physical therapy

Final 5 Teaching Tips Inspired by Physical Therapy

By Robin Steinweg     teacher and piano student

Following an accident, I discovered similarities between physical therapy  and teaching music. Fifteen of them.

You can read the first five tips here 5 Tips and five more here 5 More Tips.

physical therapist and patient

Below are my final 5 teaching tips inspired by physical therapy.

11. Hydrate: my therapist Katie offered me water after a strenuous exercise. Dehydration causes fatigue. Our bodies contain up to 60% water. Our brains, 73%. By the time we feel thirsty, we’re already dehydrated.

I’ve sometimes offered water to my voice students. Katie’s act reminds me to make water available to all my students. Have some water!       refreshing!

12. Repeat. Repeat again: Katie reminded me that it takes much repetition to become expert at anything.

Whether you aim to strengthen your body or to learn a musical pattern, repetition is the key to developing muscle memory or motor skills. (It’s called practice! Find a structured plan of practice in this short article: Practice Plan)

Question mark, redLetter xHow many times? Until you’ve got it.

13. Slower Takes More Muscle (or Technique) Than Speed: Okay, I’ve got this exercise down cold. See how quickly I can do it? I must be really good at it if I can go this fast! Katie smiles at me. “Slow it down now and see how it goes.” I do so.

“Ouch.” I get the point.

My student proudly tells me she’s got the song down cold. She takes off and her fingers fall over each other, blurring the scale notes. I smile at her. “Slow it down now and see how it goes.” She does so. “Oops.” Some fingers play, others lag behind. She gets the point. We decide she should practice slowly and carefully, building dexterity in the fingers individually instead of relying on impetus.

Turtle crossing signSlow down for better technique.

14. Fewer Repetitions More Often: “Too many reps isn’t going to do you much good. In fact, it could cause strain,” explains my therapist. “Do fewer reps more often.”

I think about my students who go all week without practice, and then try to learn their lesson in one sitting. “Practice shorter amounts of time, but more often,” I say. Even playing the song once a day for six days generally yields a better result than a panicked six times through on one day. Build gradually. Leave the instrument out where you’ll play it more often.

Develop skill progressively, in small doses.

15. The Tools We Use: the therapy clinic has a treadmill and bike, some monkey-bar equipment, weights, exercise balls, etc. But instead of suggesting I spend money, Katie says I can heft soup cans or climb stairs. The primary tool in therapy is my own body.




Stairs, walking up

Students might need a costly instrument. But they wonder if in addition they need an electric tuner or a finger strengthener. Not necessarily. You improve with practice. If you play your instrument, your fingers will get stronger and more nimble.

Bells and whistles may be fun, but simple tools can be sufficient.     Fingers on guitar

Bonus 1: It is possible to practice in the busiest of times. Two minutes here, five there…

Bonus 2: There is satisfaction in the sheer physical act of exercise–or of playing or singing. With improved strength and agility, even walking brings greater pleasure. In music, each level of ability offers new freedom and joy. 1104195249

I hope you’ve enjoyed my final 5 teaching tips inspired by physical therapy. I’m a more aware and better teacher as a result of my therapist’s help. Thanks, Katie!

The previous sets of teaching tips are here 5 Tips  and here 5 More Tips   .

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Number 5, red

To help me recover from a car accident, my doctor sent me to Katie, a physical therapist. I was surprised to discover parallels between physical therapy and teaching music. I shared five of them a month ago. Find the first five teaching tips here: 5 Teaching Tips

Below are 5 More Teaching Tips Inspired by Physical Therapy.

6. Warm Up First: Cold muscles are less pliable and more prone to injury. It’s best to get the circulation going, blood and oxygen to body parts that will soon work hard. Spend a few minutes on a treadmill or bike; walk; even climb stairs.     Treadmill

Fingers, wrists and vocal cords can also be strained without warming up. Voice students can begin low-to-mid-range and gradually move higher or lower. Piano (or other instrument) students stretch fingers, play scales and arpeggios, and loosen tight shoulders. Correct posture helps.

Make it a habit. Warm up. [···]

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By Robin Steinweg              studio

I found myself in physical therapy following a car accident. I expected decreased pain and increased endurance and strength. But I was surprised to find parallels between PT and teaching music. Here are 5 teaching tips from physical therapy:

1. Study the Student: my therapist checked me over, had me try a number of exercises and studied how best to help me before our next session. She brought a book to show me the anatomy of my injuries. She studied my injuries and my responses.

Likewise, good teachers assess a student’s abilities and needs to determine a plan of action. We give thought and care to choosing methods and materials on which students will thrive and grow musically.

Be a student of your students!

2. Active—Not Passive—Learning: the limbs, the muscles, the ligaments—they need to do the work. A spoken treatise on the subject (a lecture, a lesson) isn’t going to cut it. Just do it.

When I heard how little my therapist spoke, I realized that I do more talking in lessons than is necessary. I don’t need to fill every moment with sound.         teacher, silent

Talk less. Play or sing more.

3. It Takes Practice: I’d forgotten just how awkward new movements can feel. You wouldn’t think that you could tip over from a prone position. But wobble and topple I did. Still, my therapist encouraged me, and I kept trying. And it got easier.

So it is with piano, passing a thumb under without the elbow chicken-winging. Or using the register key on a woodwind for the first time. Or fingering that new guitar chord (can fingers do that?).

It gets easier with practice.

4. Beware of Adding Too Much At Once: my therapist tells me I’m ready for more, but she doesn’t want to add new exercises, because that can get to be too much. Instead, she beefs up the ones I’m already doing. I am grateful, because it’s already taking forty-some minutes three times a day. And I do have a life beyond therapy. She rarely tweaks more than one exercise at a time. This is good, because it’s a gentler learning curve. I’m not as likely to forget how it goes. This is like a reward for doing well.

Students will appreciate this, too. They have busy lives. They are more likely to excel at one tweaked exercise than three or four brand-new ones. I should be reluctant to say, “Your reward for working hard is to work harder and longer.”

You worked well; let’s work smart, too.

5. Location, Aesthetics: my therapist’s studio has windows overlooking the Wisconsin River. Bald eagles perch on nearby branches while early sunbeams pierce the rising mist. The atmosphere is pleasant, energizing, sunny.     0127092757How about our music studios? Light, temperature, space and artwork can enhance lessons. 0127092240

Art begets art.


Physical therapy has heightened my awareness of certain aspects of teaching. I’m reminded to study my students; to speak less; to encourage them that it’ll get easier with practice; that it’s okay to take smaller steps forward, and my studio’s atmosphere can inspire and free the art of music.  0127092122

I hope you found these helpful. If so, watch for “5 More Teaching Tips from Physical Therapy” here at MTH blog next month, February 28.




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