ViOlympics: What Music Students Can Learn from Olympic Athletes


ViOlympics_ What Music Students Can Learn from Olympic Athletes

I love the Winter Olympic Games. The athletes and events are a fun diversion during the cold, dark months of winter and it’s inspiring to watch the drive, artistry and focus of the world’s best athletes. This semester, my students are participating in the “ViOlympics” (violin/viola olympics) as we look forward to the PyeongChang Olympic Games. Every week, each student must practice at least 6 days and complete other special challenges, such as bow exercises, listening, ear training, or music theory worksheets. I’ll be posting the challenge chart on my TpT page later this week for any teachers who might want to use it. As I created this new practice challenge, I started thinking about the parallels between excelling at a sport and excelling at a musical instrument. What follows are just a few observations.

In both sports and music, players must practice diligently every day in order to improve. While some sports have “rest days” when athletes don’t practice their sport, or do other exercises, instrumentalists must practice every day to develop their muscle memory so that the fingers will remember the correct notes, rhythms, and articulation. Both sports and music require a similar daily discipline. A feature article in Women’s Running magazine reveals one Olympic figure skater’s daily routine: “While her off-ice training varies day to day, she consistently trains for two to three hours on the ice every Monday through Friday. ”

Similarly, one of the all-time greatest violinists, Jascha Heifetz also knew the value of daily practice:

The discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.  – Jascha Heifetz

Athletes and musicians alike start playing at a young age, almost always during the elementary school years. Due in no small part to the prevalence of the Suzuki Method, many students now being music study around age 4. A cursory reading of Olympic athlete bios shows that an early start is also important in many sports, specifically choreographed sports such as gymnastics or ice skating, where it is not unusual to begin classes at age 3. That’s not to say that one can’t reach a high level of achievement when starting at a later age, but it seems that earlier study provides real advantages.

Basics are continuously emphasized. Figure skaters, who can execute impressive quad jumps  and complicated choreography nevertheless also do daily stretching and “boring”/simple strength training exercises. Similarly, musicians have a regiment of scales, etudes, and slow exercises that keep us “in shape” so we can tackle new pieces with ease.

Musicians are often called “small muscle athletes”. That may sound a bit odd (nobody is timing my concerto movement, after all), but it makes a certain amount of sense. As string players, we have to execute a finger/arm choreography at high speed and with a high degree of accuracy. Much as an Olympic gymnast must land on a narrow balance beam, a string player’s fingers must land on a very narrow target to ensure that the ensuing note is in tune. Similarly, the bow must travel on a small prescribed path to ensure a beautiful tone. For these reasons, smart musicians and athletes perform lots of correct repetitions in their practice to achieve a result. Because we emphasize repetitive practice, it is also crucial to get into good stretching habits to avoid discomfort or even injury. The Musicians’ Health Collective blog is a great resource for information about wellness practices for musicians (or anyone else).

Musicians and athletes face performance anxiety. Both sports and music require the performer to be “on” at all times, focused on the task at hand while also dealing with the fact that they are being watched by many people. Many musicians I know don’t have any problems with public speaking because compared to performing music, it’s a piece of cake! Because of this, both music study and athletics can help in developing resilience and mental toughness, or the ability to rebound after difficulties. Olympic gold medalist in figure skating Kristi Yamaguchi says it best:

Focus, discipline, goal-setting, and, of course, the thrill of finally achieving your goals. These are all lessons in life. – Kristi Yamaguchi

Throughout our ViOlympics challenge, I will be posting about famous string players whom I think every string student should know. Like the Olympians, these musicians lead interesting lives both professionally and personally and we can all be inspired by their examples. Stay tuned!



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