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04. Special Edition: "Music & Running in a Time of Crisis"

Updated: Oct 26, 2022

Focusing on the Value

Over the past few months the world has been hit by a virus which has changed daily life for billions of people around the world. If you're like me, you've already been overloaded by reading of its effects and the changes we continually have to make, so that is not what I want to focus on here. There are many credible and distinguished sources where you can find that information, and here I want to explore something else. You guessed it: music & running. Specifically, I'll look into the roles that they have played in people's modified lifestyles and the power they hold in helping keep us healthy and sane. 

I should point out to begin that I write this from a place of luxury. That is not to say I am unaffected or unworried about any number of things, but I am currently waiting this whole thing out in isolation at home, leaving the exhausting and dangerous work to those who are in those positions. These crucially important people include those in emergency response, hospitals, waste collection, grocery stores, as well as truck drivers, journalists, postal workers, cleaning workers, social support workers, chefs, farmers, delivery people, and anyone else whose work is indispensable in the current environment. Bravo to you all. I feel a sense of guilt that the work they are all doing is currently far more valuable, but I also recognize the value that both running and music have been having in so many people's lives during this time. 

A Change of Pace

Left with disorienting and stressful days, many people are turning to their sources of comfort for, well, comfort. For some, that means watching movies, reading books, chatting with friends or family, or cooking. To a runner, running is comfort. Varying degrees of isolation and distancing protocols are in place in different parts of the world, but regardless of physical restriction, many runners are getting their miles in rather than sitting and worrying. 

When France first went into lock-down a couple of weeks ago, a quarantined man ran an entire marathon on his 7-metre balcony. I recommend reading that article and checking out his Strava route where the GPS was clearly not knowing what to do with itself. In Montréal, Canada, where I live, it has been reported that there will be a limit for runners of a 1km radius from home. This is certainly a restriction, but a lot can still be done with that amount of space and it's certainly better than being confined to a balcony. There was a man in the U.K. who even ran a marathon in his backyard and then continued running to the 6-hour mark after reaching a funding goal over his live-stream. These are just a few examples of people who are finding comfort in the long-run and who are gaining strength through the physical stimulation and exertion of running.

As far as fitness in quarantine times goes, running is unique due to its rapid displacement of space. Strength training involving weights, or strength and body-connectivity activities like Pilates and yoga can still easily be done from home. For those in places which still allow for limited movement outside, there are plenty of adaptable exercises which can be done easily and relatively quickly while taking in some fresh air. Some runners have treadmills or other cardio exercise machines at home, but most do not. That is why we are seeing stories of such creativity in running activities. 

Running Value

The value of daily exercise during a time of lock-down or quarantine is undeniable. The value of daily exercise at any point in time is undeniable, for that matter, but it is even more marked now to help balance the abnormal physical restrictions which are continuing to be put into place. There are many tips regarding how to run safely and responsibly at the moment and first and foremost is to run alone. Other than subtracting this social element from its overall value, all of the other values of running remain intact at full force.

"Getting in 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to brisk activity can help your immune system keep viruses at bay."
-Runner's World

Keeping your heart, lungs, muscular & nervous systems, and mind fit and strong are worthwhile endeavours throughout your life and running improves and strengthens all of those things. With inactivity and isolation reigning these days, it is especially important to make the effort to help your body along. This does not necessarily mean just running, as walking, hiking, and any solo cardio are worthwhile and encouraged. Running just happens to be a perfect fit for the situation.

"It’s the perfect sport for a pandemic. All you need is a pair of shoes and a six-foot buffer from the next person."
-Talya Minsberg, New York Times

Running has seen a boom of sorts in many cities around the world as people's scheduled daily lives grind to a halt and the restless energy builds. If done properly and the government restrictions allow, a solid run might be just the activity which will make the day seem a little more manageable.

A Change of Tune

Now, although my running behaviour is being modified and restricted, the changes to my musical life have been far greater. With cancelled concerts, classes, meetings, performances, and rehearsals, much of my daily life has had the rug pulled out from under it. I realize that I am not unique in this situation, though, and to dawdle on this would be tiresome, so let's change direction and instead focus on the positive effects which music has been having during this time.

A great many people turn to art during times of crisis. Music, literature, film, dance, theatre, and visual arts all have a way of transporting us from our current situation and are able to release time from its drudgery while adding an uplifting and comforting warmth to our lives. This has been the case for centuries and now in our isolated blocks, we have access to more of it than ever before. Never has it been as easy to listen, watch, learn, and experience so much of the world's knowledge and to connect with ideas for distraction, for grounding, or for reassurance.

