Embracing Our Inner Athlete

As musicians, we haven’t been quick to recognize the athleticism of our art. Our warm-up exercises tend to focus on the parts of our bodies that are most directly associated with making music–lips, vocal chords, finger dexterity– all the things that are needed to create beautiful tone and technical facility. These exercises are critically important to our art. What we typically overlook, however, are the rest of the muscles in our body–the core muscles which support us and make everything else we do as musicians possible.

If you have ever doubted the sheer physicality of being a musician, heft a ten pound trombone up to your shoulder again and again for four to five hours a day; support a violin or viola, arm outstretched, for hours on end; hook a saxophone to a neck-strap and feel the strain on your shoulder muscles; stand with perfect posture and sing, or sit with perfect posture and play the piano from dawn until dusk. The muscle required for these activities are the same core muscles that dancers and athletes spend endless hours stretching, developing and strengthening. Sadly, we musicians typically spend little time away from our instruments building this critical foundation of strength. For most of us, full body stretches, or core strengthening exercises are something one does in the gym not in a practice room. Often, the first time we really start to pay attention to the rest of our body is when we start to experience pain.

Even then, musicians are just as likely to “play through” the injury rather than actively seek assistance. The good news is that attitudes are changing. More and more attention is being paid to the whole musician instead of just the parts directly associated with music-making. At Lawrence, our administration, faculty, staff, and students are all committed to a holistic approach to health and wellness. Here are just a few things that we will be rolling out in the Conservatory. First, we purchased all new chairs for the chapel stage. These chairs are specifically designed to provide the ideal support for musicians and represent a vast improvement over the chairs they replaced. Our musicians were thrilled! The cellist even gave us a standing ovation! Second, we have just started an initiative where we are partnering with physical therapy groups in our community to raise whole-body awareness in our students. Therapists will visit each studio to discuss the challenges that each instrument poses for the muscles of the body. They will work with students to talk about warm up routines, proper posture, early warning signs of pending injury, and exercises to build core muscle strength. The visits will also provide students the opportunity to ask any questions they might have.

In addition, we hope to soon have an on-site physical therapist for an hour or two each week that will be available for quick, ten minute “touch base” visits, so students can help avert injuries before they get serious. I have seen this approach work well in ballet companies, and I trust it will be equally beneficial in our conservatory. We also plan to install a freezer, so ice packs are always available to our students. Although ice packs are standard issue in the gym and dance studios, I believe this is the first time they will be widely available in the Con. It will be a welcome addition! Students can also take advantage of our Tuba Professor, Marty Erickson’s weekly group warm-up sessions which focus on stretching all the muscles of the body, before picking up one’s musical instrument. I’ve sat in on this class and it is a great start to the day, even if the only keyboard you will be using is hooked to your computer!

Our students are also passionate about this initiative. The Dean’s Advisory Council (DAC) has started a lecture series focused on wellness and injury prevention. Just this week there will be a session on Alexander Technique given by Professor Kathy Privatt of our Theater Department, and an evening yoga session. Two weeks from now, Erin Krueger, Doctor of Audiology will give a presentation on the prevention of hearing loss in musicians. In addition, a student run, Injury Prevention Support Group, was just formed. They meet each Sunday to share advice and ideas. To give you an idea of the extent of student involvement, the Facebook Group “Prevention of Playing Related Injuries in the Con!” was just created a few weeks ago and already has 78 members! Hats off to student violinist, Jordan King, for his leadership in this area.

Finally, a holistic approach wouldn’t really be holistic without attention being paid to the role of stress in performance related pain and injury. For those regular readers of this blog, my challenge to students and faculty to “do less” is at the heart of this initiative. Other notable efforts in the area of stress reduction include a yoga session as part of Professor Laura Sindberg’s Instrumental Conducting Class, and meditation as a integral part of Professor Gene Beringer’s Mysticism and Music Seminar. We will also be looking at biofeedback as a way to decrease stage fright and anxiety in musicians.

As dean, I am so excited about our progress in this area. Early attention to these issues will help our students have long, healthy, productive performance careers. I’ve only been able to highlight some of the many advances we are making in this area, but if we have made this much progress in the past few months, I can hardly wait to see what the future holds. The way I look at it, a trip to the gym isn’t so far removed from the world of music–it’s just cross-training for our musician athletes!

If you ever want to comment on my blog, please feel free to write me at pertlb@lawrence.edu. I would love to hear from you.

Submitted 7 February 2009

By Brian Pertl, Dean, Lawrence Conservatory of Music

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