What lessons can musicians learn from athletes when it comes to physical and mental well-being?
The mental and physical strain that musicians experience is very similar to that of professional athletes, yet both groups deal with it very differently. For decades, runners or swimmers have worked with physiotherapists and/or psychologists regularly, as an integral part of their training to maintain a strong, healthy body, and a stable, calm mind. Yet in music, it’s only in recent years that it has become commonplace for us to really consider our health as part of our daily training.
Sports and music are more similar than we want to believe. So much mental strength and planning goes into the performance of a professional athlete, and equally, musicians require phenomenal strength and endurance to conduct a Wagner opera or play Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. The world of sports draws more money than the world of classical music, therefore a lot of research has been conducted for athletes to always achieve better results and avoid injury. It could be suggested that the ‘business’ of music and the necessity for things to be evermore dramatic turned music-making into a high-performance job, with similar challenges to sports performance.
There are an ever-growing number of specialists, relaxation techniques, and well-being courses for teachers on offer, which is great news for musicians wanting to experience a long and healthy career. As someone with a deep passion for both music and sport, this growing awareness of wellbeing is music to my ears!
My path to becoming a professional musician began at the age of six when I started to learn piano at a state music school in Warsaw. In the following years, I also learned the flute and eventually went to Vienna to study conducting at the University of Music and Performing Arts, where I graduated in 2014 at the age of 26. Until then, I had heard no word about healthy posture, natural breathing, mental fitness, or release of tension. The only reason I managed to stay in decent health was my background in sports. I had been training and competing in multiple disciplines starting at the age of three (swimming, skiing, basketball, 400m run, acrobatics, gymnastics, dance, football). All this gave my body strength and my mind a refuge.
After my diploma, I was lucky enough to find an amazing specialist in the area of musician's health (a doctor and singer in one) who cured my tennis elbow, helped me with stage fright, and made it easier to connect with music despite the enormous pressure installed in my head by years of professional musical training and unhealthy competition. This experience inspired me to do a post-graduate course in Music Physiology at the University for Music and Performing Arts in Vienna. Only there I discovered the rich amount of resources out there that help achieve a balanced mental and physical health. I have added them to my training routine and I am doing reasonably well so far!
As I go on with my conducting career, I meet musicians that struggle with all sorts of daily pains. In most cases they get used to it, they take it as part of the job. We all focus on technique, sound, organising gigs, and winning auditions. We care so much for our instruments! Changing strings, cleaning, making reeds. And we don't spend even half that time maintaining the body that will operate that instrument!
Ideally, from the very beginning of our musical training, a wise and knowledgeable teacher would have taught us how to hold and operate our instrument in agreement with the physiology of our body. But, if not, here are a few things you can do:
- Learn how to release tension after practicing, what kind of exercises to do to balance out the uneven strain we put on our muscles.
- Become aware of your hearing. It is the only function of your body that does not regenerate and ideally silence should be a part of our life to balance out all the sounds we produce while making music.
- There are some excellent self-help books, written by and for professional athletes, on the topic of performance stress. Physiotherapists are taking interest in the issues that instrumentalists are facing – a great example of that being the book Musicians in motion – 100 exercises by Alexandra Türk-Espitalier.
Long-term solutions are out there, we just have to look over to our neighbors in sports and take a bit of their attitude towards our bodies and minds. We are only given one shot, only one body, and it needs proper maintenance. A warm-up before practicing in a cold practice room, a stretch after an exhausting concert of Bruckner or minimalist music, a calming, centering breath before stepping out to play that most important audition. A run, swim or a spin to keep a healthy heart and have a bit more endurance for a concert tour. And maybe, just maybe – when a colleague is attempting a difficult solo and has a slip – a cheer from the group and an encouraging word from the teacher can make all the difference!
For more information about the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's season, visit bsolive.com