Until very recently, Italy was the hardest hit country in the world by this pandemic. As a country with a rich and proud musical history, the music could simply not be contained as people began singing together from their balconies, serenading the empty streets. 

"The language of music is common to all generations and nations. It is understood by everybody, since it is understood with the heart.”
-Gioachino Rossini

This Italian example shows a unique power held in music to connect humans through a shared experience. The connection between music and individual memory is mysterious, but an absolute certainty which winds through people's lives to an unknown, but powerful, degree. When you combine this individual experience with the social element of sharing a present moment with another person, the combination is dynamic and magical. Music, of course, is also sent through the air from a distance, which gives it special value in the current circumstances.

Many musicians have been utilizing the accessible technology and have been either sharing material already recorded, or live-streaming from their homes. The National Arts Centre of Canada has a grant program of a value currently approaching a million dollars which grants money to performing artists of all disciplines and genres to host a 1-hour live-stream performance from their home. This program has already produced dozens of concerts into which anyone with access can tune and experience simultaneously. Programs like this have encouraged a sense of community and togetherness while keeping human spirit and a connected social experience at the fore.

Some musicians have also been using challenges to provide a sense of routine and structure such as the #100daysofpractice, a process which violinist Hilary Hahn minted a couple of years ago. It is a journey of self-dedication and self-discovery, with the sharing of video "proof" to keep one accountable to the idea.

Art in Times of Distress

I began compiling a set of miniature profiles of moments in history when music was a life-line and a necessity for human-connection in times of intense conflict, but decided that the idea was in poor taste. I have instead decided to explore a few ideas about why we sink into music and its shared experience during difficult times. 

Especially with those of us who grew up in musical households, some of our earliest memories are musical. Even for those who consider themselves not musically-inclined in the least, but who enjoy music, will have very strong memories with certain songs or pieces of music. This is part of our retreat to music when the goings get tough. 

As I mentioned earlier, there is also a huge social element in the shared experience of music. For performers and audiences alike, there is a period of time in which we share the same air and that air is filled with the vibrations that make up the music which we hear and physically feel. In this current environment the connection is slightly different, but the huge presence of well-attended live-streaming from musicians shows the need for us to share and to connect when we feel isolated. Music is a way to connect - with each other, and with ourselves.

There is then the deep emotional connection we have with music. Many people are now understandably overloaded with emotion day-in and day-out. Some will be looking for a fun tune or playlist to help pass time cooking in the kitchen, while others will be looking for soothing, comforting, and familiar music to help them relax. I tend to listen to and play music which mirrors my current mood and situation. I find the equal tension and similarity in energies to be cathartic and for this reason there has been a lot of dissonant, tense, big music in my life recently. That's not to say I haven't been listening to anything else, but the dominating tone has been tension.

All of these approaches (and there are more) tap into our emotional needs and connection with music. Music has an incredible power for healing, for making time stretch or speed along, and for bringing us back to our core when we need it the most. Now may be one of those times and I encourage you to listen to whatever you feel you need at this time.

Moving in Place

If you are a runner, run. If you are a musician, make music. In the face of so much unfamiliarity, we need to turn to that which is familiar and grounding. Do what you know how to do and do what you love to do. If you are still able to run outside, get out there and soak it in. If that is not an option, continue to read about running and to find inventive solutions for tapping into that part of your life: strength train, fashion a skipping rope, explore free workout routines, create an obstacle-style work-out route around your home. Be creative and be foolish - no one is watching!

There is no shortage of running connections either, with athletes like Eliud Kipchoge keeping video journals of their training in isolation. It's a bizarre experience to have so much of the world experiencing the same pandemic and to see how an athlete you respect is dealing with the situation can help charge you and give you a connected strength.

Regardless of your musical expertise or musical involvement, music can help transform these days to be more full of hope. Take the opportunity to explore new artists and new-to-you music, or listen to a song you've heard nine-hundred times before. There are no rules - it's just a choose-your-own-adventure. The live-streaming explosion has been fascinating to experience and it seems that every ensemble or orchestra with recorded footage has been releasing free concerts. Most notably, the Berlin Philharmonic has introduced free time on their Digital Concert Hall and the Metropolitan Opera has been streaming operas nightly. There are also countless releases in all genres, so explore what you're interested in and hopefully it will help you through this time.

Most importantly, connect through music. Connect with other humans and connect with yourself. Never underestimate the power a brief piece of music can have in changing the complexion of your day. Listen away, play what you want, and run if you are able. I am sending you strength and encouraging, warm thoughts.

If you have any comments or ideas for future topics, please write below - I'm always up for suggestions! You can also subscribe to The Running Pianist Newsletter with your email here, and check me out on Instagram here.

Coming Up Next: 05. "Trusting in the Process"

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