A Musician's Fitness Routine

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Question: I’m a music student – a piano student – and also I want to start a fitness program. Can it damage my piano technique? I mean, how can push-ups, pull-ups, yoga, isometric training and so on bring me problems with practice, and if this is the case, what kind of fitness routine do you recommend? Thank you!

:)

– Juan José Jiménez Vallejo

Albert’s reply: I’m actually training for an Ironman triathlon and am in fact writing this on the train on my way to run the Prague Marathon. For a number of years I had assumed that weight training would place too much strain on the muscles and joints and could negatively affect piano playing. I’m happy to say that I’ve found exactly the opposite to be the case.

I’ve done all of the exercises you mentioned extensively. Currently, I work out six days a week, mostly combining running, weightlifting and swimming, sometimes with two different workouts a day (e.g., running and weightlifting). Originally I started weightlifting only as physical therapy for my spine (which is congenitally curved by 30 degrees), in order to balance out the musculature in the upper back. I work with a personal trainer who initially limited my routine to exercises that wouldn’t affect my hands. In the meantime, I’ve discovered that any exercise is perfectly fine as long as I don’t overdo it. I sometimes even do pushups on my fingertips!

A Personal Story

I’m fortunate to have met with a career-stopping, debilitating injury early on in my professional life. I certainly didn’t feel lucky going through round-the-clock pain, with many attempts at restarting serious practice and performing, though eventually I found the blessing in disguise. In my case, my scoliosis, combined with “piano posture,” the stress of perfectionism and countless hours at the piano eventually destroyed my ability to play. The blessing in disguise was my newfound commitment to place my health and fitness first. I stopped thinking like a patient in need of therapy. Instead I created a vision for my health and fitness, and this is why I’ve now committed to completing an Ironman. We should be proud of our bodies, not ashamed of them.

Musicians and Injuries

Musicians are at high risk of physical injury in general. We practice for hours a day, often with poor posture. Pianists tend to hunch their shoulders and lean in, craning their neck. Many pianists play with an inefficient technique, expending far too much effort in tone production. (This is an area in which less effort, combined with high leverage, nearly always brings better results.) At least pianists are balanced laterally, with both hands doing similar work. Violinists are forced to twist their bodies into a comparatively unnatural position, with their arms and hands doing very unequal work and their necks easily cramped. It’s easy to see how hours and hours of daily practice can lead to injury.

This is a good reason for all musicians to undertake a proper fitness program. We need to counterbalance all the stress we put on our bodies, not just from countless hours of practice but also from performing. I’ve seen playing a solo recital compared with a major sporting event in terms of physical and mental stress and expenditure of energy, and it’s easy to see why. One of my teachers, Steven Smith, once told me that if professional athletes were held to the same standards as professional classical musicians, professional sports would no longer exist.

Piano and Sports

There is one concert pianist who is also a serious bodybuilder: Tzimon Barto. (Actually he’s from Florida and his real name is John Smith.) When he stepped onstage I could have sworn his shoulders were nearly as wide as the piano! I think if you’re looking to do competitive bodybuilding, then that could be a risk to your piano tone, which relies on great sensitivity. It’s possible to be too strong and not know your own strength. I once worked with an excellent piano technician, except that he seemed to voice the piano for his style of playing. He was extremely strong – far stronger than your typical pianist – and softened the hammers to compensate for the fact that it was so easy for him to press the keys down hard. When we pianists of average strength played, the piano was too soft. Fortunately, that was easily corrected in subsequent sessions, and the technician did superb work. If you’re just looking to do a regular fitness program, then I’m sure a moderate amount of any non-contact sport can only help. (I prefer to avoid full-contact sports or skiing as the risk of injury is high, although admittedly I love racing cars!)

A Pianist’s Fitness Routine

Above all, pianists need to compensate for their work at the instrument, all of which is directed forward. The very fact that the piano is in front of them leads to a highly imbalanced musculature, with shoulders turned in and necks craned. You can identify turned-in shoulders when someone is standing and facing you: If the backs of the hands, rather than the thumbs, are pointing forward, this is an indication of a postural deficiency in the shoulders. To correct this problem, pianists need to focus their effort on exercises that involve the reverse motion: Any exercises directed backwards are especially good. This means doing more back exercises than chest exercises, since the latter are directed forward.

I should conclude with the obligatory disclaimer: Obviously I’m not a medical doctor and I have no medical qualifications. I can only share my personal experiences and nothing I write should be misconstrued as medical advice.

That said, I wish you much success both in your piano studies and in your fitness program! I’d love to hear of your and others’ experiences with music and fitness in the comments section below.

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