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 have rolled 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 are partnering with physical therapy groups in our community to raise whole-body awareness in our students. Therapists set up each week in the lounge area and see any student free of charge. These onsite drop-in visits can help prevent injuries before they get serious.
We also have a freezer in the lounge area, so ice packs are always available to our students. Although ice packs are standard issue in the gym and dance studios, they are not typically available in conservatories. We are glad to be an exception! 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. There are regular sessions on Alexander Technique given by Professor Kathy Privatt of our Theater Department, and an evening yoga session., Erin Krueger, Doctor of Audiology also makes annual visits to provide free hearing tests and talk about how to prevent hearing loss. 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 meditation as an integral part of Professor Gene Biringer’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 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!