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On Being a Smart Athlete

The end of the year is an articulation point in the rhythm of our lives: students go on break, teachers are closing books on one semester and planning another, and professional musicians are finishing up runs of various flavors of holiday programs, culminating in Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve gigs.  So it’s an apt time to assess where we are with our craft and our path, what happened during the year, and where some tweaks could help us move forward.  What follows is addressed as much to myself as to anyone in particular, but I hope something here is useful for someone who reads this!

A recurring theme this fall, for me and others: sooner or later many of us experience some degree of injury from the physical aspect of our work or training.  I find it useful to think of this in terms of Being a Smart Athlete.  In my case this applies to both my music and exercise habits.  Some general observations:

1. Musicians are Athletes.  Our bodies are our instruments, and we need to monitor and manage them as carefully as would an elite athlete.  On the sports front this last year I had issues with both hamstring and plantar fasciitis, and have learned to back off immediately and switch gears.  Am still running, problems are now gone.  Likewise with managing an old playing injury I have gotten by without canceling anything important by making an exquisite study of how to get away with the best possible results from the least possible amount of playing.  (More on this in the future.)

2. Think long term.  What is in the best interest of your being able to keep playing/running/… for decades?  So much of staying on track in both sports and the performing arts is avoiding injury.  With experience you learn how to pace yourself, and to recognize subtle signals of when enough is enough.  The principle of alternating Hard Day – Light Day, first recommended to me by Doc Marcellus, is excellent advice on this score.

3. The little things matter.  Our entire lifestyle consists of habits which add up to supporting our endeavors or not supporting them.  I’m a morning person; it feels wonderful to get up before sunrise (which is not so early this time of year) and contemplate the predawn light, the sculptures of the bare trees and of the formations of snow, and the low numbers on the thermometer outside.  It’s a time when the general stillness supports an expansive awareness that I’m sure helps us reinhabit our bodies and the world every day.  What do we do next?  In those first two hours that set the tone for the day, what do we listen to, watch, read, drink, and eat?  And with what quality of attention?  What kind of environment do we create for ourselves every day?

I’m currently in a recovery phase from a very busy and wonderful few months of rebuilding my old, familiar trombone technique and of performing, which required an extremely fine balance of practicing against minding an old injury.  How do I support the healing process so that everything I do contributes to my being as hale and strong and resilient as possible?

I’m frankly happiest when working on my Craft, and lost when I’m not able to.  At the moment the best thing for my Craft is actually not to play trombone, but to let the body do its healing thing.  I can support that by eating as well as possible, reading up on good nutrition and alkaline diets, and getting plenty of rest.  (I can also slather on this experimental new drug that accelerates the growth of new tissue over said injury – high hopes for that, thank you Dr. Ahn!)

But there are many other things that support Craft, so I can expand how I think of Craft to include those things:
– Exercise.  To be a strong player or performer we need to be literally strong:  solid core, good lungs, endurance, everything firing in sync.  Running, swimming, weights, stretching and yoga.  (Both conducting and trombone playing are whole-body activities.)
– Playing something else; in my case, piano.  It’s a return to the Beginner’s Mind experience – but it is still music.  And when I can pick up the trombone again that too will be a return to Beginner’s Mind!  But I can trust that it’s all there ready to be reaccessed at the right time.

We each can ask ourselves honestly, what is my issue at this time?  In suggesting to one student that their playing would benefit from the grounding effect of meditation, I recognize getting back into a routine with that would help me too.  In performance it’s too easy for the mind to quickly flip onto a track of distraction, and while I’m quick to recognize when that happens and refocus, it needs to happen less.

The things I have found most helpful:
– Strategic, Low Impact Practicing – practice techniques to minimize wear and tear.
– Allow yourself as much recovery as possible; no one regrets taking too much recovery time!
– Spacing out small chunks of practice – as in 5-10 minutes with several hours in between.
– Smart Practicing – techniques to increase efficiency/accelerate your progress; varies by instrument.
– Visualization – playing through things first mentally (everything but making sound) before playing them for real (or not).
– Meditation, or some equivalent practice to learn to quiet your mind.
– Finding ways to optimize your habits to support your craft and restore yourself.  The basics include drinking more water, getting more rest, cutting back on sugar, alcohol, and caffeine, eating more veggies, practicing moderation in general, remembering to BREATHE, staying connected to nature, cultivating calm and positive energy, avoiding stress and chaos when possible.

These beneficial habits and behaviors, all part of Being a Smart Athlete, are a matter of personal choice and of learning from experience what works for you – but the little things do add up over time.  It’s always good to consider where we’ll get the most for our efforts in making little changes; but why not now, when we in the Northern Hemisphere are poised to take stock of the year before beginning our return toward the sun?

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