Ensuring Student Health, Part 1

School ensemble directors often worry about the health of their students, especially when the pressures of concerts and festivals require a strenuous playing schedule. There are several things you can do to encourage the physical well-being of your students. Here are some ideas.

Always warm up. Muscles need some time to adapt to a new situation. Start by having students do stretches to loosen the body and to increase blood flow and oxygen intake. This will make all musical warm-ups better. And if you’re doing something intense like a festival—or a school musical or traveling competition—you will need to adjust your warm-up to reflect the fatigue level of the players. Work or exercise that causes overuse of the same muscles tends to confine joints to specific motions, over time reducing flexibility. Stretching assists muscles by reinforcing a joint’s complete range of motion, reducing tightness, and bringing much-needed blood flow to the area, so that heavily used muscles can relax and hasten their recovery.

Teach effective practice techniques. If a student knows no other practice strategy than to play through the passage until it is correct, the risk for overuse remains high. Introduce your students to other ways of solving musical problems, such as fingering only or bowing on an open string, or working away from the instrument by singing, clapping, or tapping. Then they can reduce their dependency on “playing through” a passage repeatedly.

Plan breaks or rests in every rehearsal for each group of students. This need not mean that the students leave the room, but rather that they have a change of pace. While you rehearse a section with one instrument section, let the others rest. Or, have the students actively listen to a recording of the piece you are performing, making notes on their parts. Have the students “conduct” a section of the music as a group, sing through a passage with finger numbers. Any noninstrumental activity that engages students in music learning will give their playing muscles a chance to recover.

Build stamina into your rehearsal plan. When preparing for longer events, plan your rehearsal with the intention of building your students’ physical stamina. Do some longer periods of continuous playing to develop not only their musculature but their mental acuity as well. Tell the students they need a training routine just as if they were preparing for a long physical event; the body and mind must become accustomed to the demands and length of the repertoire.

This article is adapted from “Adopting a Healthy Approach to Instrumental Music Making” by NAfME member Kathleen A. Horvath in the January 2008 issue of Music Educators Journal. Kathleen A. Horvath is associate professor of string education and pedagogy at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
—Gregory Reinfeld, December 8, 2011. © National Association for Music Education