How to be Fit as a Fiddle

How to be Fit as a Fiddle

Musical performance is physical in many respects. The advantaged stringed instrumentalist will be stronger, less prone to stress injury – and have good posture.

Anyone who thinks there is no physical exercise involved in playing a stringed musical instrument has never played a stringed musical instrument. Any professional or amateur who play regularly on violins, violas and cellos know better.

The same goes for keyboard and wind instruments, and certainly for the men and women in the percussion section. And while impressively shirtless guitar players might populate Instagram, even Hilary Hahn, Itzhak Perlman, and Anne-Sophie Mutter have specific muscle groups that are essential to their performance. They just keep their clothes on and trade more on the music they make than on-stage exhibitionism.

Research shows violinists need to avoid repetitive stress injuries

For starters, the specific parts of the body required to play the violin, for example, have to be in working order – and easily might not be. A study out of Brazil (Universidade Federal de Itajuba, “Musculoskeletal disorders in professional violinists and violists; Systematic review,” Moraes, Antunes, 2012) found “the main causes of musculoskeletal disorders seen in instrumentalists are overuse, nerve compression, and focal dystonia…playing a musical instrument involves a combination of actions, including rapid, repetitive, and complicated movements of the hands and fingers…the neck, shoulder, and temporomandibular joints are the most commonly affected areas, due to prolonged flexion of the head and shoulders required to hold the violin.”

So preventive strengthening and stretching of various muscles, tendons, and joints – in addition to paying attention to posture, as all good teachers will emphasize – is essential to being able to play for any extended periods of time.

Playing an instrument is a calorie burner

But beyond simply being able to play, the musician might also appreciate the fact that practicing and performing are in and of themselves exercise. The physical activity is a calorie burner: A 180-pound person playing a full hour on these instruments would burn quite a few calories: 

Instrument Calories burned per hour
Cello 163
Guitar 245
Violin 204

(It seems the cellists really are resting that instrument on the floor while the violinists and guitarists have to hold theirs.)

Build your physical strength to be a stronger instrumentalist

What can a violinist, cellist, violist, or bass player do to be stronger and more resilient to injury? Practice … and exercise.

Hands, wrists, and arms. Both bowing and finger work require a tremendous degree of strength in very specific and small muscle groups. The first and most essential exercise is warming up, which can be done with gentle rotations of the wrists in all directions. Away from playing time, squeezing a rubbery stress ball can gradually and gently increase finger, wrist, and forearm strength.

Posture, neck, and core. No instrument allows slouching, of course. Good posture, with the torso upright and shoulders lifted enable proper movement as well as a solid projection of sound. This can be improved by practicing yoga or pilates, which can be done in group or individual class settings (many simple movements can be learned through free online videos as well; just go about it gently in the beginning to avoid beginner’s injuries).

Overall conditioning for endurance and strength. Endurance and strength will always be to the benefit of a stringed instrumentalist. A running or walking schedule (one to three times per week) is a good place to start (and consider how what’s good for the heart and lungs is also good for the head). But resistance training, also known as strength training, can improve overall strength – and can but need not include heavy weights. Search online for “bodyweight exercises” to find something that you can do on your own for starters.

In our schools we separate gym from music classes. But note that most exercisers depend on music to get them through their workouts; in similar fashion, musicians might depend on their workouts in order to make the music.