Fitness and Fiddle: What Exercise Taught Me About the Violin

The odd couple

At first glance, this sounds like the marriage of oil and vinegar. When we think of the violin, we don’t normally think about working out. When we think about working out, we don’t normally think about playing the violin. But let me tell you friends, there are many lessons to be learned at this crossroads where the gym meets the concert hall. I’m going to teach you some principles of exercise and how they can facilitate your goals of becoming a great violinist. First, let me shed some light on my personal fitness history so you can understand where Im coming from.

I started working out when I was 16 and I am now in my early 30’s. I’ve primarily focused on weight training and for a while, idolized Franco Columbo, Frank Zane, Lee Haney, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. I didn’t know it at the time, but learning the history of their lives and watching their careers unfold would teach me life lessons that I could then transfer to my performances.

As a music major during college, I worked out extensively, and practiced my violin extensively. At one point, I was working out for hours a day and practicing on the violin at least double the hours I spent in the gym. It was a weird combination of influences by all accounts at the music school. My backpack was filled with protein shakes, workout gloves, music, and rosin.

Throughout this phase, I consumed music like I consumed food: it was almost never enough. The only way to grow was to play the music. I needed time to analyze the music. My passion kept me studying the music. Learning was at the forefront of my mind, and that’s what lead to the epiphanies Im going to share with you today.

There are no shortcuts

Contrary to what the infomercials tell you, there aren’t any magic pills, or one-size-fits-all workouts that will skyrocket you to overnight success. Likewise, there are no shortcuts in music. Be ready for long practice sessions and extensive analysis of what you’re learning.

Sure, there are ways to maximize your time and effort, things that we’ve discussed in other articles here on musilesson. However, nothing will ever take the place of time spent with your violin on your shoulder and your bow in your hand. Additionally, if you want to be the best you can be, expect to be at it every or nearly every day of the week. When I was going strong, I would find myself in the gym 4-6 days a week. Your time spent with your instrument should be the same.

Keep your form

When lifting weights, there is one prevailing theme: great form beats great weights. If your form isn’t up to snuff, expect to be short changing yourself somewhere, on something. Poor form can physically hurt you when handling great weight. It can cause your muscles to develop incorrectly and unnaturally. Poor posture can compromise your growth.

Similarly, in violin playing, good form can make or break a scaler run. Playing with great form can enhance your ability to produce open, projecting sound. Great form on the violin can reduce unwanted squeaks and scratches. It can also make you appear more professional in your playing.

Last but not least, good form can remove barriers while shifting, or doing vibrato, effectively allowing you to use these techniques where before it would have been difficult or literally impossible. Whenever playing, always endeavor to have great posture, or form.

Don’t hurt yourself

This is a piggy back off of the topic of form. When one overworks a muscle group or pushes so long and so hard that fatigue sets in, things are bound to get sloppy. In other words, we start to lose our sharpness and our standards slide. We get lazy, and as a byproduct of that, we can cause injuries.

Sometimes we feel that pain in our wrists after that long passage of octaves and we think, “It’s nothing. I’ll just toughen up.” You may be right. It may be nothing and you may indeed simply need to toughen up. However, there will be times where you should first do no harm. Take a day off. Soak your hand in Epsom salt. Focus on other pieces or techniques instead of the one that hurt you. Be sure that you keep yourself healthy so that you can enjoy playing the violin for years to come.

Reps

What on earth does this mean? Well, it’s an abbreviation for “repetitions”. In this context, and for our purposes, it means repeating an action. In weight training, one performs the lift multiple times, also known as repetitions. For example, you might do the bicep curl, in which case you would pick up a barbell and curl it upward toward your chest.

In violin, I propose you use this concept when you come across difficult passages that require extra attention. You don’t just want to perform the passage once and then walk away. Is it good that you did it once? Sure. But unless you want the learning of this song to last 5 months, you’re going to want to perform the passage multiple times in one sitting.

In bodybuilding, you could perform an exercise in 5 sets (groups) of 5 repetitions (reps). Or you could do it in 5 sets of 10 reps. With the violin it will likely be more around 10 or more reps. So apply it like this: you could play a difficult passage 3 sets with 10 repetitions (hopefully correct) per set.

Here we can get synergistic and reach back to our discussion on form. Make sure you slow the passage down if you need to so you play it correctly (good form) otherwise you could be memorizing the incorrect notes with poor posture.

Mind over matter

This is a mind game more than it is a physical game. Every violinist must battle what their brain perceives. Sometimes those perceptions are not based in reality. When you think you’ve done enough, do it one more time.

When you think you don’t have time, make it. But don’t ever let your mind psych you out. For example, some of my students come to me with personal doubt and say things like “Im the worst violinist ever”. No. I assure you, you are not the worst violinist ever.

Final thoughts

In the gym, you have to be constantly pushing yourself to the next level or you will stall. Sometimes the most difficult thing to do is walk in the doors and put on your lifting gloves. There is an old proverb that says “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”. Decide that you are going to play the violin. If you already do, decide that you are going to improve on your skill level. Then, once you’ve made that decision, go pick up your violin and DO IT. Prioritize your goal, implement as many tips as you can, and make it real.

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