Someone doing a yoga tree post and a piano

Cross-Training for Pianists

If you want to become an accomplished musician, you must have a certain level of body awareness. If you listen to your sound and pay attention to your movements, you will eventually gain this naturally, but to speed up this process, I highly recommend you add some cross-training to your routine!

Many think playing an instrument is not a very physically activity. Stereotypes on TV and movies of scrawny, non-athletic musicians help support this view.

The truth is playing music is extremely physical. Every way your body moves affects the sound you create, as well as the ease or difficulty you feel when you play. If you have low body awareness, you will have a hard time recognizing what you could be doing differently to get the results you want.

On top of that, practicing tends to involve a lot of repetitive movement. This can be dangerous for your body if you don’t know how to take care of it properly.

For these reasons I highly recommend that all musicians have some sort of routine outside of practice time to keep themselves fit, both physically and mentally.

The best kind will be something that requires at least a little bit of focus and that will move your body in different ways than you usually would at your instrument.

Here are a few examples and how they can benefit you as a musician:

Machine Cardio

This is what people usually think of first when they consider adding exercise to their day. Perhaps it’s because of the convenience of simply heading to the gym, putting on a podcast and spending an hour on the exercise bike, treadmill, or elliptical machine.

Although it’s better than nothing, these repetitive movement exercise are not ideal for musician cross-training. This is because, as mentioned above, you want something that gives you a diverse array of movements.

Still, any kind of exercise is better than none as it will obviously still make your body healthier, as well as your brain. If this is your exercise of choice, I’d recommend combining it with stretching and perhaps also weight training.

General Stretching

Stretching is so important for all of us, and somehow often gets forgotten about by many. Whenever you do anything physical, you should always be stretching out those muscles during and afterward.

If you don’t stretch, the muscles will tighten and become prone to injury. That’s one of the main things we want to avoid as musicians. Soon I will be publishing a post with stretches specific for the muscles you use as a pianist so stay tuned for that!

Walking or Running Outside

Many would just lump this type of exercise in with the cardio machines above, but in my opinion exercising outside on diverse terrain is much more effective.

This is because you have to move differently as you turn down winding trails, go up and down hills, or dodge rocks and other potential obstacles.

Additionally, since you’re not just robotically doing the same movements in the same place, your brain is more engaged in what you’re doing. This will make it easier to keep paying attention to how your body feels and how it moves.

Weight Training

Weight training is important, especially for people who want to maintain their bone density as much as possible. However, musicians should be very careful and mindful when doing this type of exercise.

As mentioned above, every time you work out a muscle that muscle will have a tendency to tense up. Therefore, if you’re working out your arms with weights, it’s extra important to stretch frequently to keep your arms relaxed.

The other issue is that as you work toward a particular weight goal, you may be tempted to over-strain. This can mean very bad news for your musicianship, as a strained wrist, for example, can quickly turn into a serious injury when combined with piano practice.

As long as you stay very aware with your body, stretch frequently, and don’t ever strain, weight-training can be a nice way to add diversity of movement to your routine.

Yoga

Yoga is great for cross-training with all kinds of activities. You can find all kinds of athletes who use yoga to support their sport.

It’s equally beneficial for musicians. Yoga combines stretching with building muscle and meditative focus–the trifecta of cross-training!

However, even with a seemingly benign exercise with yoga, it’s still super important to listen to your body. Some common yoga poses, such as Downward-Facing Dog, can be pretty hard on the wrists.

The wrists tend to be one of the most vulnerable and tension-prone parts of a pianist’s body, and issues here can easily become chronic. Treat them well!

Feldenkrais

Feldenkrais is not very well-known, but many find it extremely helpful with anything movement-related. A Feldenkrais class is generally comprised with an Awareness Through Movement (ATM) exercise, in which there’s a focus on a specific type of movement.

It’s all about experimenting with exactly what your body does with various, often very subtle, movements. This is a perfect complement for a musician because we also must pay close attention to what subtle changes do for our playing.

For more information on Feldenkrais, check out my friend Katie’s page about it. You may remember her from an earlier post of mine called Awareness Through Movement with Katie O’Rourke.

Meditation

I know meditation isn’t exercise, but it’s still an important supplement to your music practice, and really to life in general.

Meditation is basically training for your mind. According to an article about it in Huffington Post, meditation helps increase focus and concentration, willpower, and cognitive function.

For many, practicing music can also be a type of meditation, but in my opinion it’s important to also have a daily practice of doing absolutely nothing except focusing your mind.

Obviously you will also need a more physical type of cross-training. Yoga was originally intended to prepare the mind and body for meditation, so that’s obviously a good option!

And there you have it: Several options, along with their pros and cons, on adding some cross-training to your practice routine. I hope this helps you get your body in prime function for some great music-making!

Have you found that any of the above options have improved your music practice? Do you have other ideas not included here? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

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The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

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Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

Related Articles:

Awareness Through Variation with Katie O’Rourke
Piano Technique: Make Your Playing Easier

2 thoughts on “Cross-Training for Pianists”

  1. Loved this post, Heidi! As a Physical Therapist, I wholeheartedly agree about the importance of exercise that complements and enhances musicianship. Exercises that cross the body’s midline are especially good. Most yoga poses will accomplish this. They have the benefit of improving coordination and communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. If yoga on the floor is too strenuous on the wrists, chair yoga can be a very helpful alternative.

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