Direct Practice 3: Conditioning

Conditioning is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood forms of practice.  There seems to be a common belief out there that if you want to get more strength, endurance, capacity, and control, you just need to practice more.




Inefficient, to say the least.




Another problem with most conditioning strategies: they focus only on the physical.  Mental conditioning is an equally important part of practice.  Scientists have found that the executive function (the brain systems that control attention, focus, and willpower) is like a muscle: it gets fatigued when it’s used regularly, but it can also be strengthened by flexing it often.  That means that you can deliberately train it to get better.  The executive function also plays a vital role in creating mental habits and changing belief systems, the so-called “inner game” which I’ll address in a future post.  Suffice it to say that building a strong executive function is one of the most effective actions you can take to improve your music practice and your overall quality of life.




The third way that musicians fail to condition themselves adequately is when they fail to take health into consideration.  Sleep, stress, diet, exercise, and stimulants all affect the physical and mental recovery systems.  Several studies have found that experts take more afternoon naps than amateurs.  Why?  Because the nap provides a recovery period for physical and mental systems that allows them to work harder and spend more time in focused training.




So what are the characteristics of a good conditioning program?  It should:


-Improve the physical aspects of performance, such as strength, flexibility, endurance, control, and breath capacity.


-Improve the mental aspects of performance, including focus, attention, willpower, perseverance, and emotional control.


-Provide regular feedback on health and wellbeing, specifically on how they affect the effectiveness of your practice.


-Be part of a daily routine, to create cumulative improvements over time and to provide a benchmark to notice small changes in your focus and attention.




For most musicians, the warm-up routine is the best place to address conditioning.  You’ll want to choose physical exercises that focus on the specific improvements you want to make and to stick to the same exercises, in the same order, for weeks or months at a time.  The repetition is crucial, as it allows you to build awareness and attention by focusing on ever-more-subtle nuances in your body and sound.  Resist the temptation to think about other things during your warm-up routine.  It will be difficult at first, but over time you will begin to build a focus and attention that will help you improve much faster.




A particularly useful tool that I recommend with all of my students is to incorporate a quick body scan at the beginning of the warm-up routine.  To do this, simply focus on relaxing each of your muscle groups one at a time, starting at the top of your head and moving downwards to your toes. This will help you calm the mind and quickly get you into a deeper level of focus.  It will make you more aware of posture and areas of tightness, which will help you avoid injuries.  It will provide internal feedback about your health, stress, and level of focus.  For wind players and singers, it can help you connect with your breath and increase breathing capacity.




The mind takes between fifteen minutes and an hour for the mind to fully immerse itself in complex problems.  That can be sped up with a routine focused on creating a relaxed focus.  The quicker you can slip into that state of focus, the more effective your physical conditioning will be, because you will be able to notice and correct small inefficiencies in your body and create the proper neural pathways to build strength much faster.  In weightlifting, form is everything, and proper form takes focus.  The same is true when practicing music.


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