By Laura Albers, SFOO Associate Concertmaster
I can’t recall how many times I’ve raced to the gym or gathered girlfriends for a short run during our lunch hour between opera rehearsals. An hour is just enough time to jump into workout clothes, break a sweat, and slide back into the pit.
A memorable dinner break last year was spent with four colleagues. We jogged to a nearby playground, where we attached TRX straps to the chain link fence and alternated strength conditioning exercises with sprints across the basketball court. We followed that workout with a pasta dinner, of course.
As I sit here writing, all alone, watching huge snowflakes fall outside my window, I realize how much I miss those frenetic exercise breaks and the camaraderie of my opera buddies. I miss the exhilaration that comes with knowing I have only a short amount of time to reach my goal. I miss the clarity of mind and calmness I feel during rehearsals, post-workout. I don’t necessarily miss the sweat dripping onto my violin or my stomach growling loudly after I forget to grab a snack, but those also come with the territory.
Musicians and athletes are analogous to one another. The musician and the athlete are both required to learn, remember and execute difficult tasks with precise accuracy. Both musicians and athletes need to understand basic mechanics of how the body works so as to avoid repetitive stress injuries. Both music-making and athletic performance require immense physical and mental stamina. Being a musician and an athlete complement one another perfectly.
Musicians, by nature of our profession, spend hours in the practice room and more hours sitting through rehearsals. This can take a tremendous toll on our bodies if we don’t unfold ourselves from our chairs when the opportunity arises and counterbalance the repetitive motions. As a violinist, swimming backstroke is my favorite counterbalancing activity because it opens my shoulders and chest. Swimming is a low impact sport that uses several big muscle groups. Of course, swimming requires a body of water, which is currently unavailable to me. The nearby lake, which drew me in daily for swims and stand-up paddling during the summer, is in the process of rapidly transforming into an ice rink.
Covid has forced us all to examine our daily habits and form new habits conducive to keeping ourselves and others healthy. When quarantine was first introduced in San Francisco, solo exercise outdoors was on the list of acceptable activities. I remember walking into Golden Gate Park from my house and thinking how it appeared as if the entire city had simultaneously decided to train for a marathon. It also occurred to me that the profession of physical therapist would be a lucrative choice coming out of this pandemic.
As most of my daily scheduling choices are motivated by prioritizing time for a workout, I found that moving my workout into the first time slot of the day was an effective way to not only begin the day in a great mood but spend an hour by myself (no small feat since I’d spend the rest of the day with my family of four tucked cozily into our two bedroom condo). Suddenly the morning rush to get the boys to school ceased to exist, so while my husband slept and our boys played together, uninterrupted, I got moving. As the weeks progressed, I fell into a schedule, which included walking, cycling and attending a zoom strength training class taught by my favorite personal trainer, Luis Andarcia (@landarcia). During my walks I explored areas of Golden Gate Park I hadn’t seen before, relishing the solitude. I was timid at first on my bike, as I’d been dealing with a long term knee injury, so I began with short rides to the beach. As the months progressed, I gradually lengthened my rides until I was riding over the bridge and up the Headlands once a week. The Headlands were closed to motor vehicles and I felt as if I belonged to an exclusive club of very lucky cyclists, pedaling up Hawk Hill with the spectacular views of the Bay and San Francisco far below.
My family drove across the country in the middle of the summer, and my morning walks traveled with me to warmer climates. In the eight years since my older son was born, walking has been a constant and important part of my exercise routine. It’s gentle on my body and I can do it alone or with others. When I’m not staring at my phone while walking, I notice details that amaze and inspire me to breathe deeper and think about the world differently.
For the past four months, I’ve taken my boys on a morning hike nearly every day. We’ve noticed mushrooms shaped like marshmallows, birds we don’t see in San Francisco, the way the textures and patterns of tree barks vary, changing colors of the leaves, and intricate shapes of snow crystals. We don’t move quickly, but we’re together in the fresh air and doing something we may not have the opportunity to do again once we’re back to the morning school rush.
Two to three times a week I still sign into my zoom class with Luis, feeling grateful for the contact with exercise buddies I’ve never met in person. My injured knee has almost regained full mobility and my violinist shoulders have more flexibility than usual because of these classes. Plus, I’m stronger than ever.
Though my boys are still attending their SF school remotely, once a week they attend an in-person Wilderness School. On Fridays, after dropping our kids at Wilderness School and praying they’ll “be careful” while using their 3 inch fixed-blade pocket knives, my husband and I often cycle together. The area where we currently reside is hilly and beautiful; perfect for working up a sweat, yet not so challenging that we can’t converse.
With winter steadily progressing, my mind is racing with possible exercise strategies that will keep my family healthy (and sane) in the coming weeks. I’m hoping that the boys and I will snowshoe and cross-country ski frequently. Our morning outings are important for our mental and physical health since the rest of our days are spent indoors doing school work and practicing violin. I was lucky enough to acquire a bike trainer, so I can now ride with (or race against) a community of virtual cyclists from all over the world, from the comfort of my family room. My eight year old and I started taking breakdancing classes on YouTube. We’re awkward and entertaining to watch, but the lessons are perfect five minute energy breaks in the middle of the day. Plus, the teacher speaks frequently about the position of our hips and bending our knees, two things my son is also focusing on in violin lessons. My five year old loves to be chased around the dining room table while I breathlessly sing the William Tell Overture. To mark each phrase, he yells “switch! skip! gallop!” and we change directions and movements. My husband drilled a hole in the ceiling and installed a large hook so we can do TRX in the family room. I haven’t attempted it yet, but our five year old loves to swing through the air, pretending he’s a monkey trapeze artist.
Life in the midst of a pandemic is restrictive, but there are also new adventures waiting to be had. Maintaining a positive attitude and being open to thinking outside the box is required. Not that that’s always easy. I’m a person who likes to be in motion and am always happier after a workout. I use that knowledge about myself (plus occasional prodding from my husband and the desire to set a good example for my boys) as motivation. Let’s get moving! 🎵