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Athletes and the Arts: What can the performing arts learn from sports?

By Terry Clark

In recent years, a number of novel initiatives have emerged that stand to impact upon the way performing artists are trained and carry out their professional activities. It is now not uncommon for sports medicine physicians to weigh in on the treatment of performing artists. The contributions of sports medicine to the diagnosis and treatment of performing artists’ injuries are becoming increasingly acknowledged and valued. Furthermore, a growing number of science-based research disciplines within the performing arts (i.e. dance science, performance science) are adding to the discussion too.

Admittedly, this has resulted in some concern being raised from pedagogues within the performing arts. I have had a number of such discussions (and at times debates) with pedagogues who doubt that sport and science have much to offer to the performing arts. “Sport is concerned with dynamic movement in a competitive, open environment”. “Applying scientific inquiries to the performing arts would strip away the artistry from what performing artists do and reduce it to quantitative numbers”. Indeed, it would be easy to draw up a list of distinctions between sport, science, and the performing arts.

However, just as sports medicine can help artists receive appropriate treatment for their injuries and allow them to keep performing, the application of principles from sport and science can actually help reduce barriers and better equip artists with skills that allow them to focus more clearly on the artistic aspects of their craft. Indeed, there is considerable merit in the notion of treating (or considering) artists as athletes. By no means is this to suggest that we reduce what artists do down to a string of analyzable numbers, but if we consider everything that goes into making their craft look effortless while on stage we could allow them to look effortless more easily.

So in addition to treating the injured performing artist and keeping them on stage, what can sport and science contribute to research and training for performing artists?

Educators do an excellent job of teaching young performing artists the craft of their area of performance. Young musicians, for instance, have no challenge learning the technique required to play their instrument and how to stylistically interpret standard repertoire. In addition to this now, educators, aided by researchers, are coming to consider and recognize the physicality and psychology of performance. It is recognized that learning to play an instrument and interpret standard repertoire is not all that is required to achieve and sustain a successful career as a performer. Once we develop a better understanding of the physical and psychological demands associated with learning and performing, we will be in a position to train our developing artists more effectively. This will ultimately createartists who are more successful,as well as artists who are healthier.

While we are developing a clearer understanding of how to treat performing artists’ injuries, we still don’t have a good understanding of how these injuries occur and what can be done to minimize their occurrence.Just as the physicality and psychology of performance are of growing interest to researchers and educators, so too are the physicality and psychology of injury occurrence and recovery.

Sport and science are currently informing a variety of lines of inquiry within the performing arts. For example, the role and relevance of fitness and strength for artists isnow being interrogated. We often hear now that “fitter dancers and musicians are better dancers and musicians”, but what aspects of fitness are most relevant? Should musicians aspire to be marathon runners, or should male dancers be concerned with how much they can bench press? Not necessarily. In dance, for instance, research has found that lower-body muscular power and aerobic fitness are associated with increased severity of injuries and increased length of time off due to injury, respectively. We also know that poor levels of aerobic capacity can induce fatigue which increases the chance of musculoskeletal injury; although the precise mechanism by which this happens is not yet fully understood. Researchers in sport have investigated similar questions and as such are well positioned to advise on methodological approaches for arts-based investigations.

While there is still much to learn within dance, very little is understood about the relevance of fitness for musicians. However, for anyone inclined to suggest that sitting at a piano all day moving their fingers can’t possibly be physically taxing, I would urge them to take a look at the attached video. The top number is a real-time display of the pianist’s heart rate as she performs the final section of Ligetti’s L’escalier du diable. This is of a graduate piano performance student who regularly practices between 10 and 12 hours a day. While all of her practice obviously isn’t at this intensity, it does demonstrate how demanding playing an instrument can be! Again, here is an example of how methodologies from sport can inform our understanding of the performing arts.

Ongoing research is producing a growing body of evidence-based knowledge about healthy and effective dance- and music-making. However, this knowledge won’t do much good if it isn’t passed along to educators and students. Doing so will allow us to shift some of our energies from treating artists’ injuries to preventing them.Again, sport has much to offer in terms of models for effectively disseminating this knowledge to performing artists, as well as recommendations for the training of artistsmore generally.

In order to assist athletes to attain their performance goals, and ensure healthy and sustained involvement, professional sporting bodies throughout the world are adapting long-term athlete development (LTAD) models. LTAD models emphasize the intellectual, emotional, and social development of the athlete, encourage long-term participation in physical activities, and enable participants to improve their overall health and well-being and increase their life-long participation in physical activity. This is achieved through the early and focused introduction of non-specific gross and fine motor skills, activity-specific technical skills, physical fitness, mental training and psychological skills, training and tactical/competition-specific skills, and interpersonal and social skills. Broadening the focus of young artists’ training to incorporate such aspects could help equip them with the skills to facilitate lengthy, health careers.

As mentioned above, as we come to understand the physicality and psychology of the performing arts, we will be better positioned to understand the necessary components of artists’ training. Considering the debilitating and injurious impact of fatigue, as well as burn out, introducing principles of periodization into dancers’ training has been recommended. Again, a made-in-sport training model.Sport also has much to offer in terms of how we might provide supplemental training to artists in fitness, strength, motor control, and psychological skills.

No doubt due in part to the money that can be associated with professional sport, those involved in sports medicine and research have made considerable progress in understanding how to treat and train their athletes. It is readily agreed that performing artists have little desire, and certainly no need, to have themselves or their artistry reduced to a string of quantifiable numbers. However, collaborations with sport stand to offer considerable benefits for aspiring and professional artists.

Equally, there is no reason that this conversation only proceed one way. It is highly plausible that these conversations could also foster mutually beneficial research activity applicable to high performance endeavours in both the performing arts and sport. For instance, the performing arts offer a unique venue within which to examine questions relating to the effects of intense, early engagement in an activity as well as the acquisition and development of fine motor control. No doubt such conversations and collaborations will prove fruitful for all involved!

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