Strength Training Made Me a Better Musician


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.


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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