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Wellness Blog

The Importance of Rest for Musicians

Hannah Murray

by Hannah Murray, Oct. 31, 2018

Walking through a beautiful garden is a simple way to reset.

Walking through a beautiful garden is a simple way to reset.

Rest (verb)

·       1 Cease work or movement in order to relax, sleep, or recover strength.

‘he needed to rest after the feverish activity’ [1]

It is no secret that Musicians regularly spend many hours playing their instrument or using their voice. In the classical world, hours of daily practice are an expectation and working musician schedules are often full of some combination of teaching, commuting, rehearsing and practicing. Touring musicians spend countless hours on the road without much room to move freely during the day. It is hard to find downtime when balancing all of the demands of work and life, but one thing that is often in short supply is rest and effective recovery.

In her article, “The Ten Dos and Don’ts,” Janet Horvath, a former cellist in the Minnesota Orchestra and author of Playing Less Hurt, says you should take one day off per week. She explains that “you’ll benefit from a day spent simply relaxing, thinking about the music, and getting refreshed for tomorrow’s playing.”[2]

The concept of a weekly rest day for recovery is not a new topic in the athletic world. If you open any marathon-training book, you will see at least one rest day included in the plan. Athletes and dancers are trained to incorporate regular physical rest into their preparation; it is equally as important as training the body and working out. 

 “Rest days are actually implemented in many professional training plans, even those of Olympic athletes, in order to allow the body time to recuperate. As we work out, we place greater strain on our muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and joints. Our immune system is activated when there are muscle tears or joint strains, but if the body doesn't come out of continual practice, this system doesn't have the time to catch up and start patching everything back up. Thus, if you're building muscle, you should take a day off from lifting the same region, so the body has time to repair the muscles you're working.”[3]

Musicians rarely practice resting as diligently as they practice their instrument. Teachers often underscore the notion that hours of practice are required to find success in this industry, but very few emphasize the need for recovery time and rest. In the freelance world, we often feel the need to take any, and all work offered to us, and this usually means working seven days per week, driving long distances, teaching, rehearsing, and performing at all hours of the day sometimes seven days per week. It is a challenge at any point in one's career to find a full day to rest on a regular basis, let alone every week, but I think that Horvath makes a fair point: you can benefit from time spent relaxing away from the instrument. Maybe you can’t spare an entire day, but I’d hazard a guess that practicing without your instrument might even be more beneficial when you feel fatigued than enduring several more hours of practice time.

 Over Practicing and OverUse

In The Art of Practicing, Madeline Bruser explains that the fear of not being perfect drives musicians to over practice and practice without joy,

“…rarely [does] anyone allow a minute’s pause for reflection or relaxation…This intense perfectionism and competitiveness sometimes causes musicians to develop an incapacitating tension that doctors call “overuse syndrome.” Even if they have a good technique and are not repeating the same passages excessively, they overuse their technique. Afraid of not practicing enough, they injure themselves by practicing too much.”[4]

In the sports world, this is also common but at the professional level, there are many specialists available to monitor work, rest, maintenance, and training plans. Crystal Reeves, a NASM certified master trainer and a co-owner of MadSweat Gym explains that,

“Inadequate rest may lead to over-training syndrome which commonly occurs in fitness enthusiasts that train beyond their body's ability to recover…When you perform excessive amounts of exercise without proper rest and recovery, you may experience some harmful side effects including decreased performance, fatigue, altered hormonal states, poor sleeping patterns, reproductive disorders, decreased immunity, loss of appetite, and mood swings."[5]

Russell Wynter, NASM certified trainer and co-owner of MadSweat Gym explains that Rest days are essential in any training plan because they allow your muscles, nerves, bones, and connective tissue time to rebuild. He explains that the regeneration process (which also requires water, food, and sometimes supplements) rebuilds your body tissues allowing them to grow back stronger. [6]

