The Musician as an Athlete – Part 2: Corrective Exercise

Part 1 – Introduction
Part 2 – Corrective Exercise

In Part 1 of this series I mentioned Janos Starker’s lifelong routine of a daily swim, calling it ‘corrective exercise’, a term I would now like to clarify. Musicians spend several hours a day essentially working through one limited plane of movement. Pianists play with their hands in front of them on the keyboard, shoulders internally rotated; a cellist’s bowing arm is similarly internally rotated but their left is in a different position that can tighten up the muscles surrounding the shoulder blade; violinists often have their head tilted to one side and violists have all the problems that violinists deal with but worse, since they are holding a much heavier instrument.

Internal rotation of the shoulder joint contributes to imbalances, injury and eventually a permanent slump and poor posture. It is common theme for musicians (including brass and woodwind players) and also for anyone who has a desk job, so I am going to suggest an example routine that you can begin straight away if you fit into any of these categories.

The following mobilisation routine should be completed before you first practise of the day:
Begin by encouraging bloodflow to the shoulders and throughout the upper body with a series of arm swings. You can be as imaginative as you like here, just make sure to swing both arms forwards, backwards and sideways. I would then suggest holding a few stretches. Ease into the stretch and hold until you feel the muscle relax – the primary objective of these stretches is not to lengthen the muscles (although this will happen in time), but to stimulate a neural connection from the brain to the muscles so that they work optimally when you start to play.

Suggested stretches include:
1. Spine roll downs- from a standing position, roll down to touch the floor starting from the vertebrae at the top of the spine and striving for an even curve all the way down. Come back up slowly.
2. Spine openers – sit cross-legged on the floor and raise you hands above your head, palms facing inward shoulder-width apart. Think of your spine lengthening as you reach upwards and simultaneously keep your tailbone pressed into the floor.
3. Pectoral muscles – stand facing a wall with one arm against it and turn gradually away from that arm.
4. Neck stretch (particularly good for violinists) – to stretch the right side, with your right arm straight actively press the shoulder downwards. Tuck your chin and then gently turn your head to the left, tilting it slightly to help get more of a stretch. Take this one slowly as the muscles you are stretching are very slender and it is quite easy to overdo it.
5. Hip flexors – in a standing position, bend one leg and grab the ankle behind you. Pull it up until your knee is totally flexed and then contract your glute muscles in order to press the hips forward slightly. This should open up the flexors in the front of your hips which become very tight when sitting down.
6. Cobra spine flexion – lying face down, gently push yourself up on the palms of your hands (or your elbows if that is too much straight away). Repeat several times, moving your hands back towards you each time in order to flex the spine a little further.

I use some of these stretches after practising as well.

In terms of Corrective Exercise, everybody has different requirements, but if I had to pick three exercises that would be a valuable addition to every musician’s day they would be:

1. Face Pulls – holidng a resistance band which is fastened at head height in front of you, pull both ends (one in each hand) towards your face finishing by your ears. Think about initiating the movement from the muscles in your back between the shoulder blades.
2. Finger Fans – put a rubber band around your fingers and simply open out your hands against the resistance, keeping your fingers straight.
3. Hollow Body Holds – this one is difficult to describe but the video below gives helpful progressions and instructions. This exercise is great for that ‘core strength’ that we hear about all the time and very important to give you a stable platform from which to play your instrument, preventing fatigue that inevitably leads to poor posture.

Here are a couple of books I would recommend for anyone who finds this kind of thing interesting:

The Permanent Pain Cure Ming Chew

And if you get any sore spots, despite your diligent stretching (!) this is a great little self-treatment book that works a treat for athletes and musicians alike.

Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, Davies & Davies

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