How is practicing an instrument like working out?

by Gwendolyn Hoberg, Special to MPR
November 8, 2013

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Shows like Glee convey the impression that music nerds and jocks don't have a lot in common. Despite what Sue Sylvester thinks, music and fitness are actually not dissimilar pursuits. If you enjoy one but don't believe you could do well at the other, consider these things that working out and practicing an instrument have in common.

Both can be painful in the short term, but they pay off in the long term.

At a certain point, it becomes clear to both musicians and athletes that there are no shortcuts. You just have to do the work, day after day, inching towards your goal, and that's it. As a french horn player, I experienced this most acutely with lip trills. In my fitness life, it was pull-ups. In both cases, it took many months before I could perform the technique at all, and then it took many more months before I could do it consistently — but how sweet the payoffs were when they finally arrived.

Both demonstrate the power of teamwork.

An exercise buddy or personal trainer can be a powerful ally in a quest for fitness, whether that quest is to win an Olympic medal or to run one mile. Similarly for instrumentalists, playing duets and trios helps you learn more and better yourself — not only as a member of a group, but as an individual.

Both require you to confront your weaknesses.

Most of us, from time to time, are guilty of ignoring our weaknesses so that we can bask in the comfort of our strengths. Any musician or athlete who wants to make real progress, however, must work on her weaknesses on a regular basis. Lately I have struggled as a horn player with clean entrances. I don't like practicing them because it's difficult, it's frustrating, and it makes me feel bad about myself — but obviously I won't improve if I don't keep at it. With exercise, one of my weaknesses is balance. I could tell myself I'm just not good at balancing and focus on all the areas I am good at, but this would be a cop-out. The good news is that confronting your weaknesses actually works, whatever the domain.

Both combine art and craft.

My college horn teacher emphasized the importance of balancing art and craft. Examples of craft in horn playing are proper air support and embouchure. The parallels to working out are easy to see: breathing technique and the appropriate blend of muscle tension and relaxation. There are elements of art in devising and pursuing a workout regimen, too. Recently I had a conversation with a friend who proposed that the point of art is self-expression. Exercising also involves an element of self-expression, even in the types of exercise that aren't as obviously artistic as figure skating or gymnastics. For instance, as I've developed my bench-press technique, I've realized that I can do it with style — I can express feeling powerful.

Both inspire a little soul-searching.

Of all the ways to spend my time, why do I play the horn? Why do I work out? Put simply, both activities bring new shades of meaning to my life. Each time I work out, I experience new suffering and new triumphs. I remember that I want to be healthy and want my body to look a certain way, and I pursue that vision with intent and commitment. With music, I remember how much I love the sound of the horn and how I can bring beauty and inspiration to people through music-making. I want a lovelier world and a more vigorous humanity. By practicing an instrument and working out, I do my part to bring these into being.

Gwendolyn Hoberg is an editor, writer, and classical musician. She lives in Moorhead, plays with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and writes the Little Mouse fitness blog. She is also a co-author of The Walk Across North Dakota.


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