Take Excellent Care: Health & Fitness for Musicians

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Don Braden performs at the Litchfield Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Nathan Turner/Lindsey Victoria Photography)

[Editor’s note: The following Master Class article by Don Braden contains information that supplements the print version that appeared in DownBeat’s June 2018 issue.]

The most important thing we can do to enhance the quality of our music is to take excellent care of ourselves. This maximizes our natural energy, confidence, longevity and sense of well-being. It contributes to both the joy of expressing music and the efficacy of the work: studying, practicing, performing and traveling. For me, taking excellent care means consistently making smart choices that lead to healthy, strong living, and therefore creative, productive and fun music-making.

Central to all this is eating clean (healthfully) and exercising regularly, but making good choices is not always easy. Our stressful, yet sedentary, modern lifestyle means that we regularly eat for convenience, not health, and that we too often choose not to exercise because of limited time or energy. Furthermore, the standard American diet contains significant amounts of processed foods laden with refined wheat and sugar. These are tasty and addictive (and unhealthy), and therefore influence our decision-making. Changing and sometimes conflicting information about diet and exercise in general adds more confusion. The net result is that we often do not properly feed or move our bodies, which increases the odds of gaining extra body fat—and of facing conditions such as obesity, chronic inflammation, diabetes (type 2), cancer and atherosclerosis. It also decreases our energy and our will to make better health choices.

Baseball legend Mickey Mantle famously said: “If I had known I would live this long, I would have taken better care of myself!” That idea is consistent with my observations during years of touring. Some people, like Roy Haynes, Avery Sharpe and Robin Eubanks, for example, decided early on to stay healthy and strong for the long term, and the good results are obvious when you see (and hear) them. However, most of us have struggled with our health and fitness, and as we have aged, the challenges have increased. How do we face these challenges, make better choices and keep swinging for as long as possible?

Based on years of research and experimentation, I recommend the following four ideas:

1) Maintain a lifelong health-priority mindset.

2) Understand that every healthy choice has a positive effect.

3) Develop a set of practices to stick with consistently, at home and on the road.

4) Embrace the power of teamwork.

A health-priority mindset means energizing your mind to feel strong and healthy 24/7, and embracing the joy and power of that feeling. Being weak is no fun, and being strong is awesome! It also guides daily choices, like taking the stairs and not the elevator, walking instead of standing on the escalator or moving sidewalk, skipping the french fries and ordering salad or a baked potato, selecting brown rice over white, or waking up a few minutes early to do calisthenics. You can train your mind by setting clear health goals. Then take actions to support those goals: visualize (imagine how you want to look and feel), enact mental/verbal affirmations (“I am strong!”), read solid health information and engage with inspiring people. Naturally, feeding your body excellent food also invigorates your mind.

Understanding the power of each choice means you can start health-positive actions right now, regardless of your current condition, and gradually get stronger and healthier. Even small actions help. You achieve the goal of doing 10 (or 100) push-ups a day by starting with one push-up—then keep going.

Developing healthy practices that stick involves knowing yourself and being able to distinguish the things you actually love from those to which you are addicted. It also involves knowing what motivates you, and understanding your personal process for building new habits. The right diet or exercise plan—the one to which you would actually commit—can be very helpful. Most importantly, it involves keeping your daily activities consistent with your life and health goals. All these things require self-reflection, discipline and solid information about healthy, strong living.

Embracing the power of teamwork means that interacting with the right people can be great for your health and fitness. In general, humans are far more effective in pairs or groups than alone, just like on the bandstand. Find a workout partner or class, a fellow health-conscious musician, a mentor or mentee, someone to cook or shop with, etc.—you will motivate each other. If you fear lack of discipline in yourself, which is common, find the right teammates.

I developed this approach in response to my own bad health habits, which included eating sweet or starchy “comfort food” to feel better. As I aged, this led to increased body fat and lowered energy. I got a further shocker when I had a potentially career-ending medical situation: a cyst inside my jawbone had to be removed surgically by literally opening the jaw itself. Happily, it ended well, and that experience further inspired my health journey. My time as music director of the Litchfield Jazz Camp also has proved invaluable because of its focus on health and fitness in addition to jazz.

The excellent results I have experienced—I’m in the best shape of my life at 54—galvanized my belief that we must commit to a long-term vision of taking excellent care of ourselves. That means we address, among other things, those central components of healthy, strong living: eating clean and exercising regularly.

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