BIT Studio

July 31, 2014

Aerobic Chops

Filed under: MUSIC — webmaster @ 11:10 am

  The practicing of a musician can be compared to the training of an athlete; both develop a specialized collection of muscles to do an exacting task. Competitive level sports and professional level music place very high demands upon the control and manipulation of specific muscles. Each instrument, like each sport, requires the development of a set of muscles unique to that particular instrument or activity.

Endurance training is a process by which the circulatory system becomes stronger and better able to distribute oxygen to the muscular system. This type of exercise is often called “aerobic training” and it has a profound effect on the circulatory system at the lung, heart, artery and muscle fibre levels.

Athletes have used endurance training as an integral part of their “cross-training” routines for many years. By developing muscles remote from those unique to their particular sport, they tend to see a general improvement in the sport-specific muscles as well. Musicians, in the pursuit of minute localized improvements, can be easily distracted from this big-picture approach.

The skeletal muscle system is composed of two main types of muscle fibres and each exhibits different contractile properties. They are referred to as slow twitch (type 1) and fast twitch (type 2). Slow twitch muscles are generally responsible for coordination, balance and maintaining an upright stance – the “anti-gravity” muscles.  Sports such as long distance running or cycling are predominantly slow-twitch muscle activities. Weight lifting, sprinting and most racquet sports tend to use the fast twitch muscles.

The distribution of slow and fast fibres is mixed throughout any single muscle and the ratio will vary by sport (that is, individuals showing success in sprinting, long distance running, shot putting, swimming, etc.) and muscle location (such as hand, arm, chest, leg, etc.). All studies so far indicate that for the most part, the mix of slow and fast fibre content is genetically determined and relatively fixed.

It is the fast-twitch muscles that are associated with a musician’s performance technique. There are two types – 2a and 2b. Fast-twitch type 2a is unique in that it offers a fast contraction time but it is relatively resistant to fatigue.  In physiological terms, it has the same high activity of myosin ATPase (needed for speed) but with a slightly less intense glycolytic enzyme system (consumption rate). Also, the greater mitochondrial activity gives it a much higher oxidative potential. This means that fast-twitch type 2a fibres combine a fast contraction time with a fast recovery time.

Why is this important to musicians? Although the ratio of fast to slow twitch muscles may be fixed, the subclasses within the fast-twitch family CAN be altered through endurance training. Tests have shown that the aerobic potential of fast-twitch muscles can be increased by not only improving the endurance of existing type 2a muscles, but also by converting inefficient type 2b muscles to type 2a.

Endurance training (jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, etc.) provides an excellent environment for overall muscle fibre improvement. Creating and maintaining an aerobic system through this type of activity raises the performance level and density of fast-twitch type 2a muscle fibres. This improves muscular response and endurance capability, which for the musician translates directly into improved control, reaction time and stamina.

Simply put, your chops need endurance training. They do not need a lot, but they need enough to initiate a sequence of events that will support and promote aerobic activity at the muscle fibre level. Endurance training will never replace practicing and hard work, but it will establish a solid foundation upon which to build a successful performance.

Photo © Heather Perry

July 3, 2014

Breathe Deep

Filed under: MUSIC — webmaster @ 11:24 am

 Michael Phelps, swim legend, was rumoured to have a lung capacity of 12.0 litres. Peter Reed, a British Olympic rower, was able to inhale 9.38 litres of air. Usain Bolt and Lance Armstrong have approximately 7.0 litres. Some wind instrument players have recorded a lung capacity of up to 7.0 litres but most singers and instrumentalists are equipped with 4.0 to 6.0 litres. The average person may carry well under 4.0 liters and this is quite normal and adequate for day-to-day activity.

In the world of musical performance, the art of breathing is less about volume than it is about efficient utilization and control. Just as muscle fibres can be adapted through endurance training (improved quality and quantity of fast twitch type 2a fibres), the ins and outs of breathing can be improved dramatically through simple activities such as jogging, swimming, cycling or walking.

The diaphragm is the principle muscle of inspiration. To inhale, the abdominal muscles relax, the abdomen protrudes, the thoracic cavity (chest) volume increases and the lungs expand. In a normal breath, the diaphragm vertically drops about one and a half centimetres. During deep breathing, the diaphragm may drop ten centimeters.  The ability to breathe deeply is not only a matter of chest expansion but also one of the ability to pull the diaphragm downward.

The diaphragm’s natural contraction is during inhalation, relying on the elasticity of the system to expire the air. While exercising, the circulatory system strives to maintain an aerobic environment by stimulating the muscles involved in breathing to become more active. As demand for oxygen is increased, the muscles involved in inspiration increase in activity, which then initiates activity in the muscles involved in expiration, reducing the dependence on elasticity. Both become involved in controlling the rate with which the other contracts.

With prolonged work, the two types are stimulated into more and more action until they reach a state of equilibrium where one plays off of the other. Breathing becomes less a function of elasticity as it does of muscular control. Because the diaphragm is the main muscle involved in inspiration, it too becomes the main muscle involved in expiration. With exercise, the diaphragm builds its endurance as well as its power to control changes in the air column.

But breath control is not just about size and muscles. To maintain an aerobic state, it is just as important to fully expire used air as it is to inspire new air. Shallow breathing fails to eliminate the used air from deep alveoli pockets. The unexpired air will continue to service the blood supply but the oxygen content of this air will continue to fall. Shallow breathing increases the likelihood of lactic acid creation and anaerobic activity.

Likewise, rapid and/or unnecessary lung activity reduces efficiency. Not only does rapid breathing lower the likelihood of deep breaths, but the increased muscle activity wastes energy and again increases the likelihood of an anaerobic state.

Breathing deeply is important in BOTH inspiration and expiration.

Realistically, it is difficult to maintain a constant state of optimized “aerobic” breathing. But by being aware of the benefits of breath control (aerobic stimulation, efficiency, relaxation) and by practicing deep breathing while endurance training (slow and steady with full expiration), it becomes the natural tendency in daily activity as well as performance.

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