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Danielle Gomez

Approaching Music like an Athlete

October 9, 2011 at 7:52 AM

Music is an intellectual pastime.  Though any full-time musician will tell you that there is definitely a physical element, I don't think anyone would necessarily qualify it as a "sport."  Now, we could go back and forth arguing about this, but it isn't really the point of this particular post.  The point I wanted to make is that those that don't play an instrument already will immediately categorize music as a "study" rather than "training."

I think this lack of awareness of the physicality of instrument playing is the cause of 99% of all frustrations for beginning students regardless of age.  As soon as they know how to do something they should be able to do that something, right?  Well, if you were memorizing history dates, I would say yes.  But playing an instrument requires muscles.

Yes, muscles.  Those poor finger and back muscles are so easy to forget.  Playing an exercise once on your instrument is like running once around a track and saying you're in shape.  It doesn't work like that.  Olympic runners run around the same track over and over and over again.  They know that they have to condition their muscles if they want to expect peak performance from them.  They have to establish muscle memory.

It's true that you probably won't get winded playing an instrument.  And you're not trying to reach your optimum heart rate.  But the muscles in your hands work exactly the same as any other muscle in your body.  Response time and strength must be trained, not just thought.  Thinking about having nice biceps won't make any develop.  Unfortunately.

Therefore, the mastery of difficult techniques must be approached like an athlete.  Endless, tireless repetitions are the only way cure screeches or awkward fingers.  That's part of the reason why learning to play any instrument takes so long.  Our muscles are slow learners.

From Tom Holzman
Posted on October 9, 2011 at 1:27 PM

Danielle - some aspects of music require more than just finger muscles and good muscle memory.  Shoulder and arm muscles are important also, and there is much to be said for taking steps to strengthen them so that they do not cause problems.  Thus, violinists should think about doing some work with weights, just as athletes do.

From Anthony Barletta
Posted on October 9, 2011 at 6:11 PM

Agree.  I often compare playing the violin to gymnastics.  Nailing a shift is a small scale version of sticking a landing after a dismount.  Both disciplines require an extraordinary kinesthetic awareness and both optimally require starting at a very young age when the developing nervous system is at its most plastic phase.

From Danielle Gomez
Posted on October 9, 2011 at 6:26 PM


Of course.  I just used the finger and back muscles as general examples.  But they all have to be trained and, as you suggested, sometimes even focused on.

From al ku
Posted on October 10, 2011 at 11:27 AM

couple comments in additional to op's excellent point and other posts.

i think if a player is more physically conditioned to playing the violin (or any other basic physical exercises), the player tends to pay more attention to how the body feels and is able to prevent repetitive injuries more readily. with repetition comes the concern of overuse, so a player's conditioning level must increase to accompany the higher physical demand.

also, we frequently experience or see poor performance despite hours and hours of practice.  this is as often seen in violin as in sports.  i believe there needs to be a deliberate training on mind-body interaction: how to excel under pressure.  sports people called it zone, tunnel vision, etc.  serious violin students will find helpful if they start explore this area earlier and more proactively.  a tiny change in the mental aspect, constantly,  can bring in big dividend in the levels of enjoyment and performance.  with the proper mind set, there is more inner calm, focus and seemingly endless physical power and endurance. 

From Andrei Pricope
Posted on October 10, 2011 at 1:49 PM

1. There are NO muscles in our fingers.

2. Muscles don't learn or remember, they only react to commands; the nervous system learns and memorizes. Hands and fingers don't make mistakes, the brain does. 

3. Practice is for training the brain to learn and remember to give the muscles the right command sequence, reliably at the right time, serving the musical intent of the player.

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on October 10, 2011 at 2:21 PM

I'm sure Danielle knows that the muscles that control the fingers aren't actually in the fingers but are further up, in the hand and arm. She was merely using a common figure of speech.

From Jim Hastings
Posted on October 10, 2011 at 3:02 PM

I'm not a runner; but I've worked out regularly with free weights for a long time and can definitely connect with what you wrote here about muscles.

