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Practice Like a Pro part 3: Physical Practice

Continuing the series of articles on holistic practice habits for musicians, last time we looked at mental practice – figuring out the kind of musician you want to be and what you need to do about it and organising your creative ambitions ready to take into the rehearsal room or studio. Maybe you’re chomping at the bit to go and hit the technical drills before setting out on tour, but there’s one more bit of prep work we need to do first: making sure you are physically fit and able to play or sing the way you want and to keep on doing so for as long as necessary.

Precisely what physical fitness means varies from person to person (it literally means “fit for purpose” after all) and depends on your instrument, the type of music & performance you are working on, the setting in which you will do it and any injuries or impairments you might need to overcome.

There are aspects of physical conditioning unique to particular instruments that are only kept up by constant activity; finger callouses for guitarists and percussionists, core muscle and voice readiness for singers, foot dexterity for drummers – if you have had time off for whatever reason, you will need to build back up with physical practice in order to get back to performance fitness.

Some of what follows will be applied as warm-up exercises you perform every time you practice, some will apply during technical and performative practice, some will be habitual – correcting bad habits to establish physical efficiency at an everyday level. But all of it is a means to an end: to ensure that when you have a musical idea to communicate, nothing will prevent you from getting it out there.

Endurance, Posture and Resting State

This series began with an open question: how often do you practice at your instrument? Answers might range from a few times a week to over eight hours a day, tending towards the latter if you’re serious about making music for a living. There were notes on motivation and all the work you’ve done on mental practice should have left you with no shortage of things to work on – but with all the will in the world, the thing most likely to stop you is when you get tired, your body won’t do what you ask of it and it just becomes too frustrating or, worse, painful to continue. So the first thing you need to do is be honest about where pain or tiredness is occurring and figure out what you need to do to fix it.

Uncool as it may sound, one of the main suspects is going to be posture – the way you hold your body when playing or singing. Every part of your body supports every other, so bad posture habits over long practice periods will put unnecessary stress on joints, bones and muscles, restrict the way you breathe and prevent you from relaxing into a performance state. I won’t go too deep into the science of posture right now (I recommend reading up on Alexander Technique, Pilates and Feldenkrais if you want to go deep on this) but at a basic level you need to be anchored to the ground (whether seated on standing) with an upright but relaxed spinal position, be aware of how your body forms lines and shapes and avoid overextending joints for long periods. If you are a singer you should be aware of how to use your core muscles to breathe from the diaphragm (deep breathing), but look into this even if you only play an instrument – breathing efficiently is the first step to increasing endurance in any discipline.

Finally a note on what you do in your resting state between practice sessions and performances. As Graham Bonnet put it in an interview about singing, “in a rock and roll band it’s a rock and roll life” and I’m not here to pass judgements on any aspect of your lifestyle choices. But I will say this: if your walk-around fitness is preventing you from doing the things you want (disabilities and medical impairments notwithstanding), or is affecting the energy you are able to give on stage, think about cutting down on things like smoking, drinking and bad eating habits or offset with appropriate physical exercise. Endurance sports like swimming or running will cement good breathing and get you used to thinking critically about physical movements, as will stretching classes like yoga or Pilates.

Pain, Pain, Go Away

Back in the practice room, there is a natural feedback system built into your body that you should get into the habit of listening and responding to: whenever your body encounters a problem or approaches the limits of what it is currently comfortable with, it will hurt.

I think of pain in terms of three types: constructive, stretching and destructive, or if you prefer a traffic light system. Over time you come to recognise all three types of pain and react accordingly:

Constructive pain (green) is the feeling of your body rebuilding, is mostly felt in resting state after you have worn yourself out completely and lasts until you’ve finished healing. If you are still feeling this pain during the next practice session go easy, use relaxation techniques (below), let your body sort itself out and don’t try to push yourself out of your comfort zone (which will be in the process of expanding anyway – that is the point of resistance training).

Stretching pain (amber) is when you are pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, but not to the point of injury (this is a very important distinction to learn). An example would be stretching out wide intervals on keyboard or guitar, or reaching for particularly high notes or applying throat distortion as a singer. The way you use stretching pain is as a feedback system to fine tune your technique, finding ways to expand your comfort zone without discomfort reaching the level of full on destructive pain. If something hurts, keep adjusting your posture and technique until it doesn’t. If it really hurts…

…Destructive pain (red) is when your body cries Uncle and wants you to stop whatever it is you are doing immediately because something’s about to break. Ignoring destructive pain will bring no benefits and risk undoing all you have accomplished by injuring yourself . For keyboard players and guitarists, tendinitis is an ever-present threat that can take you out of action completely. For singers, vocal nodes and similar damage awaits the unwary. When you feel destructive pain, immediately stop whatever it is you are doing, warm down and do something else.

Finger Ballet and Sirening

Keyboard players, guitarists and other instrumentalists will likely know of finger stretching exercises designed to warm up the tendons, improve coordination and strengthen individual fingers – these can be performed not only at the beginning of practice sessions but in resting state too. My favourites are:

  • Fists & Flowers: slowly close and open your fingers into a fist, paying attention to each joint and knuckle in turn. Then do it opening each individual finger in turn, like the petals of a flower opening.
  • Finger Tapping / Laurel & Hardy: tap fingertips on a desktop, or against each other in front of you like Stan & Ollie fidgeting awkwardly.

You can get toys like squidgy bags, fidget spinners and springy things that you might also find help, as a former magician I sometimes do a bit of coin manipulation to get my fingers ready to rock.

The equivalent for singers is sirening – make a sustained ng sound (clean) or ugh sound (distorted) and slide the pitch up and down your full range, like an old fashioned police siren. There is more information on this here.

Kerry Says Relax

Finally, a note on relaxation and anti-anxiety techniques.

This one cross-references with performative practice, preparing for the strange environment of the live stage or recording studio where suddenly you are on the spot with all the associated stress and anxiety. Even in the practice room, struggling with technical drills can make you tense and nervous, your muscles seize up and constructive practice becomes impossible. Telling yourself to relax will make you even tenser – muscles only know how to engage, so sending them messages not to will have the opposite effect. But you can predict the physical symptoms of stress and deploy techniques to send that focus elsewhere, so the muscles you want to relax will no longer be on alert.

Two examples of this:

1 – A singer’s voice keeps choking on a particular line as all of the tension is in the neck (constriction).

This is a symptom of the false vocal folds closing over the windpipe (a natural reaction to stress, to stop you sucking in dust and dirt in panic) but also of shallow (chest) breathing not providing enough power. Focus either on your abdominal wall (around your belly button) to encourage deep breathing, or drop the tension down into your feet (this will also engage core muscles).

2 – A guitarist is pressing way too hard on barre chords, causing pain, tiredness and bum notes.

If you are not yet confident enough with the chord shapes to play them without thinking, practice them slowly until you are. Then focus on the picking hand while playing the sequence, to override the impulse to cling on to the guitar neck for dear life.


Published by qskerryjk

Musician, misfit.

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