I know we hear this all the time: “you should, you should, you should!” I have spent so much of my life resisting all these “I shoulds”, but they are often just adding to our ever growing puddle of guilt. So I have made a resolution. I am going to spend the next month really doing some of these “I shoulds” for a change. In the process of this I started to think about what should I be doing as a musicians every day, but often don’t. These things are sometimes not done due to time constraints, laziness or lack of habit forming discipline. Sometimes (though I cannot say this is true in my case) they are also as a result of not knowing how essential these things are.
1. Warm-up physically before we play
Research has shown that physically warming up before you play and cooling down after you play can reduce your chances of getting a playing-related injury. By warm-ups I mean doing physical warm-ups without the instrument. I know that most of us warm-up with the instrument, which is also very important, but so few of us actually warm-up our bodies, which are so integral in the music making process. We just sort of start playing regardless of how our bodies are feeling. Warming up the body is especially important for us on very cold days, when our body and hands are cold. You are really increasing your chances of getting hurt playing with cold hands and let’s face it…you just cannot play up to your usual standards with freezing fingers, so treat your body with love and warm it up!
These exercises should be a combination of movement and stretching. Some experts suggests that stretching should only be done when muscles are already warm, so rather think of your warm-up routine as a possibility to wake up the body and move than a rigorous stretching session. Starting at your feet get each joint in your body moving by making small circles with them. Swing your arms in a figure of eight, massage your hands awake and make ridiculous faces to wake up your facial muscles. There are so many wonderful exercises you can do that are fun and get you physically ready to play. WATCH this free video for some ideas on how to warm up!
I know I know. We are busy and already spend so much time playing our instruments, which are physically demanding. I also know you are aware of the heaps of research that shows how beneficial exercise is for your health. If you thought that exercising has benefits for your overall health, wait and see how many incredible benefits it has for your music.
Exercise triggers the release of those wonderful endorphins which reduces stress, anxiety and depression. This is not to be sneezed at my friends. You spend so many hours in a small, often dark and dingy practice room, alone. You are probably preparing for concerts, auditions or exams and are highly stressed and under great pressure to perform. I am giving you a fix. That ‘miracle drug’ or ‘happy pill’ is just a jog, swim or walk away. So get out and move! If you can do this in the great outdoors then you have really won first prize.
Exercise keeps your postural muscles conditioned and strong which helps your posture during playing. Research suggests that exercise particularly helps with preventing posture related pain, such as back and neck pain. Cardio exercise (the stuff that makes you huff and puff) allows your body to get used to a state of increased heart rate, something we all know about from performance situations. For wind player and singers, cardio will also increase lung capacity (who doesn’t need that!).
However, some experts do warn against exercises that can harm rather than help you, especially impact sports or other sports that also have high chances of injury. There is a great deal of debate on this subject. While some experts believe you should not use muscles that you would use during music making in your exercise routine, others feel it is necessary to carefully strengthen these muscle groups. I will not advise anything except this: listen to what your body needs. Be conscious of whether or not the exercise you are doing is working. Perhaps do some reading. My top choices are: yoga, Pilates, tai-chi, running, swimming, surfing and hiking. If it doesn’t hurt, then do what you love. You will be more likely to stick with it!
3. Stretch breaks
I spoke about taking practice breaks in a previous article, so I will not repeat the massive benefits of this in this article (for more info read here) but instead of just sitting in a room waiting for your break to pass or scrolling through social media sites of your phone (some of you are doing that right and I will encourage you to finish reading and then put it down, I’m serious. Down) consider getting up and moving. Rotate your joints again and get all those muscles moving. We really underestimate the negative effects that standing or sitting in the same position has on us. Yes, we are moving small muscles but so much of what we do is static and that for hours at a time. This is particularly problematic for instruments that use asymmetrical postures (eg. flute and violin). We have to constantly be doing counteractive movements between practice, so once again get moving! Need some really great stretching ideas? We created a 7-day gentle stretch course to help you with exactly this and it will be released VERY soon.
4. Slow practice
I know what you are thinking. It is the same thing I think when someone tells me that I should do more slow practice: “But I am practicing slowly!” Now take an honest moment. Are you REALLY practicing slowly enough, enough of the time? For me the answer to this is almost always no. It is our human nature — we want things immediately. I think I may start a slow practice day. A whole day when I really force myself to practice slowly. Perhaps I will prefer a “slow practice hour” every day. The truth is that we never can have enough practice, never mind slow practice.
Before you start thinking that slow practice is just about playing through something slowly, stop yourself, open you browser (okay you may pick-up your phone for this one thing again!) and google slow practice tips. If an article on a site called The Bulletproof Musician comes up, read it! Read as much as you can about this powerful tool. I will soon compile a summary of some of the important tips, but here is the essential part: slow practice is a mindful exercise in which you give yourself enough time to really think, listen, react and integrate everything the music needs.
5. Mental rehearsal
If I had a top choice award for the thing that “I should do all the time but don’t”, here it is! This incredibly powerful tool can be such a massive game changer. Top musicians use it all the time, as do athletes. In fact in athletes this is often what separates those that will really achieve and those that don’t. I need an entire article to outline the different mental rehearsal tricks but if this is something you know little about or have never really tried I really encourage you to explore this. Here is a great article to for your to READ to get your started on this journey (once again The Bulletproof Musician…but such a great site!).
I will warn you. In the beginning this is incredibly difficult to do. Learning to create mental maps of your playing and playing movements is something that builds over time. I can say that I have done enough of this in my life to be at a point where I can rehearse anything anywhere, provided I have it memorized or have the music in front of me. That horrible run in my piece, that finger movement I really struggle with, even the breathing in that ridiculously long phrase. It is amazing for memorization as well. If you can rehearse the entire piece in your head you can be sure that you have it down!
So who will be joining me on this quest of doing more of these things? What things do you struggle to do everyday even though you know you should? Sometimes putting it into words publicly can help strengthen your resolution to actually do it…well let us see shall we, I will let you know how it is going with me!