Written by Alicia Rando. TDN Youth Ambassador.
“The greatest wealth is health.” -Virgil.
While studying at the Manhattan School of Music, in New York City, I had a subject dedicated to anatomy and health applied to musicians and I began to be interested in the topic of health in the world of music.
The Professor, in one of her classes, made a reflection that she ended with a sentence: “You don’t realize it or give it the necessary importance, but you, musicians are the athletes of the small muscles.” We know that the worlds of music and sports are full of discipline and perseverance. However, what about the treatment of health in each of these disciplines? Are musicians aware of the level of physical and mental activity to which they are subjected? Do athletes take care of their mental health as much as their physical one?
The Professor compared professional musicians to elite athletes. I had already thought about the physical
effort in musical life, but it was not until that comparison that I realized that in a certain way, the physical care of musicians is often minimized or not considered as much as it should be, even by us, the musicians ourselves. Personally, I have been very lucky not to suffer a serious injury during the time I have dedicated myself to the violin professionally; nonetheless, I am aware that the level of effort involved in the many hours of study, practice and rehearsals that we musicians carry out, can take to these kind of injuries if the necessary care and prevention are not taken.
It is true that for some time now, the music community has been more aware of the risk of physical injury in our profession, having subjects such as “Alexander Technique” (alternative therapy based on the idea that poor posture gives rise to a range of health problems) in conservatories and seeing famous professionals in the sector talk about stretching and other prevention techniques. Yet, by no means does it reach the level that it has in the world of sports. Elite athletes, and even athletes in high-performance schools, which would be equivalent to superior conservatories, have professional teams of doctors, specialized in sports medicine, and physiotherapists, as well as physical effort and pain measurement tables that they apply on a daily basis.
And although, as several professionals from the world of sports whom I have interviewed for this article have indicated, it is not necessary to treat or worry about all the pain that we may feel. It is normal to suffer some of it on a light base when performing physical activity repeatedly and continuously, but we must continuously monitor the sensations we have and act in the event that we notice something outside the range of tolerable pain and never oversaturate it, since it can lead to a more serious injury than the one we could be having. The oversaturation of a pain/injury is a behavior that occurs much more in the world of music than in sports, and with a rather curious detail, we musicians hardly have professional doctors dedicated to the treatment of injuries in our discipline.
Considering that the average of daily training/practice of the athletes interviewed is two hours a day with a weekly rest day and that of the musicians interviewed is five hours a day with no weekly rest, which could be understood as an equivalent level of muscular effort between music and sports (musicians working on the small muscles and the athletes on the big ones), I truly believe that we musicians should take an example from the treatment of the physical health of athletes and transfer it to our discipline
That is for the physical part, still, if we go into the mental part, the differences are even more extensive. We already know that both worlds are full of discipline and perseverance. Of work and effort. Physical, but also mental. Our careers require many hours of preparation for concerts and matches/competitions.
Both in the sports world and in the musical world, there are not only physical risks, but the mental health of professionals is also affected during our careers. The pressure that we handle in our disciplines nowadays in general is very high, since it is not only about giving our best on stage or on the field/track. We face expectations, opinions, public exposure and social media. If we put all this together with our own goals, aspirations, possible injuries and self-criticisms, we have the perfect cocktail to break us mentally. Nowadays, talking about mental health on some occasions is still a taboo. If you have some kind of mental health problem (i.e. stress, depression, anxiety, eating disorders) some people think that something is wrong with you, or that you are out of place. We are people, human beings who feel and have problems, and to this we must add our professional lives. However, it still does not receive the attention it deserves, and this becomes a big problem that needs help to change the conversation around it, breaking down stigmas and barriers of mental health and thus, raise awareness, not only in the world in general, but even more within our own disciplines.
Especially, in the world of music, I have been able to observe, thanks to conversations with various professionals from both disciplines, that although the treatment of mental health within the sports world is far from perfect, they have made progress and are several steps ahead of the musical world. From having mental and psychological trainers within professional teams, to using preparation and stress techniques within training itself for the moment of the match or competition.
I am not going to deny that little by little, within music, we are giving more importance to this topic, taking subjects in conservatories such as “Stage Fright” (treatment of anxiety or fear which may be aroused in an individual by the requirement to perform in front of an audience,) however, and this is something that I have talked about with several interviewees, I think that in the world of music, the pressure when it comes to executing the final product on stage is much greater than in sports, and many times this is not detected or given the necessary importance.
While in some sports, the player has several opportunities to perform a gesture, an action; let’s say that a football player does not score a goal the first time, he/she still has more opportunities during the game, or a tennis player who misses a serve, he/she still has more opportunities. The musician, when he/she is on stage, has only one opportunity for that passage or fragment to come out well. Only one, that passage is not going to be repeated. And the pressure of wanting to interpret the work to perfection, and the responsibility of making the audience enjoy it, that we are able to feel before and during stage time is very great, and I repeat, often overlooked.
In the performance of our profession, musicians are inevitably associated with the fact of offering concerts and being exposed in one way or another to the criticism of a third party. It is necessary to continue studying anxiety in the profession and thus to know it better in order to, in a pertinent pedagogical way, adapt the current didactics in such a way that they provide students, future professionals and already professional musicians with sufficient and stable tools to face challenges with guarantees of success.
It is true that daily stress in our lives, at a tolerable level, can be an incentive and help us work harder for our goals. This kind of stress is referred by psychologists as “eustress.” And although I also think, like another of the interviewees, that to dedicate yourself to any of these disciplines, you have to be clear from the first moment about what you are and will be facing and try to be as strong mentally as you can. Both in your day to day during your practice and training, as when facing a concert or match/competition. We are all human beings with possibilities of breaking down. Even the hardest diamond can break.
Finally, I would like to refer to another topic that was discussed during the conversations, and that one is good nutrition.
The level of control and organization of meals and nutritional distribution of professional athletes is incredible and admirable, even having weekly diet tables made by specialized nutritionists to maintain an optimal state of health both physical and mental, which helps in the good development of the training and therefore, the final result. I feel that this is not only applicable and should serve as an example to the world of music, let us remember that musicians are the “athletes of the small muscles”, but to society in general.
The exact composition of a balanced diet is determined by the characteristics of each person, and although the needs of someone who works in an office are different from those of someone who does more physical work, the principles of healthy eating remain the same. There are many who do not reach a minimum in the intake of fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals and nuts. In addition, a greater amount of hypercaloric foods, sugars, salt and fats are consumed.
And it is that the benefits of a good and balanced diet are many, highlighting that it protects the immune system, improves mood, reduces stress and improves brain performance, qualities that can help, especially professionals in the disciplines of music and sports, to work on their physical and mental health. Could it be that to make a real change we have to look first of all at our diet?
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