The Musician as an Athlete – Part 1

My first series of articles for this blog is going to address a topic close to my heart and central to my way of living.

Part 1 is really just an introduction. In Part 2 I will talk about my concept of ‘corrective’ exercise for musicians. Part 3 will take the athlete’s concept of ‘efficiency’ and apply it to instrumental technique. Please feel free to ask questions in the Comments section and I will do my best to address them, either directly or in a future post.

The fact that I engage seriously in both music and sports is often a source of surprise to both musicians and athletes. I hardly ever meet a fellow athlete while playing chamber music or a professional musician out on a training run. (The recent exception to this was a Saturday morning chaingang – that’s a fast bike ride – with Twickenham Cycling Club when I found myself riding alongside Anthony Hewitt, a concert pianist who also happens to be a pretty nifty cyclist.)

I have always loved sport and I do it for its own sake. I love being outside, I love to push myself to new limits and I have a competitive streak that is not fulfilled by my musical aspirations, since music simply doesn’t work competitively. There are also many parallels between the two including a shared requirement for coordination, dedication and mental strength. Many endurance sports reward a strong sense of rhythm and can also help a brass player develop strong lungs. The majority of musicians, however, give up sport from a very early age, especially those who show early promise and are often excused from school P.E. in order to get in a few more hours of practise.

An excellent example of my favourite tactic - protecting hands with face.

An excellent example of my favourite tactic – protecting hands with face.

Why do they do this? Often it is for fear of injury and it is true that many sports put a musicians’ hands at risk: rowing stiffens up and desensitises the fingers; rugby, netball and cricket all carry risk of broken fingers or worse. The sport that occupied most of my teenage years was lacrosse, which is played with a hard rubber ball thrown around at head height in netted sticks. In order to knock the ball out, opponents are allowed to hit your stick, inches from where your hands are holding it. I had in the back of my mind the possibility and consequences of a broken finger but I wore gloves and adapted and refined my technique in order to minimise the risk. I broke my nose four times and got a few black-eyes, but that didn’t bother me enough to change sports or modify my style of play…

Perhaps I was lucky, but many people sustain serious injuries simply tripping over the doorstep. I would rather enjoy the sports I love, taking a calculated risk, and benefit from the enhanced balance and strength which might in turn help me to catch myself before falling down a flight of stairs carrying a cello.

Furthermore, sports and particularly ‘corrective’ exercise can allow musicians to play their instruments more efficiently and for longer, both in the short and longterm. I will address specific types of ‘corrective’ exercise and give my suggestions on how to implement them in Part 2.

Roger FedererWhen I think of perfect, balanced cello technique the man who comes to mind is Janos Starker. Like Roger Federer flowing around the court, or a lithe cyclist dancing their way up an Alpine pass, he made even the most complex, acrobatic playing look easy. And guess what? Yes, Starker always approached his cello technique with the thorough detachment of an athlete, but he also swam every day, counterbalancing the hours of practising his instrument with corrective exercise.

Here is the great man performing the Kodaly Solo Sonata with utter physical poise –  all the passion is in the sound he creates and no energy is wasted in pointless extra movements or tension. ‘Efficient’ does not mean ‘boring’, and I will talk about efficiency in more depth with regards both sport and music in Part 3.

And for good measure, here is ‘that video’ of Fabian Cancellara descending at 40mph+ with a great soundtrack…

1 thought on “The Musician as an Athlete – Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Musician as an Athlete – Part 2: Corrective Exercise | joylisney

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