Empowering Musicians: Teaching, Performing, Living: Well Musicians Perform Music Well!

By Russell, Jeffrey A. | American Music Teacher, February-March 2017 | Go to article overview

Empowering Musicians: Teaching, Performing, Living: Well Musicians Perform Music Well!


Russell, Jeffrey A., American Music Teacher


From my scientific, healthcare professional vantage point, I observe that a musician is an extension of his or her instrument. I have considered this thoroughly, since my healthcare practice is exclusively offered to performing artists, including musicians. As I watch performances, I see that clarinets, marimbas, trumpets, cellos and pianos do not play themselves. (Well, there is a clever device called a player piano, but I believe that, notwithstanding this instrument, my point is clear.) Maximal effort and quality of performance only result when the full instrument is in excellent condition throughout. My valuable associations with many talented musicians and music teachers corroborate this.

A saxophone with two missing pads, a sousaphone with a stuck valve, a trombone with a deep dent in its slide and a six-string acoustic guitar with only five strings (including two loose ones) are ludicrous to imagine being allowed into a studio, much less a performance hall. Yet, could it be true that we allow the essential equivalent of these when the most important part of the instrument--the part with a highly sophisticated body and a brain that operates it with precision--suffers a preventable affliction, a deficiency that precludes pain-free, error-free, stress-free performance? A baseball team would be ecstatic to have a player who can hit successfully 175 times out of 500 at-bats; the resulting .350 batting average is something rarely attained. We are not enthusiastic at all, though, about a concert pianist who can only hit 175 notes correctly out of every 500. Yikes!

Thus, the musician is a high-level performer not unlike an athlete, but with a standard for achievement that far exceeds what is reasonable and acceptable in most sports. With this perspective let us venture into a discussion that, sadly in my experience, elicits far more talk than action. This article will offer some ideas and tips for becoming and staying well as a musician. After all, it is well musicians who perform music well.

Five Areas Needing Attention

The body is a complex, amazing tapestry of tissues, levers, organs, glands, fluids and other components that synergistically allow us to function on planet Earth. While very, very adaptable, it also is not indestructible. With respect to musicianship and being well as a musician, five important areas relating to the body need new emphasis.

Consider a single music staff. There are lots of notations that are set upon it, but its five lines form the framework on which the music is written. Without all five, a music score would not look right, nor would it work properly. Similarly, consider the five wellness factors I am about to outline as the framework on which the life and livelihood of a musician rest. The absence of one (or more) has the same effect on a musician's performance that a missing line or two has on a music staff.

1. Overall Physical Fitness

The benefits of physical exercise are, at this point in history, irrefutable. Longevity, weight control, body system function, mental health, bone strength and stamina are some of the important factors improved by regular physical activity. (1) For individuals not accustomed to exercising, CDC offers excellent, accessible resources for initiating an exercise program. (2)

Engaging in regular aerobic exercise yields positive effects related to certain aspects of musicianship. Heightened efficiency in oxygen utilization assists all musicians, while improved breath control impacts primarily wind instrumentalists and vocalists. Whereas music is an inherently stressful field, physical exercise brings benefits to the psychological aspects of performance by reducing the negative effects of stress. Greater overall endurance for long hours of practice and rehearsals is seen in physically active individuals, as well; this makes them less susceptible to fatigue and, presumably, fatigue-related overuse injuries. …

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