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Posture on the Podium, A Personal Trainer Assesses Conducting

Jenn Averill and Kevin Sedatole | June 2011

   Michigan State University director of bands and chairman of conducting Kevin Sedatole made an appointment to work with personal trainer Jenn Averill simply to get in better shape. This meeting led to Averill working with conductors at the university and around the nation, including a presentation at the 2010 Midwest Clinic. Consult a physician before beginning any exercise routine, and visit a personal trainer to receive an assessment and instruction on correct technique.

Kevin Sedatole: I first scheduled an appointment to see a trainer because I was having trouble sleeping through the night and had gained some weight that I wanted to get rid of. Also, dowager’s hump, a condition caused when the cervical spine gets out of alignment is a family trait that I am trying to avoid. I knew that I needed to work with a trainer to try and strengthen my upper back.
   I was intimidated going into the first meeting with Jenn Averill, having never had a regular exercise routine before. She wanted to know about my eating habits, sleep patterns, and work schedule. Without knowing what I did for a living she immediately noticed that my posture was out of whack and I was extremely weak in my upper back and core muscles, which are the abdominal, lower back, and oblique muscles. She recommended focus on correct posture and strengthening my upper back muscles.

Jenn Averill: Kevin Sedatole came in with poor posture caused by his daily work position of being on the podium; years of bad habits had stressed his body. Because conductors work in a sagital plane motion, meaning in front of them, they typically have tightness in the front of the shoulders, causing them to hunch forward, a condition known as upper cross. They tend to have overstretched upper backs, which is caused by the tightness in the front. Because of these poor postures, back pain is common. If the spine is not in neutral and the thoracic curve is excessive, the body is imbalanced, and the muscles in the back will suffer because of it. Poor posture also makes it likely that arm movements are so prevalent out in front of the body that the risk for shoulder injuries such as tendonitis or impingement (when the space designed for a muscle or nerve is compromised from inflammation, injury, or poor posture) increases.

Correct Posture
Averill: Neutral spine is the term for the position the spine was designed to have. People naturally have three spinal curves: cervical, thoracic, and lumbar. Everybody has a different degree of curve, but there is a simple test to check whether posture is neutral. If you stand with your back against a wall and the feet four to six inches away from the wall, it should be possible to comfortably rest the head, shoulders, and buttocks against the wall. If the head cannot rest back and the shoulders do not touch the wall, then posture is not neutral. Someone who can get into this position but feels terribly awkward most likely does not usually stand in that position but has the flexibility to do so. Understanding how neutral spine feels is important because people need to know what they are building stamina to work toward.
   The most common way people deviate from neutral spine is a forward head, which comes from sitting at a computer, drawing the head toward the computer screen, and reaching forward toward the keyboard. Many people also allow gravity or ergonomics to draw their shoulders forward, producing a position known as kyphosis. Gravity tends to pull us down, and being sedentary is unhelpful.
   Strength and balance are the essence of good posture, which creates stability. I relate the spine to the construction of a skyscraper. To have a stable foundation, there must be equal balance on both sides of the spine, otherwise your foundation is at risk. In a building, the I-beams are the spine, and if they are out of alignment, the building is unstable. Correct posture is having an erect spine, with all the right curves, and the muscles balanced equally to protect the integrity of the spine. That is the essence of muscle balance.
   Someone who is tight on one side and weak on the other will have a spine pulled into an improper position by the tight muscles, causing breakdown in the body. To hold that muscle balance, the muscles should be strong enough to fight gravity and able to maintain the spinal position. Weak muscles will always fall prey to gravity’s force.

