Sustainability and Longevity: Developing a Daily Movement Routine
By Austin Pancner, The Functional Musician
As musicians, movement is built into our performance. We constantly breathe, move our instrument, and switch our center of gravity, but how often do we mindfully practice movement away from our instrument?
This article will address two topics essential for adding sustainability and longevity into our playing: body awareness and daily movement routines.
Body awareness can be described as the ability to actively recognize where one’s body is in time and space. It is the conscious connection to one’s body.
For example, imagine a student playing for their teacher during a lesson. While they are playing, their body may move in a certain way that interferes with their ability to perform at their best by causing unnecessary tension. This tension can present itself auditorily through the student’s sound, and/or visually, through the raising of a shoulder during a high passage, the flaring out of an elbow while operating the slide, the collapsing of the upper body, or the stiffening of various extremities during technically challenging passages. It’s important to recognize that the student may not be aware of their physical movements, and that these movements may have become subconsciously ingrained.
This is where the importance of body awareness comes in. If one is not able to recognize or consciously perceive their own movements, then addressing irregular or inadequate movements will become extremely difficult. The question then becomes; how does someone develop body awareness?
Let’s discuss two things we can do to develop body awareness: mindful practice techniques and developing a daily movement routine.
One mindful practice technique you can utilize involves video recording yourself playing a passage. If this is your first time doing this exercise, I recommend playing something between 30-45 seconds that allows you to fully immerse yourself in the music and performance. Afterward, go through this exercise below and write down what you notice. As you watch and listen back, it is extremely important to leave your ego, emotions, and self-image at the door– it’s okay to feel your feelings, please do, but don’t let it interfere with your ability to focus on the learning process. Lastly, approach this exercise with curiosity and intent, and set a goal to learn one new thing about your playing.
- 1st playback, no sound: What do you notice physically? How is your alignment? Your breathing? Slide or finger technique? Do you have any movements that could potentially interfere with your music making, short-term or long-term? It can be beneficial to sing what you played in your head and see if your movements align. If you need to watch back a few more times to analyze yourself, that is okay!
- 2nd playback, ¾ or half speed, no sound: What do you notice now? Go through the same checklist of alignment, breathing, and slide/finger technique. Watch yourself perform. The more information you can gather, the more information you have to make an informed decision about the next step in your playing.
- 3rd playback, full or ¾ speed, with sound: Close your eyes. What do you hear? How do you sound? Listen a few times and be honest with yourself. Did your sound or timbre change across the excerpt unconsciously? How is your air connection? How are your musical lines? Articulation? What else do you notice?
- 4th playback, full speed, watch and listen: Now that you have visual and aural information separately, watch and listen back to see if the aural representation of your playing connects to the visual information you gathered from the previous playbacks. As always, ask yourself – what do you notice?
I invite you to repeat this exercise every few days and see if you can discover habitual movements that may be negatively impacting your playing– whether that be displayed in immediate effect, or manifested in a tension/pain that could become a problem later. Awareness is the first step to implementing a new habit.
Daily Movement Routine
A daily movement routine can also help develop body awareness. A daily movement routine can be described as a personalized daily practice in which someone mindfully moves their body, with the goal of optimizing their movement. There are many benefits of maintaining a daily movement routine, but from the perspective of a brass player, one primary benefit is that it can allow us to tune into the body or breath and we can make adjustments as necessary, based on how we are feeling.
For example, imagine you have an intense 1-2 week concert cycle, an insane week of teaching, or you are participating at a music festival. Eventually, you may wake up feeling stiff, tense, sore, or in pain. If you now have to attend rehearsal, perform, or teach, what is your strategy to manage your physical symptoms? This is where developing and maintaining a mindful movement routine can be a superpower.
To understand the importance of a daily movement routine, let’s look at two different perspectives: the human and the musician.
The human perspective: Humans were designed to adapt to their environment. Over the course of history, humans have continued to evolve based on their surroundings, from becoming more upright, to standing, to developing more enzymes to digest more complex foods, etc. Evolution takes time; it is complex and it is unpredictable.
Looking specifically at the environment humans presently live in, we have different factors that negatively influence how our bodies will respond and adapt. These include:
- Prolonged periods of sitting (more than 1-2 hours at a time. This could be at a standard desk job, school, gigging, or the famous Netflix binge)
- Sedentary lifestyle (lifestyle of little to no movement)
- Physical load placed on the body throughout the day
The human body is complex and everyone has different daily demands, depending on their lifestyle habits, occupation, genetics, or the instrument they play. Despite these differences, outside of abnormal occurrences, we have relatively similar bodies that will start to adapt and compensate in predictable and similar ways over time. For example, you may gravitate towards adapting to one of the following positions:
Using Skeleton A as a model for an ideal alignment, compared to Skeleton B, C, and D, you’ll notice that the body adapts to try to find its balance against gravity, which mainly occurs at the feet, knees, hips, spine, shoulders, and neck.
As the body starts to adapt to B, C, or D, the body will start being put into positions that can negatively alter breathing, range of motion, muscle dynamics, and joint function, ultimately affecting a musician’s ability to perform. Ultimately, B, C, and D will cause our body to work harder to breathe and move. Some common symptoms of skeleton B, C, and D include upper back pain, lower back pain, shoulder pain, and neck pain.
The musician perspective: Developing and maintaining a daily movement routine counters many of the occupational and postural hazards that musicians face in the 21st century. These include prolonged periods of sitting, extensive travel, long rehearsals or concerts, music festivals, long teaching days, and excessive load on the body from over-practicing. A regular movement routine gives you daily opportunities to counter these stressors while improving movement quality, increasing range of motion, developing body awareness, reconnecting to your breath, and ultimately allowing you to perform with less tension.
The next logical question – what does a daily movement routine look like?
A daily movement routine can be built from a wide variety of movement modalities. Some examples include Alexander Technique, body mapping, yoga, or mobility training. All movement modalities will have their pros and cons, and there is no “one size fits all” approach. I invite every reader and musician to experiment, explore, and find a movement modality that resonates with you.
Over time, if you can fall in love with a movement modality, consistency will follow, and you will start to develop a deeper conscious connection with your body and mind, allowing you to move, breathe, and play more effortlessly. Developing a movement routine isn’t necessarily the entire picture of physical health and wellness, but is a foundational component that I hope the brass community prioritizes as they move forward through their lives and careers.
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