A few years ago, I spent several years running extremely long distances. On weekends, I would go to a local forest preserve with friends and we would spend hours on the trails without stopping, thrilling to the strength of our legs. We would think nothing of running 20 miles just for the joy of exploring the nature of indefatigability. However, when I would actually race, no matter the distance, I found that my body would react very differently and afterwards I would need extended periods of rest and recuperation (often involving physical therapy).
Most athletes understand the cyclic nature of performance and structure their year building towards peak performance and then relaxing while their muscles heal. The top marathoners believe that it’s possible to run no more than two full races a year without causing serious injury. Many of these world-class athletes literally lie down as much as possible when they aren’t actively training, allowing their bodies as much time as possible to recover from their physical regimen.
I wonder whether this training-peak-recovery cycle would benefit performing musicians. It appears to me that the technical demands of musical instruments are very similar to those of world-class athletes. The basic technique for every instrument requires at least some element of strength and stamina, and over time most musicians physiologically adapt to better suit their instrument—at the most extreme, I’ve met oboists whose thumb joints have been dislocated to a 90 degree angle from constantly balancing their instrument. Certainly, many musicians incur similar injuries as athletes, and many budding careers are sidetracked or derailed entirely by bouts with tendonitis or other overuse injuries. And when these performers seek help, most doctors are unwilling or unable to prescribe the same sorts of physical therapy that are commonplace for athletes. Where an amateur runner might enjoy the benefits of electrical stimulation and specifically adapted strengthening exercises, most musicians are required to heal via unsupported rest.
The concert season appears to be designed in order to allow for a period of relative calm, a time for recovery. As the days lengthen and grow warmer, traditional concert venues grow quiet. I assume that this practice began due to the fact that it would be extremely uncomfortable to listen to a summer concert in a room without air conditioning, forcing audiences into the relative comfort of bucolic outdoor locales. Although the origins of this practice may have been for the listener’s pleasure, it has likely been a great boon for the health of the performers. I am curious as to how strongly musicians work in order to preserve their recovery periods, and whether those who do believe that it benefits them.
I find that similar periods of recuperation can benefit my compositional process as well. In those times when I am forced to follow the completion of a new piece by quickly diving into the next, I rarely am able to grow as a composer. I find that the entire series of works linked in this way also generally are related through similar approaches to the artistic questions underlying the musical flow. Only through clearing my mind and forcing myself away from my desk am I able to recover to the point of finding new routes towards my musical goals instead of continuing down well-worn paths.