Seems like everyone is on the fitness train nowadays. The pressure to workout is in your face everywhere you look. From Hot Yoga to Barre, to Aerials, Jiu Jitsu and CrossFit, it seems there’s something for everybody…. except performance artists… where do you fit in? And do you even want to work out?
You’ve been told you need to exercise, and we all know it’s just plain good for us, but let’s be real: for those of us to whom the inside of a gym is as foreign as the face of Mars, where do we even start? And apart from looking good on stage, why should we? I’m happy to tell you that there are a host of other benefits besides making sure your skinny jeans don’t produce a muffin top.
I got my start in the world of performance injury relatively young, discovered the flute in middle school and by high school it was life. I grew up just south of Nashville, and was part of almost every honor band and orchestra available. My junior year of high school I attended the Interlochen Arts Camp. My body was completely unprepared for the sheer volume of playing I was about to do and back then, no one talked about much of anything physical relating to practicing. Going from 1-2 hours of playing a day to 8 hours for 8 weeks I quickly developed tendonitis in my wrist. By the time I got home, I couldn’t hold a pencil without pain. The doctor told me I should “stop playing”. That would be the first of 4 times I would hear that advice.
Fast forward to graduate school. I got into the habit of working out every day, which I loved. Unfortunately, I had no idea what I was doing and ended up working muscles that were overused, and with poor form. On one exercise I felt a “pop” and a sear of pain and couldn’t move. In agonizing pain, I went to health services who told me I had strained (aka: tore) a muscle in my back. He told me, a performance major, in graduate school to “stop playing”.
Third time came after grad school when I learned about a piccolo audition for a job I really wanted. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the repertoire, so again, I went from 0 to 100, cramming hours a day in to learn the music. After a couple of weeks, I couldn’t move my right arm and I had intense spasms in my back. I’ll never forget the doctor’s words. “Ordinarily I’d give you a cortisone shot in the trigger point in your chest that’s causing the back spasms, to help it relax. Unfortunately, it’s right over your heart, and it might kill you, so you should probably just stop playing”.
I had had it. THIS was all the answer there was? I couldn’t imagine any other profession getting that answer, so I decided that since I couldn’t find any answers, I would BE an answer. Then I discovered the National Academy of Sports Medicine where I got my Certified Personal Training certificate and my Corrective Exercise Specialization. I then formed my company Music Strong, which uses smart strength training to prevent overuse injuries and address muscle imbalances, keeping musicians strong and balanced and giving them confidence and longevity in their careers.
Your body is your first instrument, and when it isn’t working properly, it’s only a matter of time before other things are affected. Some things to think about:
All of these things come back to one important thing, MONEY. If you don’t have energy, confidence or have a cold, you can’t give your all, you can’t be your best, and people don’t want to pay for sub-par.
By and large, this is one of the biggest benefits to exercise. There is something so incredible when someone picks up a weight they thought was previously impossible. You can see the excitement on their faces and now they want to break whatever other self-imposed barriers there may be. A couple of examples:
John is a classically trained tenor and author and when we started, he had terrible back pain. Recently, I put some weight on a barbell and he deadlifted from the floor for the first time in his life. He was no longer guarding his back and as he picked it off the floor, his face lit up in a huge smile and he shouted: “this is important!” He did several more before turning to me and exclaiming how excited he was that he could do an exercise he previously thought impossible. From there we’ve gone to much more advanced moves and he’s crushing them all. His confidence is palpable.
Another client of mine was a petite 24-year lady who had never worked out in her life, the gym totally intimidated her. In our initial session, I told her “I’m going to have you pick up a barbell with your butt”. She didn’t believe me that would be possible, but as we worked together you could see how much more confident she was every time she walked into the gym. The day came and she laughed and said: “let’s go for it!” She did it multiple times and did a happy dance. That young lady now has confidence that spills out into the rest of her life.
Sometimes we put barriers on ourselves with what we think we can and cannot do when we have no idea what’s possible. We limit ourselves. But there is something so incredibly empowering about picking up something really heavy, and doing it well that breeds certain confidence. When you push yourself outside your comfort zone and succeed you take that with you through other parts of your life.
Have you ever noticed that when you start following a dedicated routine in some part of your life, there is carry over to another? Exercise is no exception. When you take dedicated time to do a workout routine and start to see the results, (be it increased strength, better breathing, increased endurance or….is that an AB MUSCLE??) it hits you that you have more control than maybe you thought you did and this spills over to other areas of your life as well, contributing to a decrease in anxiety. Exercise is empowering, just watch it change your life outside of the gym!
How many of us feel we have to be everything to everyone and do it all perfectly and self-care is a frou-frou word dedicated to people who don’t have jobs or anything else to do? We’ve heard that if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will, but it’s so true, and just like in an airplane you’re told to put your mask on first and then help the child next to you, you have to help yourself before you can help anyone else.
