Strength Training Made Me a Better Musician

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Two things happened this week that caused some major light bulb moments. At first as I was mulling them over I thought, “goddamn I wish someone had explained this to me in university” and then I realized that if someone HAD explained this stuff to me when I was in university and IF it had the desired effect, my life would be very very different today. And that would be too bad because I kinda like the way life has turned out.gru-bulb

Earlier this week I was doing a guest lecture at a local university. The topic of my presentation was High-Performance Nutrition, and it was for the 4th-year music students. Because it’s late in the year and said students are well into exam prep, final recitals and concerts, and facing the end of their careers as students and heading out into the unforgiving world of freelance music, dealing with the physical effects of stress figured prominently in my presentation. Specifically, eating well and staying hydrated, maintaining regular exercise, and getting good-quality rest while under stress. A hand shot up in the front row.

“But what if you’re stressed already and trying to eat right makes it worse and then you binge on junk food?”

Good question.

Don’t confuse perfect with pretty good, was my response. Chasing perfect is a stress in itself; you don’t need that extra pressure – the goal when you’re stressed out is to fuel your body, stay healthy, and keep your mind sharp for other stuff. Eating regularly (ideally including some lean protein, veggies, and fruit) and staying hydrated is good enough.

Then I had an out of body experience.

It’s the same as practicing, I heard myself say. Some days everything comes together and you sound and feel amazing. Most of the time it’s not awesome though, and some days it feels freaking terrible, like you’ve borrowed a body from someone else and you haven’t figured out how to use it yet. On those days, do you say ‘fuck it, I’ll start again Monday’, or do you embrace the suck, put in your time and do the best you can with what you’ve got?

If you give in to that ‘fuck it’ moment with the promise that you’ll be extra perfect later to make up for it, you’ll spend your life trying to make up for what you didn’t do yesterday. It’s a vicious circle and it pushes those amazing days farther apart. That’s a stressful place to be. Good enough is good enough.

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The other thing that happened was that a few weeks ago I was hired to play a gig that, let’s face it, I am not in shape for. In fact, where music is concerned, I pretty much live in a zone where I feel perpetually out of shape and every time I play (I’m not even joking, EVERY TIME) I think, “geez, I really should have practiced more…” but I have enough hours on the horn behind me that I can get the gig done somehow. That’s not going to fly on these performances though – on these ones I will need to be in shape on two instruments, mentally sharp, and know a LOT of challenging music. It’s also something I’d really like to get hired again for, so…the only thing to do is work on it every damn day until then.

I started by playing in intervals: ten minutes on, ten minutes off. The goal wasn’t to sound good, just to make noise for 10min at a time to build strength. I hacked through whatever was on the music stand in our basement: saxophone etudes. Characteristic studies for the trumpet. Jazz standards. Vocalises. Trying to get cleaner technique, clearer sound, smoother transitions, accurate articulation. As my work capacity improved and my intervals got longer, I started adding in sets of 5-8 repetitions of stuff so that I would build more strength. Increase my efficiency. Get into the hurt box a little bit.

Wait…What? This sounds like me talking about a workout program. Not about creating art. Cause this is art, right?

Nope. Not this part of playing music, anyway.

It occurred to me that I approach practicing music the same way as I approach lifting weights….and it has actually become an enjoyable process. This is kind of a big deal, because when I was in university (and for the few years after that that I was trying to be a serious musician) I did NOT practice well. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely put in a lot of hours – but they were not constructive hours, and I didn’t enjoy them. You know why? Because of the expectations that I dragged into the practice room with me. I had this weird sense of righteousness, like I was supposed to be creating something amazing every time I got out my instrument…and when that didn’t happen it pissed me right off. I’d either give up for the day, or I’d go for hours, practicing angrily and insensitively, without any thought to detail. Without any thought to anything at all inside that practice room, actually – instead my mind would start listing all the people who I imagined were disappointed in me, or I’d steam over where I thought I should be versus where I was…it was definitely not the pleasantly meditative endeavour it is now. Quite the opposite.

Because I didn’t get it. Practicing to build skills and endurance is not about creating great music. It’s not about elevating mankind. That stuff comes later, once you’ve put the time in. And there is no place for Judgy Judgerson in the practice room. It’s just training.

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Use it or Lose it

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One of my clients recently had an old friend from university come to stay with him for a few days. Leading up to the visit, my client was pretty excited – he had planned all sorts of things for them to do together, including concerts, museum and gallery visits, and a trip to Jasper to see the mountains.

When he got back to the gym after the visit was over, I asked him how his week had gone. He scowled and told me that although it was good to see his friend again, the visit was frustrating. “It took him ten minutes to get into the car and ten more minutes to get out, with my help,” he said. Apparently they only did a few of the outings he had planned and they didn’t get to the mountains because his friend wasn’t up to the physical challenge. “He’s in terrible shape,” my client ranted. “He can’t do anything.. I spent the whole time looking after him.”

Now, to put this story in context, both men are 74. One has been going to the gym three times a week for the past five years and is in the best shape of his life, and the other one…well, you read the story. The moral here is, of course, use it or lose it. If you don’t get some purposeful activity almost every damn day, your body will break down on you and you won’t be able to do the fun stuff you want to do.

So why oh why are there so many doctors, physiotherapists, and other highly-educated health practitioners out there who tell their older patients not to exercise, or more specifically, not to strength train? WHY?

That’s a rhetorical question, of course; I know the reason why: it’s because they don’t know. They don’t know what the benefits are and they don’t want to be responsible for sending an older person into the weight room when they themselves wouldn’t know where to start.* And they are afraid of the anaphylactic reaction that will happen if they admit out loud that they don’t know something…(wait, was that out loud? Sorry. But not really.)

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My first experience with this phenomenon was many years ago. I was working with a lady who, at 62, was in great shape – she was at a healthy weight, no joint problems or underlying health conditions. She stepped in a gopher hole at the dog park and sprained her ankle. She went to a physiotherapist for help with recovery, and the guy asked her why she wanted better function in her ankle. She replied that she wanted to get back to walking in the park with her dogs, she wanted to be able to squat and lunge in the gym again, she – “hang on,” he said. “Nobody your age should be squatting or lunging. And you shouldn’t work with a trainer who asks you to squat or lunge.”

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The happy ending to that story is that eight years later she is still working with me. And squatting and lunging like a boss at seventy years old.

These are not isolated incidents. Just yesterday one of my seventy-year-old clients was told by her physiotherapist that she shouldn’t try to reach over her head. Another was told by her doctor recently that she shouldn’t exercise; that she should just “take it easy” instead of walking every morning with the group of ladies that she’s been walking with every single morning for forty years. (And can I just say how amazing I think it is that there is a group of neighbors who have been going for a walk together every day at 6:30am for forty years? How often does that happen?)

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It comes down to this: when you start treating your body like it’s delicate, it will become delicate. Age doesn’t matter – you can be fit and strong and healthy whenever you damn well want to (although if you start when you’re eighty it may require some patience, let’s be real). If ANYONE tells you that you shouldn’t be doing something basic like walking or squatting or reaching overhead, they better have a good reason why you shouldn’t do it. And doctors? Stop writing off my older clients – they’ll kick your asses.

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*To be fair, there are lots of really great docs and physios out there who do lift and they are slowly changing the field.