Muscle Imbalance
Averill: It is possible to tell whether muscles are imbalanced by looking at someone’s profile. If the ears, shoulders, hips, and knees are aligned with each other, that is a sign of good posture and muscle balance. Usually, either the head is forward, which will lead to dowager’s hump, or the shoulders are rounded, which contributes to upper cross. A deficit in movement is the most telling sign. A trained eye in posture can find it when they see someone move. While watching Kevin’s conducting symposium I was able to pick out, based on the movement patterns and alignment of 15 conductors, what deficits they have after just 10 minutes.
   The problems I see in conductors are caused primarily by either muscle weakness or muscle imbalance, both of which common because of the ergonomic set up of conducting. This is a common problem in the general public as well. The good news is these are easy to fix. Sometimes people only focus on strengthening the areas they want to build or tone muscle, but if the opposing muscles are not strengthened as well, there can be problems.
   With muscle imbalance, there are opposing muscle groups involved; one side is stretched and the other is tightened. Imbalance of the type seen in conductors can make it more difficult to strengthen the back because tightness in the chest must be overcome. If the opposing muscles are tight enough, the range of motion will be limited. Before strengthening a weak muscle group it is necessary to stretch a tight muscle group. Before starting a workout, I have my conductor clients do such stretching exercises as foam roller snow angels, which are good for stretching the front. This gives them the mobility to do the back work correctly. (Get a long foam roller and lay on your back on top of it so that your head rests on the roller, knees are bent, feet are flat on the ground, and arms are at your side, touching the floor. Reach up as far beyond your head as you can without liftiing your hands off the floor. This stretches tight chest muscles while putting the spine in a neutral position – as shown below.)

   In conductors I see stretched out rhomboid muscles, which are supposed to keep the shoulder blades pulled back in place toward the spine. Someone with extremely rounded shoulders has stretched out rhomboid muscles, and these, along with the latissimus dorsi, are going to need work. The latissimus dorsi keep us upright, so if we tend to keep forward, chances are these muscles will be tightened and weak, while the rhomboids are overstretched and also weak.

Fixing Poor Posture
Sedatole: I find that foam roller stretches work best, because being on the foam roller puts the spine in neutral. I start on the foam roller every day and then go to something else. Throughout the workout period I return to the foam roller to stay loose, which makes my upper back feel better. I have considered keeping a foam roller in my office to release tension in my back after a long rehearsal.
   My routine is about 75 minutes long, including stretching, cardio work on a treadmill, and several routines that hit all parts of the body, including leg work, arm work, and core work. I am supposed to work out four times a week, but it is sometimes difficult to make it.
   All workouts emphasize stretching, including foam roller and wall stretches. My workouts touch on everything: core muscles, legs, arms, and cardio. I have four different routines so I am never bored. The stretching feels great but is always a bit painful when I first start, especially if I just finished a weekend of heavy conducting. I am tight after a conducting engagement, and it takes time to loosen up.
Averill: When looking to fix a posture problem, the first thing to do is find the cause of the imbalance, which usually means figuring out which muscles are weak and need to be strengthened. Exercising weak muscles fixes the problem by eliminating the cause. If a problem stems from a specific weakness, you focus on strengthening. If it is caused by imbalance, you work to create muscle balance. Conductors generally need work on upper body posture, specifically the rhomboid muscles, rotator cuff, middle trapezius, and chest. These are the muscles most affected by conducting posture.
   Imbalance is easy to fix as long as you understand the problem. Once you know what is weak and what is tight, then you can stretch and strengthen the appropriate muscle groups, resulting in a more symmetrical, neutral spine. This promotes better blood flow and oxygen levels and will make you feel better and look better.
   Typically, any muscle that’s overstretched is going to be weak. Muscles that are tight are contracted and therefore shortened. Some body builders who walk with their arms forward and in front of them, looking somewhat ape-like, and this happens because they overwork their chests and underwork their backs. The chest muscles have gotten extremely tight and the back muscles have become weak. They typically do not have good posture either unless they’ve been taught to work the back the same amount as the front.

