Music: To Play or Not to Play – There are Questions

By Valentin
As seen in the Summer 2010 Balanced Body Pilates COREterly

Several articles have been written concerning the use of music for exercise, whether to use it for background, movement or overall fitness effects. For over 25 years I have been accustomed to using music when I instruct. With a strong background both in ballet and aerobics, it was a natural progression to include music when teaching group Pilates classes.

But can Pilates enthusiasts relate to music when performing ever-so-precise Pilates exercises? The answer is not so black and white. It depends on your musical movement experience, the training background of your audience (if they even have one), and if they are accustomed to listening to music for your specific movement purposes.

So many factors affect a person’s ability to execute Pilates movements in sync with music:

  • Are they able to demonstrate proficiency in the movement using Pilates principles (concentration, control
    centering, precision, flow, breathing) without music?
  • Are they able to recognize rhythm and keep time?
  • Are they cognitively able to sequence more than a single movement
  • Do they have the physical endurance to sustain multiple progressions of movements within a single song?

So many people DO play music for exercise adherence but do NOT necessarily use it as a movement catalyst for expression. Len Kravitz, Ph.D. refers to music as a stimulus for increased physical strength, fitness and muscular endurance, improvement of gait disorders, and learning fundamental motor skills. However, herein lie some of the differences. A runner may use the music as background to spur on speed or endurance, or a yogaphile may use sedative music for
calming purposes, whereas a person trying to improve their uneven gait may use a Phillip Sousa march to develop an appropriate stride. Some people do not understand the “8-count” or the “waltz” rhythm and it becomes even more frustrating for them.

Here are some tips that may ameliorate some of the challenges when working with music:

  • Check if all participants are proficient in the movements that are included in the teaching segment. For example: Are they familiar with single leg press with variations to include high half-toe, internal/external rotation, and work above and below the footbar?
  • Are all class members able to recognize the beat? If not, teach clapping the rhythm first.
  • Can they move as a group without music? Are they sensitive to group dynamic while moving, or is it still just an “individual” workout? Test this situation out prior to using music by counting or just snapping your fingers.
  • See if they can demonstrate breathing in sync with each other. Be aware of the overuse of this “principle,” as it negatively affects the other “Pilates principles” of flow and concentration.
  • Do they fatigue quickly after 8 repetitions and begin to exhibit deterioration of movement skill
  • What compensatory habits if any (clenched jaw, fists, stiff neck, etc.) are indicated?
  • Is their memory aptitude ready for sequencing? For some people, this can be a difficult task….which is a plus for brainwork!

Teaching Pilates to music can be a complicated task. You as an instructor also have some “pre-class” work to accomplish. Remember that this is not the same as continuously moving to a professionally pre-mixed 8-count CD or having a pianist readily available to produce a perfectly phrased musical selection on command. Your ability to recognize SIMULTANEOUS movement and musical competence of your participants is critical. Remember that your goal is to allow your attendees to enjoy a successful experience. Don’t try infusing music if the members as a group are not ready.

When beginning to use music in class try these tips:

  • Try three or four selected songs interspersed within a single class. This is a good test.
  • During the class bring back “breathing-in-sync” with each other, finger snapping or counting to remind them of the techniques to move as a group. This has already been established as a pre-class training technique.
  • Select songs that are appropriate to the audience you are teaching. Seniors, males, teens, etc. have their musical preferences.
  • Initially, choose instrumental songs to avoid any verbal distractions.
  • Select music that has easy-to-recognize counts, phrasing and even beats. Try to avoid riffs and extra counts, as this tends to get confusing for both you as an instructor and the participants.
  • Be aware that particular music styles are preferable for teaching: new age and classical are generally good for beginners.
  • Be cautious of various music genres: For example some Broadway show tunes, rock songs or R&B favorites can elicit uninvited movement like “body-bopping” or head nodding. Here you must realize that the song has been internalized in their body (probably from memorable events) and has become more important than the exercise!
  • Initially use simple movements: leg or arm circles, front or back facing arm work, etc. These are usually successful basic Pilates exercises that blend well with music.

In a well-designed class, all the major muscle groups are targeted. With a successful musical Pilates class, quality of the workout can be favorably enhanced. The variety of musical selections, anticipation in motivational or favorite songs, and change in mental attitude can positively affect a workout. More importantly the mental stimulation of remembering the number of repetitions and exercise sequence is a bonus. Focusing on perfecting Pilates exercise to music will take your mind and body to a lyrical high!

Valentin started dancing at age four and has been moving with passion and creativity ever since. Her performing career includes dancing professionally, being a cheerleader, winning aerobic competitions and, most recently, being a key member of Pilates Performance with Elizabeth Larkam. She has also managed Group Exercise at ClubSport Pleasanton, authored articles, presented at IDEA and Body Mind Spirit, produced the Body Revival Fitness Convention
and is a Balanced Body master instructor.