I LOVE music, but when I play all day long, there’s no balance. I need to step away and enjoy a hobby. One of mine is biking. I can’t take phone calls, I can’t answer emails or texts or work on my website…all I have is the challenge in front of me and that time is strictly for me. Another one of my clients put it this way, “I see the value in this, I put my foot down and these few hours a week I carve out just for me, or else I’ll go crazy. I have to have that time that I devote to myself”.
Exercise releases endorphins, the feel-good hormones, and who doesn’t want more of those? Last year I had my gallbladder removed and for a few weeks, I was restricted in movement. I got really anxious about my finances, lonely, stressed and depressed. 10 days later I FINALLY was able to get on my bike….and I was elated! I realized how so much of the negativity I was feeling was because I wasn’t able to move or exercise.
We can build up so much anxiety about ourselves, doing things perfectly, being enough when you step into a gym and put yourself in a trainer’s hands, you are allowing yourself to be a beginner again. There are no expectations for you. Can you feel the relief that comes with those words? You have the freedom to fail and learn. Putting yourself in the hands of a coach that is right for you can do so much to alleviate stress and performance anxiety. And, as you get stronger and more confident, your anxiety decreases. Decreased anxiety allows you to be more creative, to relax, your cortisone levels go down and so does your weight.
Why is it the best ideas seem to come to us in the shower? Because when you get into hot water, it can serve as a vasodilator, letting your blood vessels open up and allowing easier blood flow to the brain. With that increased blood flow comes increased oxygen which in turn, helps to give us some of our best ideas. The same things happen when we exercise. Maybe all you need to give you the final line to the chorus of that song you’ve been working on is a little exercise.
Have you ever moved? You know, had to pack up everything you own and unpack it somewhere else? Do you remember at the end of the day how bone-tired you were and how you slept? There’s a certain satisfaction to physical exertion and knowing you’ve really pushed yourself. Your body needs to recover and after a workout, the only place it can rebuild and recover is sleep. So, if you find yourself tossing and turning, a good workout might be all you need.
These are just a few of the multitude of benefits you can get from exercise that have absolutely nothing to do with how you look. Sure, we all want to look great and feel good about how we look, and exercise can get you there, but take a look at this list, don’t you want all these things as well?
To be fair, I have written a book with a lot of what I consider the absolute essentials, all done without equipment, so these will follow suit. Assuming you aren’t in a public place that would give you weird looks, you can try these right now.
In simplistic terms, a foam roller is really used to calm down overactive muscles and increase mobility. One of my favorite uses is for the upper back. To use: Place a foam roller at the base of your shoulder blades. Let your head rest in your hands, pull your elbows in front of your face, lift your butt and roll from the bottom to the top of your shoulder blades making sure no to roll lower. After you’ve made several passes, drop your butt to the ground and lean backwards over the rolled. Readjust as necessary taking care to stay away from your lower back.
Put your arm in a doorway with your elbow at 90 degrees. Squeeze your shoulder blade back and down toward your low back and twist your body away from the door. If you don’t feel much, try bringing your arm up higher. Hold for 30 seconds.
Place your arm on a steady surface behind you. Rotate your hand so your thumb and first finger are touching the wall. Squeeze your shoulder slightly down and back, straighten your arm and twist your body away from your arm. This will stretch the bicep. To stretch the front of the shoulder, rotate your arm so the back of your hand is flat against the wall. Hold for 30 seconds.
To do this stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Push your hips backwards keeping your spine neutral. Arms should be in front of your body with palms pointing forward. Raise your arms straight out to the side with thumbs pointing to the ceiling, keeping shoulders away from your ears and think about bringing the bottom of your shoulder blades together. Do 15 times.
From the starting position, squeeze the bottom of your shoulder blades down towards your hips and bring your arms up in a somewhat narrow “V”. You are pulling your shoulder blades down AS you are lifting your arms up. Keep your arms straight, and your head neutral. This should be difficult.
Lie on your back, with knees bent and feet flat. Pull your belly button toward your spine and mash your low back into the floor. Raise your arms overhead and drop them alternately behind your head. This is enough for some people, but if not, lift both legs to a 90-degree angle and drop one heel toward the ground at a time.
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to treat or diagnose, and its language been simplified.
Angela McCuiston is a NASM-CPT, CES, SFS and holds her M.M. in flute performance from The Florida State University. An active musician, she plays assistant principal/piccolo in Sinfonia Gulf Coast of Destin, FL and with the 313th Army Band in Nashville, as well as teaching and freelancing in Nashville, TN. Winner of the 2005 Piccolo Masterclass Competition for the National Flute Association, she has fused her love of fitness and music to form Music Strong, a business that provides fitness solutions to musicians. In 2018 she accepted the position of Chair of the Performance Health Committee for the NFA and is sought out national as a resource in musician’s health and fitness. She currently resides in Nashville, TN.
➞ Angela’s website: Music Strong