Fingerboard Calisthenics: 5 Keys to a Musician’s Training Regimen

By Louise Lee

Illustrations by Olivia Wise

Dancers, performing their gravity-defying leaps and turns, are frequently compared to athletes. But string players? It turns out that there are plenty of parallels between musical training and athletics, which both require performing demanding physical tasks, developing mental stamina and focus, and boosting physical endurance. Mikylah McTeer, associate professor of violin at West Virginia University and former co-captain of the Oberlin College women’s soccer team, and her student Sydney Scott, violin-performance major and winner of Academic All-Big 12 First Team Honors in cross-country running, use athletic concepts to frame musical problems in order to help players improve their performance. Here are their ideas.

Clock1. Speed Up

Just as runners have speed goals, string players need to reach a particular speed in certain passages. Players can often play a piece reliably, but they’re stuck under tempo. At that point, they can borrow a training technique from runners, who sometimes find themselves able to run at a comfortable pace for hours but want to boost their speed. Rather than gradually increasing their pace until they reach their goal, runners instead use interval training, in which they alternate periods of high-speed, high-intensity activity with much-slower rest periods. They run for a short burst of time at a speed that exceeds their actual goal and then slow down to a more relaxed pace.

Students learning Schradieck’s first étude, which includes repeated patterns of sixteenth notes, often aim to play it with a sautillé bow stroke at 144 beats per minute. (Scott likens it to maintaining the pace of a six-minute mile for four miles.) McTeer has found that her students frequently start at a tempo of 60 beats a minute, progress up to about 136 and then hit a wall, struggling to overcome the final hurdle to reach the goal of 144.


McTeer advises trying something akin to the runner’s interval training. Just as the runner trains for short periods of time at a speed exceeding his goal, the string player building tempo in that Schradieck étude might jump right to practicing it at 148 or even slightly faster—playing in “chunks,” or a bar at a time and resting for ten to 20 seconds in between. “The purpose is to stimulate a new response, after which you need time to recover,” says Scott.

McTeer says that as her students practice at that extra-fast tempo and gradually reduce their rest times, they quickly attain their goal of playing the entire étude at a sustained fast tempo. Students who used interval training have reached a tempo of 144 in about a month, compared with a year for students who didn’t use it. “We saw real results,” says McTeer. “You’re training the right muscles.”

Suni2. Warm Up

Researchers in exercise physiology have long debated ways to stretch and warm up before hitting the running track. Some research-ers object to “static stretching,” or exercises in which runners stretch muscles by holding certain positions, because they may actually diminish power and speed by loosening muscles too much. “You actually need some tension for speed,” says Scott. So most runners include both static stretching and dynamic warm-ups, which incorporate momentum and movement, such as series of quick-stepping motions.

Likewise, players should vary their warm-up routine. Many players play slow scales and études and literally stretch their arms and shoulders to loosen muscles. But those warm-ups may not help if you need to play in a fast and powerful way, says McTeer. So try the equivalent of the runner’s quick steps: Play scales or other sequences quickly and lightly to warm up both hands. “It’s best to include a lot of moving in a warm-up,” she says.


Repeat3. Drill & Scrimmage

Soccer players routinely alternate between drills and scrimmage. In drills, they repeat single exercises designed to improve a particular skill, such as passing or dribbling. In a scrimmage, they play a full game informally, perhaps against another unit of their own team, to build endurance and use skills acquired during drills.

String players can use the same strategy. Drill time is for practicing passages or chunks of passages, or to work in depth on a particular shift or bow stroke. But you need scrimmage time, too, to play through the entire piece or movement and put the skills you’ve learned through drills into practice. “You need to put it all together and work up the endurance for the entire piece,” says Scott.


Brain4. Build Mental Endurance

Distance runners maintain their mental endurance by distracting themselves from the length of the run. Instead of dwelling on a “three-mile” or an “hourlong” run, they might focus on specific physical landmarks and milestones that distract them from the length of the run. Players, too, can use a similar technique, whether they’re faced with a five-minute movement or an entire 35-minute concerto. Think of musical phrases and landmarks within the piece—where phrases peak or where they begin or end. That’s less overwhelming and more mentally manageable than thinking of the entire piece as a whole.

Rest5. Know Your Body

Athletes use their entire bodies and know how they react to training, and when it’s time to rest. Musicians might not be sprinting a four-minute mile, but they, too, should be aware of their bodies and their physical limits—in particular when they’re tired or when they’ve practiced for too long and need a rest. “The better you know your body, the better the outcome,” says Scott.