Practicing an instrument, composing music, and lifting weights are very much the same mental and physical process (assuming you do them correctly). Of course only one of these three activities takes up a substantial amount of my time these days: weightlifting (I kid).
More often than not it surprises people to learn that weightlifting is one of my favorites hobbies (likely because I have the natural physique of Gumby on Atkins). In actuality, I’ve had some sort of regular physical fitness routine for most of my life. When I was in middle school and high school I swam competitively, in college I ran long distance, and in graduate school I started doing body-weight exercises and began to learn the basics of weight training. For the past year, however, I’ve focused almost exclusively on strength training. What exactly is strength training, and how does it correlate to my musical endeavors?
Strength training is the process of lifting weights with the primary goal of increasing how much mass you can move, not increasing the size of your muscles nor the attainment of a particular physique as seen in bodybuilding.
There seems to be a clear divide between practicality and aesthetics in lifting weights, but in reality there is far more overlap. While a bodybuilder’s ultimate goal remains an aesthetic one they will often build massive amounts of strength in that process. A strength trainer may focus on lifting more and more weight regardless of physique, yet they will undoubtedly build muscle along the way.
How then, does this relate to composing music or practicing an instrument? The similarity is two-fold: process and practicality.
Perhaps this process can best be explained through the practice of music making which most of us learn first: playing an instrument. I truly wish I had learned earlier in life how to properly practice an instrument. I was never terrible at practicing, but I often shrugged a passage off and said “meh, it’s good enough.” I never realized the true level of mental and physical discipline required to master an instrument. In recent years I’ve come to improve my ability to focus on the task at hand. I recall in the first theory class I took with Per Broman at BGSU. He discussed the value of putting your complete attention and highest level of focus towards our readings. This of course makes perfect sense, as our readings were Caplin’s theories of sonata form, and they demand your fullest attention to be properly understood.
This same degree of attention is required to properly practice an instrument, as well as to lift a barbell. When I’m at the gym, if I lose focus for even a moment before attempting a heavy lift, I stand almost no chance at completing the range of motion, despite the fact that my body is strong enough and capable of performing the motion. The same goes with a tricky passage on the violin. My hand may have the dexterity needed to complete that god awful triple stop, but I don’t stand a chance at completing it without having first practiced it with my fullest mental capacity.
Musicians often speak of muscle memory when referring to the learning process of a piece of music. This term isn’t really correct. It’s nervous-system memory. It applies when learning an instrument, and it especially applies when lifting a barbell. You train your body to complete a movement pattern well before you build muscle along that movement pattern. What this all boils down to is consistency. In order to complete a heavy lift or to perform a tricky passage, one must practice with their full attention with consistency, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Musicians modify the final product of the piece they’re working on by doing things like slowing it down or adding dotted rhythms to train the fingers. When weightlifting, you do the same thing. You decrease the weight to improve the movement pattern, or you focus on one portion of the exercise, often strengthening it by performing other isolation movements. The end goal is to always be making progress. If you’re reading a book, practicing an instrument, or lifting weights, you’re either making progress, or you’re not.
So let’s bring this back to composing, since that’s sort of what I’m about.
Composing is an aesthetic art form, much in the same way that performing on an instrument and listening to music are aesthetic. However, the actual process of sitting down to ‘do’ the composing is a practical process, and a grinding one at that. So perhaps it’s better to say that composing is influenced by aesthetic.
Throughout my process of slowly (and I do mean slowly) lifting more and more weight, I’ve trained my mind and body to become stronger. I’ve also becoming a stronger person overall, and this is the result of learning how to truly focus my efforts and attention on the task at hand. Practicing an instrument helped me learn all of the wrong ways to do this, reading advanced music theory taught me the importance of it, weightlifting taught me how to do it, and composing is where I now make use of it (or am at least trying to). In short, training your mind and body to lift weights trains you to compose and practice your musical endeavors more effectively. Weight lifting is just as much a mental exercise as a physical one, perhaps even more so.
If you’ve read this post to the end, perhaps I can incentivize you to hit the gym, do some deadlifting, or go for a run! And while you’re at it, pay attention to how you’re focusing your energy, it just might make you a stronger person and a greater musician!