Back to performance after Covid-19 | focus

With the COVID-19 lockdown easing around the world and pub gardens and shops reopening, we are all eagerly awaiting the reopening of theaters and concert halls in the coming weeks.

It has been more than a year since government measures and public health recommendations put in place bans and restrictions to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. These limitations have had a profound impact on performing arts professionals. In the UK, venues have been closed for a few months and all personal artistic engagement is banned so either stop entirely or go online from home. A study by Spiro et al. (2021) examined the impact of the first COVID-19 lockdown on UK performing arts professionals and reported that 96% of performing artists had spent less time performing, 90% less time conducting / directing / producing, and 73% % less time in teaching / coaching / workshop management / mentoring. On average across all work areas, 71% of performing artists spent less time than before.

What is worrying as we slowly emerge from lockdown is that 33% of the performing artists in the Spiro et al. Reported that they had not engaged in learning / practicing / preparing / reflecting in any of their performance media, and 42% reported doing less of their usual individual learning and practicing / preparing / reflecting. Against this background, an international study by Ammar et al. (2020), which examined the effects of COVID-19 home restriction on physical activity and eating behavior, found that physical activity in the population decreased by 38%. Sitting time, on the other hand, increased by 28.6%, with the proportion of people who sat more than 8 hours a day during delivery from 16% before COVID-19 to 40%. A long period of low physical activity leading to loss of muscle mass and general deconditioning has long been established. This means that in the weeks leading up to the reopening of the performance rooms, it is important for the performers to work towards resuming their pre-COVID-19 exercise routines and working through their deconditioning to regain their physical fitness prior to recovering from the pandemic.

Restoring your physical fitness from COVID-19

However, a sudden increase in physical activity and an increase in exercise time after a long period of inactivity increase the risk of injury. It is therefore important for the performers to gradually increase their physical activity. According to Joy (2020), a first step away from sitting behavior is to interrupt the extended sitting time and switch between sitting and standing for 30 minutes. This leads to an increase in energy expenditure and metabolic health.

Narici et al. (2020) suggest that maintaining muscle health can be achieved through a range of regular physical activities that combine both resistance and aerobic exercise. In a home setting, resistance or strength training can be easily achieved using body weight and / or elastic bands in high volume repetitions of low to medium intensity training. Some examples of resistance exercises are pushups, sit ups, pull ups, squats, lunges, and step ups. Examples of aerobic exercise, which are repetitive exercises that involve large muscle groups, include burpees, climbers, and skipping ropes.

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In the weeks leading up to a return to the performance rooms, performers can use both resistance and aerobic exercise as part of their pre-performance routine. By alternating between resistance and aerobic exercises in a circuit training that involves performing a series of fixed repetitions in quick succession, the performers not only maintain muscle health, but also develop the muscle mass necessary to be physically fit again .

Including more physical activity in daily life contributes to overall health. However, you have to train within your abilities before you can push yourself further. It has long been known that general health benefits are obtained from at least 30 minutes of moderate or vigorous exercise, five or more days per week.

The following table (Williamon, 2012) assumes a seated starting point and provides general guidelines for regular aerobic exercise for aerobic fitness. For those starting from a sedentary starting point, the recommended 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise can be accomplished with several brief seizures lasting just 10 minutes.

Timetable for practice

The above program can be followed either by accumulating the suggested session time over two or more shorter sessions that add up to the goal, or by following the program from its relatively simple start to incremental additions of time, frequency, and intensity. It is important to note that starting training programs with unsuitable intensities and frequencies will result in injuries and premature termination of the training program. A steady approach, on the other hand, makes for a healthier and more enjoyable experience.

Resuming your exercise plan before COVID-19

Avoiding injury is also important when continuing long exercise sessions to return to pre-COVID-19 performance levels. It is therefore crucial that the performers accelerate their return to their previous workload in a carefully structured manner, gradually increasing the exercise duration and intensity over several weeks. During this time it is important to rest as it is to practice. The exercise time can be divided into several one-hour sessions during the day with an hour break in between, so that the body has enough time to adjust to the new workload. During these breaks, it is important to avoid using similar muscle patterns as when playing instruments like games or computer time, as this increases the workload and reduces the likelihood of complete rest.

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At this point, the choice of repertoire is also of crucial importance. After shortening the practice time for a long time, the reconstruction technique must be carefully chosen by choosing the right repertoire. Each lesson should be carefully planned so that steady progress towards pre-COVID-19 skills is possible. This can be achieved by assessing one’s ability and choosing an appropriate repertoire that is neither too easy nor too demanding to perform without injury.

It is also important that during this time one monitor the body’s response to the workload and only move to the next level when the body is comfortable with the current load. At this point it is also important to consider slow practice, which allows greater attention to be paid to the sound projection and technique and helps prevent the formation of new habits and injuries.

Mental practice

Mental exercises can be used to take effective breaks during exercise while at the same time keeping away from activities that further tighten the muscle groups required for playing and prevent injuries. Practice sessions with learning objectives can be divided into those that can be achieved during a practical session and those that can be achieved during a mental exercise.

According to advice from the field of sports psychology (Butler, 1996; Syer & Connolly, 1998) one should always begin with relaxation in order for the mental test to be effective, for signals to be clearly communicated between body and mind. It is also recommended to practice mental practice regularly, especially in the morning. Regular short sessions are also considered more beneficial than long, infrequent sessions. Above all, however, you have to study certain skills or qualities that come close to technical skills. When practicing mentally, one should also use all of the senses so that one can feel that they are in the situation in which the skill is being performed and therefore make the experience as mentally realistic as possible.

A pre-performance routine

In addition to increasing physical activity, exercise, and hours of practice, you also need to warm up before playing an instrument in order to get back to performance. Warming up does not mean playing scales or arpeggios or certain exercises on the instrument, but rather doing 5 minutes of stretching exercises outside the instrument. Such exercises can include, but are not limited to, raising your arms above your head, stretching your neck in all directions, circling your arms, squats, shaking your wrist, deep breathing, and torso rotation. The breaks between the practical exercises can also alternate between mental exercise and stretching exercises. Cooling down is just as important as warming up, especially to prevent injuries.

back to work

Although our lives get busier again after work and it becomes harder to find time for physical activity, exercise, long breaks between workouts, and time to stretch and cool down, it is crucial that these good habits are maintained for us to maintain our own health and wellbeing. It is also important to maintain (or return to) a healthy and balanced diet and to practice a good night’s sleep to help our bodies recover from micro-injuries and avoid a repair backlog and possible injury.

Berenice Beverley Zammit is a teaching assistant in Music Performance Psychology I and II and the Performing Arts in Health and Wellbeing at the Center for Performance Science and the Royal College of Music (RCM). For more information click here or visit their website here.


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