Enhance Performance) offered the musician suggestions for physical activity and exercise both from the perspective of general fitness and as a pre-performance routine. The programme begins with a generally easy 20-minute session of brisk walking in week 1, progressing over a 16-week period with an increase in frequency, time and intensity which is incremental, so as to avoid injury and unpleasant soreness post-exercise.

Although this remains the only piece of research with direct recommendations for musicians, nowadays there are many options for starting slow and building up your base fitness. Please remember, however, that the saying ‘no pain, no gain’ does not apply here: although you must push yourself, you should not do so beyond your limit. It is important to start slowly and steadily, as starting at an unsustainable intensity and frequency will lead to negative experiences and injury which in turn will lead to you dropping out of exercise.

Practising with an elevated HR

Practising and performing are two different activities. In the first, we observe the skill of learning music (notes, passages, phrasing and so on); whereas in the second, we observe the skill of performing. And practising all the time is fine if we never need to perform. But, similar to the example of the 5km race I mentioned earlier, if this is all we do, we never prepare for the instances in which we need to perform under pressure. And under pressure we perform at a mean HR value of around 155bpm and at a peak HR value of around 180bpm. So how can we practise playing with this elevated HR?

One way of doing so is by simulating performance. When the pressure is on and the excitement and anxiety kick in, HR increases. Of course, simulation can never be an exact replica of a real performance so it is possible that you may not always simulate peak HR, but research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology (by Aaron Williamon et al., 2014) has shown that to practise performance effectively there is no need to replicate it perfectly.

What is important, however, is to pin down some of the key details of performance and to include them in the simulation. For me, this includes changing into my concert dress and wearing my concert shoes, as performing in these never feels as comfortable as playing in a hoodie and trainers. It also means that before entering the stage (the dining room) I will wait in the green room (the sitting room) for 10–15 minutes without allowing myself the luxury of warming up on my instrument. The lighting in the dining room plays an important part too. As long as I have one blinding spotlight facing my direction, I am ready to go. To add more pressure to the simulation and to increase my HR, I video record myself as I play once through my repertoire. In addition to this, I wear a smartwatch and a HR monitor strap in order to record and later review my HR values during performance.

Another way of practising performance with an elevated HR is to engage in moderate to vigorous exercise immediately before your performance simulation. Depending on your general physical health and physical fitness, going up and down the stairs will help elevate HR values. Then you can pick up your instrument and play through your repertoire. Or you could choose to do a number of star jumps instead. Whichever exercise you choose to do, please exercise with caution and seek medical advice if need be.

Do consider physical exercise as a strategy for performance both for you as a performer and as an integral part of your students’ musical education. After all, a lack of physical activity can lead to negative health consequences that include musculoskeletal and locomotion problems, especially when combined with stressful working environments that encourage long periods of practice and competition, and particularly where the repeated lockdowns over the past two years have forced many of us to be more sedentary. Therefore, choose to be healthy. Choose to have a sustainable and long career. But most of all, be performance ready. Get fit to perform.

This article has also been published on The Strad

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