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It’s a physical thing

There is no other way to say it. Playing a string instrument, and any instrument (yes, I include singing), is a physical thing. We are athletes. We may not take care of ourselves like competitive athletes, but the refined muscle motions that musicians carry out are athletic. (this is my 5th daily post for #MUS654 and I’m thinking about the challenges in playing my instrument as one of the tasks)

I did an experiment a few years ago- and never wrote it up… It happens in academia. This was a sort of prelude to what could have been a more formal experiment. My students and I performed solos in a concert that was repeated in various settings: in mainstream schools, special needs schools, at the university, and in the different settings I had us all wearing heart rate monitors. The interesting thing was that when we played our heart rates jumped a mile! Mine went from ‘lecture mode’ at about 100 to over 140 in performance. The very interesting thing was that this was consistent, regardless of whether it was a university audience or an audience of special needs children.

140 ?!!? That’s pushing near the anaerobic threshold for me. Like running. RUNNING. Cello playing = running. Whoa… That begins to explain the proximity of my cookie consumption and performance.

Really though, many musicians would laugh if you suggested they go for a run for the endurance of their performance, but we put our bodies (or parts of them) through similar stresses. We have certain muscle groups that are highly toned and trained, and the rest of us…? It is certainly something to consider.

When I think of the physicality of playing, I am reminded that I always thought I was unbreakable, superhuman, well – that it certainly wouldn’t happen to me… I was first aware of my misuse when I had my second child and I realised as a cellist that I was twisting and moving my torso away from the instrument instead of bringing the instrument to me. The impact was my SI joint came slightly asunder and was very painful indeed… I fixed it via careful physiotherapy, but really, I thought it would never happen to me.

It is magic to be young, but nobody is impervious to being human, and it benefits us all to practice good use of our bodies. We only get one after all! I leave you today with a visual reminder of how we move as we play:

Featured image CC BY-NC-SA by R Kurtz

4 thoughts on “It’s a physical thing”

  1. Really fascinating post. I’ve played multiple instruments for years and although completed invigorated after performing, I always wondered why I was exhausted after a performance. This all makes sense now. Springsteen is quite the Athlete. Thanks

  2. This is so interesting. (And I really MUST get back to my work, but I have been poking around all that you do. Fabulous) … I want to impart one small story. About my late uncle, Frank Glazer, who was a world-class concert pianist who, sadly, died just a month before his plans for six concerts in four states (U.S.) to celebrate his 100th birthday.

    When he was a young man, and he had gone straight from high school to Germany to study with Schnabel and Schoenberg, he decided to take a couple of courses at UCLA in physics and anatomy to study how to alter his playing style so that it was the most efficient — the least amount of wear and tear on his body and the most “succinct” amount of movement.

    He practiced every day on the same piano (when he was at home) for 69 years. (The piano has a tone unlike any other I have heard.) His playing motion were designed around the natural positioning of the skeleton, the natural motion of the joints, muscles, tendons and joints.

    He had no arthritis. His playing, while missing the speed and dexterity of his youth, had been offset by what he termed “what I know in here,” and he would gently pat his chest. He feels his best overall performance was on his 99th birthday in Boston, this from a man who played with major symphonies, in some of the worlds greatest halls.

    While he knew he had good genetics, he often said that his brief interlude in college (he never received a degree) were the most important courses he ever took in life, that it helped him adopt a playing style that gave him control, power and longevity.



    1. Your story reminds me of a lady I spent a couple of summers with as a lodger – Marjorie Garrigue. It was in your neck of the woods, just across Lake Champlain while I was at Meadowmount. She was 98 when I lived with her and her teacher was Rachmaninov. She didn’t play to me, but she told stories and listened, and it was in the conversations of those summers that I began to shed some of the youthful angst of striving to get somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, I am still very competitive, oh and want to do things and get places, but the ‘in here’ of your uncle is key and I am drawn to that more and more. Once people know how that feels (and often it is only a fleeting connection – not easy to find – I speak as no master!) then I think it’s a turning point. A balance of striving and resting with somehow not getting in your own way…
      Thank you for all you have shared here!

      1. Thank you for that story. We must remember, as we get older, how much impact we have simply by listening with our hearts. My daughter, recently, opened for a well known musician — three concerts in three states — and what she said about that was how gracious they were, how interested they were in her and her partner’s music and direction and how much they urged her to follow her own heart. Which has lead her to move ti New York so she can be with musicians who work as hard as she.

        A turning point for her — after two months on tour.

        Thank you


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