You’re An Athlete, So Act Like It

Rachel Potter gives us advice about taking care of our bodies as an artist.

If you’re a dancer, you just rolled your eyes and gave me a “Duh.” But, chances are, if you’re in any of the other artistic disciplines, you might not place such a label on yourself. It’s easy to see how dancers are athletes; their art IS movement, it’s what they do. They hold their bodies in awkward positions, leap back and forth across stages, and do so with such grace that the rest of us mortals are left only to wonder in astonishment.

I’m here to tell you, if you are an artist, you are an athlete. Maybe not a basketball dribbling, hockey skating, sprinting kind, but an athlete nonetheless, and your body would like to be treated as such. Injuries among performing artists are not uncommon. You all know a musician that has struggled with tendonitis or carpal tunnel, a dancer with strained muscles, or an actor with back trouble. No injury is unique to any specific discipline, but many could be alleviated by some preventative measures.

Musicians, especially, are guilty of ignoring the strength aspect of their art. Think, for a moment, about the incredible stress that many of us put on the very small muscles in our hands, our faces, and our respiratory systems. Not to mention, the stress on our skeletal system as we sit to practice and or/hold our instruments. On top of all of this is the time that we spend at our computers, using those same small muscles to type papers, emails, and Facebook messages and that same skeletal system to support it all.

So, first things first. The itty-bitty muscles that we use to create this wonderful things called music. If you haven’t incorporated a routine of stretching into your practice time, please do so today! You have nothing to lose.

OK. Stand up. Do it. Hold each stretch for 10ish seconds, bearing in mind that these are meant to relax, not add strain. As such, stretch, don’t pull anything so far that body yells, “Ouch!”

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Stretch#1: reach your right arm across your body. Keeping your right shoulder down, use your left to pull your arm toward your chest, and feel the stretch through your shoulder. Repeat for the left arm.
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Stretch #2: right arm up! Bend your elbow behind your head and use your left hand to pull your elbow slightly farther than it goes on it’s own. Feel the stretch through your tricep. Repeat on the left arm.
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Stretch #3: clasp your hands like you’re praying, now turn them inside out and push your palms away from you so that your arms are straight. Stretch across the top of you back/shoulders. Do the same with your hands behind you to stretch across your chest.
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Stretch #4: right arm out in front of you as though you are a traffic guarding telling a line of cars to stop. Use your left hand to grab your first three fingers (all but the pinky) and pull back slightly, stretching gently through the palm. Hold, then repeat leaving out the pointer finger, but holding the other three fingers. Keep your arm out, but let you’re hand fall. Cup your left hand on the top of your right and pull back, stretching the top of your wrist and your forearm. Repeat this on your left hand.

Easy, right? Two or 3 minutes and you’re done. Now, on to bigger and better things, namely your skeletal system. You put a lot of strain on it because you stand all the time or sit in strange positions at you instrument. This one, I can’t give you a step by step how to to fix if you’re having back/neck/shoulder troubles. However, here are some things to bear in mind:

–what muscles are you using to play/move, and do you need to employ (and stress) them all? For instance, are you un-necessarily hunching your shoulders? Does your head tend to fall to one side, rather than stay aligned with your spine? Are you sitting high enough/low enough for your instrument? Are you holding tension in all of your fingers while you play, instead of releasing the tension after you use it to create tone?

–evaluate your posture. Is it posture that your teacher would approve of? Is your music stand high enough/low enough? Check your bench/chair height again. Be very conscious of using your core to stabilize your body and hold it in alignment. Don’t depend on other smaller (weaker) muscles to do so.

–evaluate other activities in your life that may be exacerbating the problem. How about your posture while working at a computer/writing at a desk? Is the chair high enough/low enough? Where do you notice tension while you sit in these positions? Does it need to be there?

For other resources related to this, read up on the Alexander Technique. This is a study that encourages proper body mechanics in order to live healthier, pain-free lives. I challenge you, oh Artist-Athlete, to become very aware of your body and the stress that you put on it. You only get one, after all! Wherever possible, sacrifice a couple of practice minutes stretch and prevent potential injuries. Be kind to body, it works hard so that you can keep moving.

Disclaimer: I am by no means a doctor, and fully understand that there are injuries that are not solved by these means and require the help of a medical professional. I challenge you to seek professional medical advice if you are suffering from an overuse injury that isn’t alleviated by stretching or ice/heat. Pain is your body’s way of saying, “Hey! You! Listen up! Something is wrong.” Practicing through the pain isn’t going to fix it, unfortunately.

That said, go ye, Artist/Athlete into the world of practice rooms and rehearsal spaces, stay healthy, be kind to your bones and muscles, and practice and rehearse well!

Log in to leave a comment adding your tried-and-true health advice. What works? What doesn’t? Do you stretch regularly? Ice your muscles?

~Rachel