Stretching tips to keep young ringers healthy

How do you balance class size, time management, and curriculum/performance expectations while incorporating practices that help to keep your students’ bodies healthy for a “lifetime of ringing?”

Part One: A call to action

Educate yourself. I begin every workshop, class, blog post, or article by taking the opportunity to educate those whom I have “captive” at the time. My strongest commitment in the work that I do is to educate. I am passionate about healthy music making practices, and I love sharing that information with others. The first tip I will give you is to educate yourself. Attend a class, workshop, or webinar. Listen to a podcast. Read a book, a blog post, or even this article. Do something to educate yourself about your instrument. (By the way, when I refer to your instrument, I am referring to your body.) Anatomy and physiology seem like topics that are only important to medical professionals; but I strongly believe that a musician should have at least a basic knowledge of their body’s anatomy and physiology.

Think about this. An athlete’s greatest asset is their physical body. As athletes train, they educate themselves about their anatomy and physiology. They apply that knowledge to their work to produce better results, gain and develop skill, and to care for their body for the future. Do we, as handbell musicians, use our bodies in an athletic way? (If you don’t think so, ask a bass bell ringer who is slinging the 2s if they feel that they are using their body in an athletic way.) Should we not also educate ourselves about our bodies and how to care for them?

Before I get too far off on this tangent, let me return to my point: educate yourself about your instrument. And please don’t interpret this piece of advice to be a charge to dedicate your life to the study of anatomy. Rather, take this advice as a call to action to develop a basic understanding of your instrument and how it works. (Need some suggestions on tools for learning more? See the list of resources in the “Tips and Tools” on page 24.)

Part Two: Practical tips

While we could go many directions on this topic from developing proper technique to physical layout of the classroom, etc., I am going to share with you some information on one of the easiest (and my favorite) techniques to incorporate into rehearsals: stretching.

Seamless integration

With time management being a major factor in your lesson planning, avoid thinking of incorporating stretching as another thing to add to your rehearsal. Be creative and integrate it into your class time, rather than making it an additional thing to do. Just as you may use repertoire to teach rhythm skills or technique, incorporate stretching as a normal/natural part of the rehearsal.

Focus on stretching and flexibility, ergonomics, and technique over strengthening

Some sources suggest strength training may begin as early as age five. However, as we lead the young musicians entrusted to us, it is our job to give them appropriate activities and tools that support fundamental skills for movement/ergonomics, agility, endurance, and flexibility.

Check out the “Tips and Tools” section of this issue of Overtones for a list of some basic stretches that can be incorporated at any time in your rehearsal. For those who have 5 to 7 minutes in your rehearsal to dedicate to stretching, incorporate stretches at the beginning and at the end as a traditional warm up and cool down. If you have less time available and still want to do a warm up and cool down, choose one stretch from each area of the body, rather than performing all of stretches listed.

Pro-Tip: All stretching should be done in a controlled manner. And if it hurts—STOP and/or back off.

Make use of transition times

For those who have not a minute to spare in rehearsal…these activities will take little to no additional time during rehearsals.

Passing time activity

If your students move as a group in a line, make use of this time. Develop your students coordination, sense of team, following ability (following the director that is), and sneak in some stretches while you walk from room to room.

Warm up your students’ hands by playing a simple game of “open then, shut them.” Ask your students to walk in a line with “mummy/zombie arms.” For this activity the students’ arms are extended in front of them with fingers pointing to the floor. While still in the hall, transition from “mummy/zombie arms” to “police officer arms” by keeping their arms extended in front of them with fingers pointed towards the ceiling (like a police officer signaling traffic to stop). To end, have the students enter the room while “shaking it out.” Have the students show you loose and relaxed wrists by shaking their hands and wrists as they walk into the classroom.

Modified passing time activity/entering the room

You can modify this activity if your students move independently, not in a line, to your class by greeting the students at the door and instructing them to enter the room as a mummy/zombie or a police officer. Ask them to do this silently and ask them to listen for a signal from you—ring a bell—which signals them to switch from one to the other. Ring the bell again when everyone is at his or her place at the handbell table to signal everyone to “shake it out.”

Pro-Tip: I will tell you from experience, this only works if the class is able to do this routine while being completely focused and silent.

During rehearsal

Make use of the time between pieces by asking your students to do a quick “leg check.” Have your students: (1) bend at the knee, (2) bring their heel to their backside or (3) go up on tiptoes.

You can do an “arm or wrist check” by asking the students to do the “mummy/zombie and police officer arms” activity while standing in place. As a variation, I call out “stop in the name of love” or “show me your bling” during rehearsal to remind students how to relieve tension in their wrists. You can also ask them to gently press into the foam with their palms down or palms up. Ask the students to show you praying hands with palms pressed together in front of their sternum or ask them to do simple wrist rotations.

Summary

Remember my call to action: educate yourself about your instrument. Incorporating stretching into your rehearsal is an excellent way to support a healthy body in young ringers. Avoid thinking of incorporating stretching as just another thing to add to your rehearsal. For those who have more time: incorporate a full stretching routine before and after rehearsal as a warm up and cool down. For those with little time: make use of passing time and transitions in rehearsal.

Rob Meyer-Kukan is a licensed massage therapist, a church musician, music educator and a self proclaimed “anatomy nerd.”  He is the founder, instructor and bodyworker at the Healthy Musician Institute, LLC, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Rob is the handbell director at Emmanuel Lutheran (ELCA) in Ypsilanti, Michigan.  He is passionate about educating musicians and other performing artists about the healthy use of our bodies for a “lifetime of music making.”   Stay connected with Rob at www.robmeyerkukan.com or by following him on social media @robmeyerkukan.

CLICK HERE for accompanying Tips & Tools material