There are many types of musicians. Studio musicians, touring musicians, freelancers, buskers, professional orchestral musicians, professional club musicians, composers, teachers, students. Many different combinations of all of the above and more. Then, there are the various major genres: classical, jazz, rock, R&B, folk, the list goes on. No one musician’s career is like any other. All lead dramatically different and colorful musical lives, yet all share one trait: the never-ending quest for perfection.
Perfectionism is what drives your passion, hones your craft, seeks out flawless sound, and lays down the best rhythms. But perfectionism is a double-edged sword. The concept of “perfect” is so philosophical and so subjective that it’s really impossible to achieve. One person’s perfect is another person’s junk. And in this way, it’s easy to believe that the music you create is only either good or bad. In fact, your entire life can get shaded in the colors of black and white, so that everything you touch, everything you do, everything you think, and everything you produce is only either good or bad. It’s at this point that perfectionism becomes toxic.
In a survey done by Record Union, 73% of surveyed participants reported feeling “negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and/or depression in relation to their music creation.” And 67% said that “fear of failure” was the biggest contributor to their negative emotions. Interestingly enough, other studies have revealed that just as many if not more musicians report experiencing during their career at least one kind of playing-related injury (E.g. tendonitis, thoracic outlet syndrome, carpal tunnel, tennis elbow, bulging/slipped/herniated discs, focal dystonia, etc.) It seems a strange coincidence that both mental illness and physical injury are so prevalent among musicians. And yet, when you dig further, it turns out these issues are in fact related. In order to know more, you have to know a little about how our brains work.
It’s a common thought that human brains are intended for higher-level cognitive and emotional functions. But scientists are discovering that memory, thinking, and emotional abilities are all built on the foundation of our movement capabilities. The brain of any animal is meant for movement. Movement is a connection to the environment. It’s how animals (including humans) survive and thrive. Your cognitive and emotional abilities aid your movement which adds to your chances of survival. This means that the movement of your physical body actually links to the processes of your mind.
In other words, it’s not accurate to say that your mind and body NEED connecting. They are connected regardless of whether you are aware of the connection. Instead, you need to become more conscious of the connection. Once you understand this clear unison of your mind and body, then it becomes much easier to understand how so many musicians can suffer simultaneously from both negative emotions and physical injuries. The toxic perfectionism and fear of failure that so many experience creates a kind of perfect storm of physical, emotional, and cognitive tension.
With all of this in mind, the question becomes what can you do to improve your overall health. For that, I have very good news. Multiple studies have shown that improving your movement can actually improve your mental health. Now this being said, many people like to argue about which type of movement is best. Should you do yoga? Run? Bike? Swim? CrossFit? Will I injure myself? What if I’m too tired or sore to play my next gig? I’ve spent my life straddling the music and movement worlds and I can honestly say that the movement or type of exercise program matters far less. The most important thing is to incorporate mindfulness into your movement. This creates more consciousness between movement, emotion, and cognition. Here are my 5 tips for how to bring mindfulness into whatever movement you want to practice:
“No Pain No Gain” is a mantra often promoted by society, that if you hurt, then somehow you are making yourself better. And as a musician, you’ve probably been taught that pain is a necessary part of making worthwhile art. When exercising, it becomes very easy to tell yourself that the pain you feel is totally necessary for improving your health. But how paradoxical is that? You have to hurt to feel better? This is so far from the truth. In fact, it’s much easier to make progress and enjoy what you’re doing if you stay within your range of comfort. It’s okay for a workout or activity to be a little challenging, but just like with music it should NEVER hurt.
Movement doesn’t have to be fancy or elaborate to be effective. You can find some pretty complicated exercise programs out there. Complicated enough to make you want to run screaming for the hills, but keeping it simple is so much more effective especially when you’re new or returning to fitness. Sometimes it can be as easy as going for a walk. Walking is one of the most underrated forms of exercise. Just like with music, you get good at the basics before you tackle the hard stuff. If you need some ideas about simple movements to get you started, I’ve got a video for you down below.
We live in an instant-gratification culture. We want things now. But if you’re a musician, then you know the power of slow practice. It’s the same with movement practice. Injury occurs when you push yourself too hard too soon. Exercising your way out of an injury can become a game of Chutes and Ladders. You progress too fast, get injured, backslide, and find yourself back where you started. You can either push yourself to be stuck in this cycle, or you can make slow, steady progress. The mantra in my band is “1% better every week is 52% better in a year.” I think the same holds true for fitness. 50% improvement in anything (whether it be your pain level, deadlift, tempo of Flight of the Bumblebee) is huge.
If you play an instrument, then you have spent a lengthy amount of time developing a very specialized, fine motor movement. Some of the best movement you can do to counteract the stress of that specialized movement is whole-body, functional movement. Bodybuilding and isometric exercises have their time and place, but if you’re just getting started, look for activities that move your whole body – swimming, walking, Zumba, or just crawling on the floor like a baby (seriously) – will do.
This is the most important part of any movement program. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then what’s the point? Now, if what you enjoy is causing you pain, then you need to reevaluate. But, you don’t need to step back from it completely. Sometimes, reevaluating can be as simple as observing your thought patterns (Are you highly competitive?), reorganizing your movement patterns (Can you find a better way to move?), or noticing your stress levels (What else is going on in your life?). Don’t let pain stop you from doing things, rather allow pain to tell you what needs to be adjusted.
Dr. Rachel White Galvin is a movement specialist and freelance musician. She holds a Doctorate in Viola Performance, and is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner, certified USA Weightlifting Level 1 coach, and a former CrossFit Level 2 trainer. She struggled with playing-related injury and depression for 15 years. She healed herself by changing her movement and mindset. Now she helps others do the same.
➞ Rachel’s website