Conducting Changes
Sedatole: Jenn pointed out that my podium might be too high, causing me to lean forward. I lowered the stand height and noticed I stopped leaning in so much. Standing tall on the podium instead of leaning into the ensemble is one of the most difficult habits to break. Conductors want to go to the players to try and help them in some way, and this turns into bending at the waist, pushing the head forward, bending the knees. All these things compromise our stature on the podium, but it is difficult to break habits that have been formed over years of poor posture.
   I have less shoulder and back pain after conducting for long periods of time. My upper back is much stronger, and I also think more about standing tall on the podium rather than leaning into the ensemble. Keeping my shoulders down and back has helped improve the fluidity of my legato conducting. I also try to do more in less space.
   If I lean forward there will be pain in my lower back after a period of time. I work on bringing the group to me instead of going to them. I do this by pulling the ictus plane, the baton, and the extension of my arms closer to my upper torso and face. I conduct right in front of me by standing up straight instead of reaching out with a slight bend in my waist.
   Jenn also mentioned that wearing hard-soled shoes might contribute to back pain. I now use a more cushioned shoe when I am conducting for longer periods of time. It really did help with the back pain.
Averill: If you are aware of how correct posture looks, you can work within that in conducting. Kevin has made some significant changes in his posture and his ergonomic set up is conducive to maintaining that.
   Podium height is important. I know eight inches is standard. Conductors should be cautious that they do not reach towards their musicians. The type of shoe is important. In any profession it is important to have shoes that fit your arches appropriately, so you can keep your hips and knees in neutral, which will help keep the rest of you there as well.
Averill: There is no single test to evaluate fitness, but endurance is a good indicator. If someone is unable to hold a posture while doing an exercise or conducting, that can be a sign that things could be better. Also, I would say muscle pain in the lower back due to the force of gravity would be a clue. If you really want to know, have a personal trainer put you through an assessment.
   To stay healthy and pain-free, conductors should learn about posture, how neutral spine looks, and what exercises they can do to fix potential problems. It is important to be active and develop an exercise program consisting of foam rolling, stretching, and strengthening exercises.
Sedatole: The first thing I noticed after starting to work out was immediate improvement in my sleep. Exercise is surprisingly draining. I slept through the night right after I started working out. When I diligently follow my nutritional plan with consistent exercise I lose weight quickly. In the first two weeks I lost between nine pounds.
   My advice to all conductors is that it is not too late to start. Regular exercise, even just 20 minutes a day, will improve health. You’ll feel better. There are many exercises that will immediately relax much of tension that builds up in the upper back, no matter how old you are. Younger conductors can avoid many possible injuries to you back and shoulders by making changes today.

Nutrition and Metabolism
By Jenn Averill
   Many people have poor nutritional habits. What you eat is extremely important, so I usually ask about eating habits in the first session. It amazes me how many people think they eat well but don’t. Roughly 80% of clients come to the first session thinking they eat healthy, but their version of healthy is often skewed. They might think they are saving calories by skipping breakfast and and then having pasta for lunch, but they might not realize that a serving of pasta is only half a cup. Serving sizes are generally smaller than people think.
   Also, your metabolism doesn’t start working in the morning until you eat, so everyone should eat within 30 minutes of getting up. Metabolism is like a fire. Feed it a small log every few hours rather than two big logs twice a day. If you haven’t been eating well, it is akin to starting with a wet fire pit. The ideal way to rekindle a fire is to put in the best possible, driest wood, which, if you associate that with food, would be the cleanest, healthiest possible food. I have clients complain that they can’t eat like that forever, but when metabolism has hit rock bottom and someone is gaining weight even when not eating, then you have to start just drying the pit. That means not consuming any sugar. Do everything you can to promote the best cell growth possible, because that will fire up your metabolism. Tend the fire often, which means eating small meals every few hours.
   When the fire is going, and burning hot enough, and your metabolism is high, then it’s like having coal on the bottom of a fire. When you have a strong set of coals on a fire that you can go to bed and it will still be burning the next morning. Eventually that’s what happens to metabolism. I do not eat well 100% of the time. I have a sweet now and then or indulge in something not so healthy, but I don’t worry about it because I know my fire is burning incedibly strong, and no matter what I do, I’m not going to put that fire out by eating something unhealthy.
   One thing I do with people looking for nutrition help is to make sure they get the appropriate amount of healthy fats in their diet. People think they do not need any fat, but fats help metabolize fat and are important for recovery, brain focus, and cellular development. People also think they get enough water by drinking 30 ounces per day, but the ideal amount is to drink half your body weight in ounces, so 30 ounces isn’t enough unless you only weigh 60 pounds. Knowledge is key. People think they eat well because they might eat better than the standard American diet, but in seven years of training I have only had two or three clients who came to me eating like they should.