Jennie Khan

Freelance Cellist and Teacher

Jennie Khan is an Auckland based cellist and cello teacher. She has a variety of experience performing both here and in Europe and has been teaching students of all ages for many years.

Just Do It - How and Why to get fit and play music

Musicians are athletes of a sort. Producing music can be extremely physically demanding, not in the same sense as  a marathon runner or a footballer, but it can nonetheless be very demanding on our body. So when i comes to getting fit, the 'Why' is easy; improved physical well being, improved mental well being, better stamina, endurance, focus, alertness, strength. All things that are certainly useful when faced with a grueling rehearsal and performance schedule. The 'How' is not so straightforward to answer, it depends a lot on us as individuals as to what we need and like to do. One thing is sure, when we are plying music, sitting or standing for long periods of time using the many muscles in our arms and hands and each instrument uses different muscles. But they tend to be the smaller more delicate muscles and the essentially repetitive nature of the movements, if we're not careful and don't do it correctly  or without adequate training and fitness we can do ourselves serious injury.

Here's an interesting interview about just that thing with some of New Zealand's leading musicians:

In the last few years I have made it  priority to get, and stay fit, and I must say I feel great, I'm more alert, have more energy.  And, having had problems with my hands in the past from bad posture and overuse, I am very aware of keeping good form when I am playing, and exercising. However a recent lapse of concentration combined with over-enthusiasm at Bootcamp has left me with a wrist injury. And a brace for 6 weeks to go with it. All being a big wake up call that I do have to take care of myself.

This has made me reflect on how important good exercise is and how we mustn't push the limits too far when we rely on our hands in particular to play.

With everything in our body being connected, we can do various types of exercice on different muscle groups and see beneficial results in other areas as well. For example, improving our cardio fitness can have many benefits to our health, and is generally not too risky on our playing. Cardio, or cardiovascular exercise, is the kind that really gets our heart pumping. Something like running, skipping, or stairs for example will quickly increase your heart rate. Getting the blood pumping round efficiently, gets more oxygen going round. Better circulation can help us play faster, longer, all the things that any other athlete will benefit from with an increase of oxygen in the blood. 
Cardio is also great for your brain, keeping you sharp and focused, not to mention the increase in 'happy' hormones in the brain, which are always useful to get through a grueling practice routine.

Certainly mix it up, it's more effective if your body doesn't have a chance to get used to doing one thing all the time. So it's a good idea to combine some strength and endurance training with the cardio. You don't need massive weights to improve your strength, body weight exercises do just as fine, we really don't need massive guns to play the cello and working with too heavy weights can do serious damage, but some good muscle tone in our arms can help a lot. Endurance training is great, if we are going to survive hours of practice and rehearsal. And throwing in a bit of high intensity intervals will improve recovery rates. It's all about being in the best physical condition we can to be able to put in the energy we need to into our performances.

On of the most important things however is posture and balance. When sitting or standing for long periods of time rehearsing, we are exerting a lot of energy, but we remain for the most part stationary. With bad posture, weak balance and core strength there are many things that can go wrong over a long period of time, neck or back injury, overuse syndrome, trapped nerves .... these can be extremely serious especially when performing essentially repetitive movements for long periods of time.

I would recommend at least doing some Yoga or Pilates. Or if you're keen, do it as well as the outdoor training!
I must stress that it's super important to do these types of positions correctly, so going to some classes to begin with is a good idea. I have practiced both Pilates and Yoga but at the moment I'm enjoying the calming and mental stamina of Yoga. It is excellent for stretching out.... well, everything.... releases built up tension in your back and shoulders, builds core strength, balance and most importantly of all, awareness of your body and form. So that in time, through long rehearsal sessions you can be noticing any tensions that are building up, and relaxing, rel time, so that it does not become a bigger problem later on. Yoga also works well on improving breathing, and breath control, which is essential for every musician, and is often, especially with string players, neglected.

If you have particular issues related to playing it is worth investigating the Alexander Technique. Many musicians use this to correct bad playing position and other strains and long term injuries. Here is a link to some further information:

For me, many of the principles of Yoga align with those of the Alexander technique, however Yoga does not have the same level of hands on reconditioning with an experienced person showing you how to hold and position yourself, and of course it's much more targeted in its approach.

At the end of the day it's a personal choice. But for general well being,  we all should practice some physical activity. It improves your physical and mental health, helps you play better, longer and faster. We must though, look after ourselves, if we do too much and injure our hands it can be a long recovery, and all the tiny and repetitive movements required to play music can have unexpected outcomes if we don't maintain good balance and posture.

So, just get on with it... the hardest part is always putting on your running shoes.

Here are some other interesting articles with varying opinions to help you decide what type of exercise is best for you.


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