A few years ago, I spent several years running extremely long distances. On weekends, I would go to a local forest preserve with friends and we would spend hours on the trails without stopping, thrilling to the strength of our legs. We would think nothing of running 20 miles just for the joy of exploring the nature of indefatigability. However, when I would actually race, no matter the distance, I found that my body would react very differently and afterwards I would need extended periods of rest and recuperation (often involving physical therapy).

Most athletes understand the cyclic nature of performance and structure their year building towards peak performance and then relaxing while their muscles heal. The top marathoners believe that it’s possible to run no more than two full races a year without causing serious injury. Many of these world-class athletes literally lie down as much as possible when they aren’t actively training, allowing their bodies as much time as possible to recover from their physical regimen.

I wonder whether this training-peak-recovery cycle would benefit performing musicians. It appears to me that the technical demands of musical instruments are very similar to those of world-class athletes. The basic technique for every instrument requires at least some element of strength and stamina, and over time most musicians physiologically adapt to better suit their instrument—at the most extreme, I’ve met oboists whose thumb joints have been dislocated to a 90 degree angle from constantly balancing their instrument. Certainly, many musicians incur similar injuries as athletes, and many budding careers are sidetracked or derailed entirely by bouts with tendonitis or other overuse injuries. And when these performers seek help, most doctors are unwilling or unable to prescribe the same sorts of physical therapy that are commonplace for athletes. Where an amateur runner might enjoy the benefits of electrical stimulation and specifically adapted strengthening exercises, most musicians are required to heal via unsupported rest.

The concert season appears to be designed in order to allow for a period of relative calm, a time for recovery. As the days lengthen and grow warmer, traditional concert venues grow quiet. I assume that this practice began due to the fact that it would be extremely uncomfortable to listen to a summer concert in a room without air conditioning, forcing audiences into the relative comfort of bucolic outdoor locales. Although the origins of this practice may have been for the listener’s pleasure, it has likely been a great boon for the health of the performers. I am curious as to how strongly musicians work in order to preserve their recovery periods, and whether those who do believe that it benefits them.

I find that similar periods of recuperation can benefit my compositional process as well. In those times when I am forced to follow the completion of a new piece by quickly diving into the next, I rarely am able to grow as a composer. I find that the entire series of works linked in this way also generally are related through similar approaches to the artistic questions underlying the musical flow. Only through clearing my mind and forcing myself away from my desk am I able to recover to the point of finding new routes towards my musical goals instead of continuing down well-worn paths.

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4 thoughts on “Recovery

  1. Brian Sacawa

    I’ve often related my experience as a performing musician to my experience as a competitive cyclist and you’ve really hit the nail on the head with this post. My mantra as a cyclist is to train hard and rest hard, meaning that the recovery process is just as important training. And not just from the obvious physical standpoint of broken down muscles needing to repair themselves, but also on a mental level. Any kind of intense and rigorous training (or practicing) takes an immense mental toll as well.

    When I think back to my days as an undergraduate when I “paid my dues” in the practice room, I would wager that the mental recovery was more vital to my growth than the necessary physical recovery from day to day. There’s sort of a finite amount of information you can cram into your brain in a given timeframe and it’s important to be mindful of when might be wading into the territory of diminishing returns. Both in sport and music, overextended muscles might lay you up for a few days or a week, but an over-taxed mind could burn you out for good.

  2. smooke

    Brian and Alex,

    Thanks to you both.

    Brian, I’m very interested in your thoughts on this. I wonder if more musicians would be well served by seriously pursuing some athletic endeavor in addition to their musical one. Certainly your experience with bicycle racing gives you a nice perspective on the cyclic (pun unavoidable) nature of training in lieu of the more typical mode of working your hardest every day. And also athlete/musicians see first hand how differently medical professionals treat the more commonly encountered athletic overuse injuries and how dismissive they can be about the more important musical overuse injuries. And, yes, I appreciate your emphasis on mental recuperation!

    – David

  3. danvisconti

    Hi David, great post! So much of human behavior seems to involve thinking that we are somehow exempt from cycles–the cycles of economics, nature, and even work. I’ve always felt we do best when we seek to identify and work with our natural cycles rather than deny them. Your analogy to that of an athlete’s training cycle is well-put.


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