What I learned about practicing from my summer fitness class

Photo, brendan-c

Exercise has always been a challenge motivation-wise for me, but now that being over 30 appears to be a chronic condition, it’s something that I’m trying to do better about. I find it easier to motivate myself to practice my instruments, but I see connections between my exercise aversion and some of my students’ practice lethargy:

  • Unclear or undetermined direction and goals
  • Poor planning of exercise/practice sessions
  • Sessions are boring
  • Unfamiliarity with proper training/practicing techniques, or a mistaken self-evaluation of how well they are being executed

I’ve previously attempted jogging routines, trips to the campus gym’s weight room, calisthenics programs, and various other workouts. All have fizzled out fairly quickly. Recently I had settled into a daily walk, which was easy and pleasant but wasn’t improving my fitness in any noticeable way.

I decided this year to take advantage of a summer fitness class being offered for free on campus. It was my first time committing to doing anything like that, but the price was right and the time commitment seemed do-able.

To my surprise, things went much better than in any of my previous attempts at regular exercise (after the first week’s exhaustion and soreness ebbed a little), and I found that a number of things that worked well for me in practice sessions were also clicking in my new fitness program:

  • Accountability is a big motivator. I knew the fitness instructor and my classmates would be expecting me every day, and that was enough to get me out of bed and into the gym for a full hour. Likewise, I need accountability in my practicing. For years I had teachers’ expectations to meet, but now I am accountable to myself. One thing that has worked well for me this summer is regularly-scheduled informal recording sessions, where I listen back to my playing, evaluate the results of my efforts, and write down some comments for myself.
  • Progress doesn’t always look like what you want it to. After my summer workouts, I still don’t have six-pack abs or a four-minute mile, but my pants are fitting a little loose, and my endurance is way, way up. Similarly, in the practice room, my summer’s efforts haven’t brought my recital repertoire to blazing tempi and groundbreaking interpretation, but I have shored up some fundamentals and made headway on some new techniques.
  • Variety is good. The fitness class was a “boot camp”-style regimen, with lots of short intervals of high-intensity (for me) exercise. It’s very similar to a strategy I use when practicing: pick a problem spot, and give it 10 minutes of hyper-focused effort. After 10 minutes, move on. It’s amazing how much gets done in a few hours’ worth of ten-minute chunks, and I enjoy it much more than long sessions working on the same problem.
  • Don’t fight your equipment. I bought new shoes partway through the summer, and the next day’s class was agony on my legs. I got some advice and bought some drugstore insoles that supported my feet differently, and the following class was 100% better. Same thing goes for my instruments and reeds: if something isn’t working efficiently, I’m unhappy and ineffective (and possibly even injured). Make sure your instruments are the best quality you can reasonably afford, and that they are kept in excellent repair and adjustment.
  • The fitness instructor was fond of saying, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.” (The phrase seems to get credited a lot to Fred DeVito.) It’s easy to fall into patterns of “practicing” what I can already do, rather than tackling something that will push me to a new level.
  • Progress feeds motivation. I found that sweating through a few weeks of exercise and seeing some improvement really boosted my enthusiasm for exercise. (To my own surprise, I’m even hoping to fit in another exercise class during the semester.) I recall as a freshman music major really struggling with getting my practicing done at first. But as it started to pay off, I got excited about what I was accomplishing, and it snowballed into more and better practicing.

Go put in some hours in the practice room—and in the gym, too!


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