The Musician As A Sportsperson
I often liken the musician's life to that of a sportsperson's: the many hours of specialist training, the
constant need to hone and improve one's techniques and skill base, to keep fit and build stamina
to cope with the Herculean learning and upkeep of all those notes, punishing concert schedules,
traveling, and indeed the music itself which can present its own particular physical and mental
challenges (for example, playing Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto has been likened to
shovelling around three tons of coal - and that does not include the mental and emotional exertion
required to learn and perform this monumental work). Added to this there is the need to feed the
artistic temperament, never having permission to be less than perfect, for one is only as good as
one's last performance - just as the champion sportsman or woman will be remembered for the last
world record broken or gold medal won.
It can be a smothering profession, at whatever level one is engaged in it. In addition to the many
hours of practising, there is painstaking work to be done away from the instrument, reading,
analysing and annotating scores, marking up fingering schemes etc. There is always new
repertoire to be learnt, old repertoire to be revised, overhauled, finessed, or just simply kept going,
a large repertoire which can be made ready for some kind of performance within a matter of days,
depending on one's schedule. Top athletes and musicians know that excellence comes from hours
and hours of this kind of highly focused training. One is not born with this extraordinary talent: it
must be developed and refined - and that takes hard graft and commitment.
And then there is performing itself which requires special preparation, in particular learning how to
deal with the rush of adrenaline which comes with the anxiety of performance. As pianist Steven
Osborne says "Concert tours aren't quite real life...
All that weird adrenaline. The rhythm of anticipation then coming down afterwards -
it's not normal to do that day after day."
Sports people experience this too: it is the adrenaline pumping through the body which, in addition
to all the careful training and preparation, propels the sprinter down the track or the cyclist up that
Hors Categorie Alp in the Tour de France. And it drives that particular aspect of ego which makes
sports people and musicians go out and perform (and sport can be seen as a performance - why
else are we captivated by live TV broadcasts of rugby matches, skeleton bobsleigh, snowboarding,
gymnastics, et al?).
The pressure to perform and perform perfectly has caused many an athlete, and musician, to
abandon the sport/profession and turn his or her attention to related aspects such as teaching and
developing young talent. For in that moment when you are alone on the stage, you know that if you
make a mistake there will be no-one there to help you. Learning how to deal with the anxiety and
loneliness of performance and that special rush of adrenaline is a crucial aspect of being a
performer, and an athlete, and many strategies for dealing with performance anxiety are drawn
from sports psychology and NLP. Even the most junior students and performers need to
understand why we feel nervous and to be given strategies to overcome anxiety and to learn how
to work with adrenaline to enable one to respond to it positively and to lift one's performance. And
also to accept that mistakes are inevitable and normal, because we are all human.
There are day-to-day aspects of the musician's life which also chime with that of the athlete: just as
one experiences an endorphin rush, the feeling of well-being and euphoria as the body is flooded
with "happy hormones" during physical exercise, so musicians enjoy the same feelings through the
physical activity of practising and engaging with the instrument. When this is combined with
adrenaline in a performance situation, one can come off stage on an extreme "high" and it can take
several hours to come down.
Musicians also need to understand how to listen to the body and manage injuries in the same way
as sportspeople do. Injuries can be devastating if not managed correctly, leading to cancelled
concerts (and therefore loss of income), and, in extreme cases, can bring careers to a premature
end. Repetitive strain conditions such as tendonitis and tenosynovitis must be taken seriously, and
affected fingers, hands, wrists, backs and other limbs rested and given time to recuperate. It is
important to adopt the correct posture when playing (for the pianist, an adjustable piano stool is
essential) and to take regular breaks. Many musicians whom I know actively engage in sports such
as tennis, running, swimming, cycling and weight-training, and many of us use exercises drawn
from yoga, Pilates, Alexander Technique and Feldenkrais to keep our bodies in good condition.
Exercise and sport can also provide useful "down time" for the musician, allowing important time
away from the instrument.
The image of the classical musician as an effete artiste locked in his or her ivory tower is no longer
accurate. Instead imagine a focused athlete, honing body and mind.
Frances Wilson is a London-based pianist, piano teacher,
concert reviewer and blogger on music and pianism as
The Cross-Eyed Pianist.
She is a reviewer for international concert and
opera listings and review site Bachtrack.com, and
contributes art and exhibition reviews to US-based culture and art site
She writes a regular column on aspects of piano playing for
‘Pianist’ magazine’s online content,
and contributes guest articles to a number of classical
music and music education websites around the world,
including Clavier Companion and The Sampler,
the blog of SoundandMusic.org,
the UK charity for new music.
Frances is Artistic Director of the South London Concert Series,
an innovative concert concept which gives talented amateur
musicians the opportunity to perform alongside young and
emerging professional and semi-professional artists in the
same formal concert setting
Read more on her blog: www.crosseyedpianist.com