A couple of years ago my wife slipped on the stairs outside our apartment. The resulting fall left her with a painful knee injury requiring months of rehabilitation. In addition to physical therapy the course of rehabilitation included Pilates, a targeted exercise routine developed early in the 20th century by Joseph Pilates, using highly specific methodology and unique equipment. As my wife’s injuries healed she expressed increasing enthusiasm for the effects of the Pilates method. I soon became curious and decided to see what all of her enthusiasm was about.
While not completely far gone physically, I was not really physically fit. I enrolled in a one-on-one ten-class package so as to give myself a chance to really get into the method, and see what it might do to bring me to a higher level of fitness. I later learned that there are a number of specific methodologies within Pilates, and it does make a difference. The method I enrolled in was called Stott Pilates. I began having sessions twice a week.
It was hard to tell what was happening at the first session. The movements were subtle and new to me. Hours and days later it became apparent that something had happened, as my muscles complained about the movements with a deep soreness I had never experienced before. As sessions proceeded the movements became more familiar and the routines became increasingly intense. The soreness sometimes came two or three days after a session, and often involved muscles I had previously been unaware of. The ten-session package used up, my body was feeling better and I opted to continue.
The Pilates method focuses on developing the whole body outward from a strong core. Much of the work is directed at developing strength in the abdominal area, the adjacent back muscles and the musculature around the waist. I soon began to experience what is referred to in Pilates as “enhanced core connection.” I noticed one major difference within a couple of months: as my back became stronger my sleep pattern improved. I soon realized that I had been living with low-grade lower back pain of which I was completely unaware until it went away. With the pain now gone I slept more deeply and more easily.
Having been land-locked in the Midwest for 14 years, it has been difficult to be able to continue my life long passion for downhill skiing. Even when I have been able to make the trek out west, I have invariably found myself in less than ideal shape for skiing. Four months after beginning my Pilates routine, I took my son on a ski trip. The benefits of my work in the Pilates studio were profound. The enhanced core connection had me in shape on the slope the first day. Because of my level of conditioning that ski trip was more fun than any other I had made from the Midwest.
I continued my course of Pilates and gradually benefits of more profound significance began to creep into my life. The most significant enhancement to grow directly from Pilates has been for my violin playing: the enhanced core connection and strength in my back has allowed me to completely change the way I sit and stand with the violin. Whereas I used to sit back on my chair supporting my back partly on the backrest of the chair, I now sit forward and support my back from my abdomen. Standing I feel fluent and strong. My level of freedom and endurance in playing is at a completely different place than it was just over a year ago. While I didn’t go into Pilates with these things in mind I certainly would have done sooner had I known what the benefits could be.
I have been through other workout routines, and while there are probably other ways to achieve the kind of core strength that Pilates brings, the method is so highly targeted, that I can’t imagine a faster way to achieve this sort of fitness. One-on-one programs are really expensive and at odds with many musicians’ budgets. While I would recommend a little bit of private instruction to become familiar with the specific movements of Pilates, it is possible to derive the benefits in a much more economical group setting, and as I have gotten more into the method, that is what I have done to keep the cost reasonable. In the end fitness is the key and final goal, and it really is beneficial to optimal performance on a string instrument.
The time commitment involved in playing an instrument well is such, that musicians are often understandably reluctant to make the additional time commitment involved in a serious physical fitness routine. It is a false economy of time and money to fail to make time for one’s body. I suspect that it takes less of a time commitment to be in reasonable shape, than the time one loses by injury, and the additional practice required to develop freedom on the instrument is aided by a higher level of physical fitness. Similarly I suspect that it takes less of a financial and time commitment to stay in a class exercise routine than the financial and time requirements of treating back trouble and other injuries born of weak muscles, especially later in life.