A basic principle of strength training: Don't directly work the same muscle group 2 days in a row.  In violin practice, I apply this principle to really strenuous left-hand excercises like Kreutzer 9.

Walking has been a part of my life since childhood.  In winter, especially, I notice that the feet and hands will stay warm for a long time after a 20-minute walk at about 3.5 mph.  This helps me start strong in a music practice session.

True, you can't just think your way to nice biceps -- although visualization, having clearly in mind the result you're aiming for, is a tool we use a lot -- much as we use audiation in violin practice.

Andrei made the point I was about to make regarding fingers.  Thank goodness there are no finger muscles; otherwise, hypertrophy from working them -- and atrophy from disuse -- would undoubtedly cause problems in our playing.

From al ku
Posted on October 10, 2011 at 3:45 PM

 "There are NO muscles in our fingers."

there are no little biceps and triceps, that is for sure.  from the link you have provided, you can learn about hand muscles in our fingers under the heading "intrinsic".  

i got away from danielle's blog with this: if you sound bad because you have not put in the time and effort, don't feel bad, hahaha.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 10, 2011 at 5:51 PM

 It's very true that beginners often do not understand why we practice, and that training our muscles is a huge part of it.

As for "There is no such thing as muscle memory" and trying to pick this apart by saying it's all in the nerves, all I can say is fine, use whatever terminology you want. But Danielle's point here is that you have to use your muscles repeatedly to develop those "nerves," and "muscle memory" is a very commonly used term for this because it describes how we perceive it. Do something hundreds of times with your muscles, and you have "muscle memory," call it nerve memory about muscles if you want. But I do recall, after I sprained my ankle, that my medical doctor (and much literature that I read at the time) said that the sprain would affect my "muscle memory," so even doctors use the more colloquial term. For example, I could not take it for granted any more that I could negotiate the stairs in the dark; because of the damage in my ankle (and perhaps in the nerves of my ankle) my ankle would more easily "forget" the type of memories they had developed through the use of those muscles. 

And practice is for the muscles, for sure, as well as the brain. Maybe your brain is giving the command, but your muscles are executing, and they gain strength and precision from doing the tasks.


From Lawrence Kallus
Posted on October 11, 2011 at 2:31 AM

I believe that the strength of muscles is extremely important as well as  durability.     Do a continuous:  cdcdcdcdcd on the G String at a high speed and see how long it will take until the muscles in your arm that control the third and fourth finger run out of oxygen and start to hurt.  Be careful not to overdue it.  If one practices it slowly with increasing speed over a period of time, this "trill" will last longer and longer.

But I also believe that your hands and arms are driven by commands from that incredibly sophisticated and complex computer called the brain.    Light strikes the page and the eye sees the shape and position of the "note" on the staff.   The eye sends a signal to the brain, which has already stored on its hard drive the key signature, time signature and modulation of the music that is being played plus an incredible amount  of additional information that you have stored there while you have been "learning."   The eye is continually sending this information, including the following notes in real time.    Your violin-brain computer analyzes all this information and then sends "orders" to your bowing arm and hand as well as to your left arm, hand and fingers.  During the years of learning what you are doing is, in effect, programming the computer in your brain in order to digest all this information, make the correct decision(s) and issue the correct orders.   Of course your arms, hands and fingers must be conditioned to follow these orders.    It takes (sob) years!!!!!!!

From JulieAnn Heaton
Posted on October 15, 2011 at 2:15 PM

Thank you for this article. I often hear 'Don't over think it.' from my viola instructor. Reading this article, something just clicked for me. I've just realized that somewhere along the line, I came up with the unrealistic belief that, if I can understand in my head what I'm supposed to be playing, I should be able to play it. Then I'm frustrated if I can't.

Intellectual understanding can only take you so far. I tend to over-analyze what I play to the point of not being able to play it at all because I'm 'over thinking' it. I do, of course, play difficult areas repeatedly, but I think that now I will be able to show a little more grace to my physical side and let it catch up to the intellectual side. My attitude towards running around that track over and over will be much more realistic. Thanks!

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