Musician Athletes

The same harmful side effects and physical needs that exist in the athletic world also exist in music training, yet somehow they have been accepted as part of the profession. It is very common for musicians to endure pain while playing their instrument. It can be a bizarre badge of honor in the music world, as if it means you are working harder than your colleagues, or it can be a dirty little secret that is kept private for fear of unemployment. In The Athletic Musician, Barbara Paull and Christine Harrison state that, "Both musicians and athletes place tremendous demands upon their bodies, practicing their skills for many hours and stressing themselves physically and psychologically in competition and in the pursuit of excellence…All are involved in hard, repetitive, physical work and are under constant pressure to perform well."[7]

This seems to be where the similarities stop as the financial constraints and expectations of the music professions are usually drastically different. Often, professional athletes have a team of trainers on staff to assist in optimizing performance and recovery whereas musicians seem to be largely on their own when it comes to managing their physical and mental issues. Paull and Harrison summarize the comparison between athletes and musicians succinctly and in doing so present a stark contrast in the amount of support provided to each, both as a student, and continuing as a professional;

“Competitive athletes are under the eagle eyes of athletic coaches whose job it is to ensure that athletes are generally fit and in good physical condition, as well as practicing their sports using protocols designed to protect them from physical harm. Sports psychologists are available to nurture their well-being and to teach them body-saving techniques such as mental practicing and visualization. Musicians, on the other hand, simply learn to play. Their teachers have little knowledge of the effects of repeated exercise or sustained postures upon the body, other than commonsense responses to their own injuries.”[8]

Much of what musicians know is passed on through their primary teachers and this can be very limiting because it does not depend on a team of experts, but (often) a single person with limited knowledge, access, concern for, or experience with injury and prevention. It then falls on each individual musician to discover the necessary habits for a long and healthy career which can often conflict with what their teacher tells them directly. How would you know that rest is just as important as practice, if your teacher told you to practice every day? When I was in school, there was a common phrase echoed around the music department that went “You should practice everyday that you eat.” This is problematic. I understand the general sentiment is consistency, and that practice should be as much of a habit as eating, but taken at face value it leaves no room for recovery and rest.

Rest

What If you can't take a full day off, how can you add rest and recovery to your day? There are a few things you can do to "rest" or at least recover from playing your instrument on less chaotic or stressful days. Paull and Harrison say that “practicing relaxation helps to lower rising blood pressure for tense people and has many other pleasing effects. It releases “endorphins,” the bodies natural drug, which promotes a feeling of well-being similar to a runner’s “high.”[9]

Mental practice, also known as visualization, is another way to speed up the process of moving newly learned physical skill from the exhausting area of the brain to the storage area, without physically repeating the actions many times. This allows the body to rest, while remaining engaged; ”Study after study shows that athletes who practice mentally as well as physically outperform their competitors who only practice physically…The art of mental practice seems to be custom-made for musicians. Most musicians’ injuries are overuse injuries, and here is a mental skill which will allow you to replace part of your physical practice sessions with brain exercises.”[10]

In a Runner’s World article, Ed Eyestone calls on years of research to disprove the notion that rest ruins athletic results, “When it follows difficult bouts of work, rest lets your body adapt to the work and improve. A day off every seven to 14 days restocks glycogen stores, builds strength, and reduces fatigue. Without recovery, adaptation may occur short-term, but ultimately it will fail,” [11]. He recommends cross-training, complete rest, and very light work when you simply can’t take a full day to rest and recover.

Horvath recommends doing stress-reducing relaxation activities and getting regular exercise as a way to rest and recover from playing an instrument. In many ways, getting proper exercise is cross-training for musicians because it works muscles in the body in a different way, “Yoga, stretching, swimming, Alexander Technique, and massage are all good preventative activities. These can help to keep tension from building up. Muscles that are tight, weak, and untoned are more injury-prone than strong, flexible, and resilient muscles.”[12]

In their presentation “Fit as a Fiddle” at the University of Southern California, violinist Pamela Frank and physical therapist Howard Nelson recommended taking frequent breaks, stretching the body in opposite ways than your playing position, limiting the daily amount of time spent practicing, and going on walks without distractions as preventative measures that help the body rest and recover. [13]

Wynter also emphasizes the benefit of resting in bed with your eyes closed, “Sleep is also an important part of the [rest] process; During REM sleep, your body’s production of growth hormone increases, which aids in the repairing and rebuilding of muscles post-workout.”[14]

Sources listed here, and many others repeatedly emphasize the importance of rest and recovery. It is essential to making progress and maintaining a healthy body and mind. Sports and Athletic pursuits embrace rest as an active component of any training regime from beginning runners to Olympic athletes but it has yet to become as popular or disciplined in music education and training.

