by Eva Stern, Member of Local 134 (Jamestown, NY) and Violist with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra
When I began playing regularly with symphony orchestras after graduating from school, I was not done learning how to play. (Not that we ever are!) I had the sense that if I became stronger and more graceful, I would improve as a musician. I was already practicing a variety of movement techniques and eventually came upon Pilates. I credit regular practice of Pilates with the maintenance of my own health as a violist. Now I have gone through comprehensive training to become a Pilates teacher. I would like to share what I have learned with other musicians, both students and professionals.
Joseph Pilates began developing his method of exercise, originally called “Contrology,” around the turn of the 20th century. He moved to New York City from Germany in 1926, where he opened a studio in a building shared with the New York City Ballet. He developed a strong relationship with the dance community, working with prominent dancers, including George Balanchine and dancers from the NYC Ballet. Today, Pilates is a regular part of dance education. There are good reasons to include it in music education as well.
As musicians, we are athletes as well as artists. Students of orchestral instruments must learn how to pace themselves and how to understand efficient movement. For long-time orchestral musicians, the concerns are maintaining fitness, injury prevention, and maintaining technique at a high level. There is also the matter of how to perform highly specific technical and rhythmic actions while seated in a chair—a position that, when maintained for hours at a time, can have a deleterious effect on the body.
Pilates addresses these issues by focusing on the interconnectedness of the body. Two defining principles of Pilates are balanced muscle development and whole body movement. It might not seem intuitive, but proper strength and alignment in the legs or pelvis can work wonders for freeing tightness in the upper body. One of the more surprising things about Pilates is how exercises for one area of the body can bring a dramatic sense of freedom to another. Even more interesting is the delayed effect. Sometimes I experience a release in my neck and shoulders hours or days after a workout.
Musicians often benefit from massage, chiropractic, or other forms of bodywork. Regular practice of Pilates is complementary and can prolong the effects of bodywork between visits. Just as a massage therapist manipulates the muscles and fascia with their hands, the muscles and fascia are moved in an organized way through Pilates. I have seen Pilates help musicians address a variety of important issues: excessive tightness, hypermobility, and pain.
Longtime players may notice some aspect of their technique that seems to be degrading; I’ve observed how technique can greatly improve when the body is restored to proper balance. When we’re playing we are focused on the music, and it’s easy for unhelpful movement habits to creep in—sometimes without our noticing. The practice of Pilates helps us to become aware of these habits and reintroduces healthy movement patterns, which can improve our playing and overall well-being. We have equal ability to learn helpful movement habits as we do unhelpful ones and this is good news!
You can learn Pilates privately or in a group setting. I highly recommend taking a few private sessions with a Pilates teacher to first learn proper form management of your own body’s idiosyncrasies. (We all have them!) This will help make any classes or home practice that you do much richer and safer.
Just as each instrument has its own repertoire, Pilates has its own unique repertoire of exercises. These exercises can be done with mat alone, Pilates-specific apparatuses, or small props that can be easily attained for home practice.
I consider my practice of Pilates just as important as the time I spend practicing and listening to music. I look at it as part of a “balanced diet” that makes me a whole musician. Could it be a healthy part of your musical diet as well? Try it and see!
For more information about Pilates for musicians, visit www.evasternmoves.com.