Performance Artists As Athletes

Sports scientists could help musicians and other artists endure the stresses of their craft.
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Chris Gorski, Editor

(Inside Science) -- They endure long hours of oft strenuous practice. The way to get better is to practice more, even when injured. For hours at a time, their hearts can beat at 65 percent of their maximum rate. Injuries are common, and there's always someone waiting to take your spot.

Life in the arts can be tough.

While athletes often have teams of trainers and doctors available to help, many of the insights developed in sports medicine have yet to move beyond the sidelines to the dancers and musicians that could benefit.

In May, at a meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in Orlando, Florida, a number of scientists and physicians explained their work with everyone from ballet dancers to heavy metal rockers to classical musicians. They are taking a new approach to the arts -- both the disciplines and the participants -- in an effort to understand significant issues among recreational and professional artists.

In a presentation at the meeting, Dr. John Chong, the head of the Musician's Clinic of Canada in Toronto, said that among serious musicians there appears to be an 84 percent lifetime prevalence of injury, and a "fifty-fifty" chance of playing hurt at any one time. He said these injuries have the same causes as many common sports injuries: tension, overuse, and insufficient warm-up.

Randall Dick, a cofounder of the Athletes and the Arts initiative, from Carmel, Indiana, said that about half of musicians have problems with hearing loss, and he advocated for baseline hearing tests for musicians, repeated about once per year, as a way to monitor hearing ability.

Dick added that sports medicine specialists have studied many of the topics that are relevant to performing artists, including jet lag, poor nutrition and hydration, and overuse injuries.

"Oftentimes, that science just never gets over to the performing artist side," he said in an interview.

One additional issue is that many physicians, including those that treat sports injuries, aren't familiar with the issues that are unique to performing artists.

"Understanding the life of a performing artist and understanding how they are trying to get better and figuring out their world, and then maybe be able to use the knowledge they've applied in the sports world in the performing artists' world, is how a physician can make a big difference," said Dick.

Tim Lightfoot, an exercise physiologist at Texas A&M University in College Station, usually researches genetics as related to daily physical activity. But he also studies topics that sports scientists rarely approach, from what makes a good NASCAR pit crew member to the physiological demands on musicians.

In an interview, he noted that the effort musicians put into their performances clearly results in fatigue -- but that scientists don't know much about the physiological demands of performance. By measuring about a dozen parameters, Lightfoot and his colleagues compared what happens to musicians in a number of genres, including rock, heavy metal, western, and contemporary Christian.

They found that when you stand up to play music, that creates stress. And a musician, he said, typically performs in public at a heart rate that's at 65 percent of their maximum heart rate. This qualifies as a moderate workout, and it sometimes lasts for hours. Heavy metal musicians displayed the largest stresses, he said, due to the physical intensity of their performances. Ironically, under some guidelines, moderate exercise is defined as exercise strenuous enough that someone could talk, but not sing.

Thus far, the research is at pretty basic levels. But Lightfoot, a musician himself, thinks there's room to develop it further, and to study a strategy that is known to improve performance in sports, but is less established in the performing arts.

"One of the next steps will be to start designing physical training programs for these folks," said Lightfoot. "Because the question that hasn't been answered … is: Does physical training help musicians perform better?"

This is the kind of research that could help artists manage and overcome the physical stresses of their jobs. After all, there's always another performance. Being able to perform day after day is critical to long-term success.

"Rest is not an option for a performing artist because they are getting paid and if they don't perform they're going to just get replaced by somebody else," said Dick.

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Chris Gorski is the Senior Editor of Inside Science. Follow him on twitter at @c_gorski.