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Fit as a fiddle

10 years ago

  At first glance there may seem to be little in common between training a young athlete and a music student. ABRSM examiner, William Bruce, investigates where the similarities lie and the importance of nurturing healthy students. Many young people today spend a large amount of their time in sedentary activities, whether it’s using a computer, playing game consoles or watching television.  Add into the mix a heavy school bag, coolly thrown over one shoulder, and a large number of text messages putting excess strain on their thumbs, and it is little wonder that physical problems appear to be on the increase. Playing a musical instrument involves highly complex and precise physical movements. And, similar to an athlete, it requires strength, physical flexibility and body awareness – even a short practice session involves considerable repetition of certain movements. When learning a musical instrument it is therefore important to treat your body with the same respect as an athlete – to feed and nurture it so that it can cope and respond to the demands you ask of it.

What can we do as music teachers to establish healthy playing habits in our students?

Throughout every lesson, try to encourage a balanced playing position. Many physical problems can be related to poor posture, which is not necessarily the result of the way an instrument is played, but can certainly be an aggravating factor. Poor posture can strain muscles, nerves and joints, and raises the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders, such as low back pain and repetitive strain injuries. A balanced posture, however, based on joints in a neutral position, allows students to move freely in the way their bodies were designed. Here are a few more ideas:

  • Encourage a short routine of simple stretches before and after practice. Instil a technical warm-up in your student’s practice routines and a gentle cool-down too.
  • Try using a video camera or mirror to help develop body-awareness. Alternatively, balancing a small soft toy on your student’s head for a short time can instantly improve posture without the need to say anything!
  • Encourage your pupils to tell you if they are experiencing pain. Emphasise the importance of getting up and moving around every 30 minutes, and to always stop if they feel pain.
  • Ask your students to play their instruments in different positions. If your student plays their instrument standing up during the lesson, regularly review their posture sitting down to support any orchestral or chamber music playing.
  • Encourage mental practice away from their instrument. Strategies might include thinking through fingerings while looking at the notes, internally visualising the ebb and flow of energy in the phrase, understanding the architecture of the piece through analysis or miming the piece with light, effortless and balanced body choreography.
  • Drink a glass of water at the start of the lesson or practice session. This helps improve concentration. Dehydration can reduce an athlete's performance by up to 30%.
  • Check the instrument is the correct size. An instrument that is too large or too small will be uncomfortable to play, can increase physical strain and ingrain excessive tension habits.
  • Find out where they practise. Emphasise the importance of practising in a room with enough light, heat and on a correct size chair (if they practise sitting down).
  • Recommend a light case, particularly for heavy instruments.

What to do when things go wrong?

The British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) run free, confidential health-assessment clinics for professional, semi-professional and student performing artists. They offer specialist advice and guidance, a directory of practitioners, and a range of health awareness resources including warm-up exercises for performers and top tips for instrumental musicians and singers – all of which are available to download from their website:

William Bruce is an examiner for ABRSM, health and safety officer at the ENO, and head of strings at Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

This article was originally featured in the September 2010 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

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