Review

 The following are the recommended ways to rest and recover mentioned in this article. Rest and recovery have proven to lead to effective growth and progress while also offering injury-preventing benefits in the sports and music world. Teachers should include this information and these suggestions when working with students of all levels, performers should implement some or all of these into their own habits, and parents should monitor their child’s healthy practice habits (that include rest) from the very beginning to set them up for musical longevity and success.

  • Yoga. Horvath recommends Yoga as an excellent preventative activity.

  • Alexander Technique. I have only ever done Alexander Technique with the assistance of a teacher, but for those interested in learning more and exploring it on your own, alexandertechnique.com is an excellent resource.

  • Massage. You can do this yourself using Yoga Tune Up Balls (check out our SHOP to purchase them) and your own hands, or you can splurge and treat yourself to a professional massage (Or you can follow some suggestions from our MOVEMENT section)

  • Stretching. This very often means moving your body in opposite directions to how you play your instrument.

  • Time outdoors. As Frank and Nelson recommend, taking a brisk walk outdoors without devices and distractions is a simple yet effective way to prevent overuse injuries. I try to horse ride several timesaver week, and can attest to the therapeutic nature of moving your body outdoors.

  • Relaxation. Paull and Christine don’t really elaborate on what this means specifically, but I would guess activities like meditation might fall under this category.

  • Swimming. Horvath also recommends swimming in her list of Do’s and Don’ts. I would also include time submerged in water (hot or cold) as a therapeutic means of recovery.

  • Practice without the Instrument. Score study, listening and Mental practice/visualization. A day of rest doesn't need to be a day of no music. There are plenty of ways to keep working without the added stress of physically playing the instrument. It can be engaging without being physically exhausting. 

  • Sleep. If you read what Wynter says about the restorative qualities of sleep, you’ll never want to miss another night of zzz again. If time is limited to smaller sleeping windows, napping is an excellent way to rest during the day.

Sources and Citations

[1] “rest.” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/rest. Oxford Dictionaries, 2018.

[2] Janet Horvath. "The Ten Dos and Don'ts." In Healthy String Playing, (Milwaukee, WI: String Letter Publishing, 2007), 22.

[3] Sarah Gibson, “Give it a Rest: It’s OK to Skip Your Workout,”  Wellbridge, https://www.wellbridge.com/fit-like-that/give-it-a-rest-its-ok-to-skip-your-workout

[4] Madeline Bruser, The Art of Practicing, (New York, NY: Bell Tower, 1997), 18.

[5] Katie Rosenbrock, “Why Rest Days are Just as Important as Working Out,” The Active Times, February 10, 2015. https://www.theactivetimes.com/why-rest-days-are-just-important-working-out

[6] Ibid.

[7] Barbara Paull and Christine Harrison, The Athletic Musician(Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997), 8.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 136.

[10] Ibid., 137-8.

[11] Ed Eyestone, "The Rest is Easy," Runner's World, April 1, 2009. https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20807869/the-importance-of-rest-days/

[12] Horvath, "The Ten Dos and Don'ts," 22.

[13] Hannah Murray, "Fit as a Fiddle - Workshop with Pamela Frank and Howard Nelson," Active Violinist, October 27, 2018. https://www.activeviolinist.com/blog/fit-as-a-fiddle-workshop-with-pamela-frank-and-howard-nelson.

[14] Rosenbrock, "Why Rest Days are Just as Important as Working Out."