Like many classically trained musicians who have been honing their talents since kindergarten, Andrew Bogard never made physical fitness a priority.
“The emphasis in our education puts us in a small four-walled practice room for a majority of the time,” Bogard said.
A gifted singer, he took his body for granted. With a little help from Häagen-Dazs dulce de leche, by the time he turned 20 he had developed a respectable gut. Because opera singers command a large presence on stage, he didn’t mind, even believing that the heft around his belly probably helped project his voice.
But in 2009, he and his roommates at the Juilliard School challenged each other to a pull-up contest. Bogard could barely do six.
He joined a local YMCA, changed his diet and lost 20 pounds. He felt physically fit. But to his horror, he discovered that the bulkier muscles in his neck and the strain of lifting weights had damaged his voice.
“My teachers said, ‘Do you want to be a body builder or an opera singer?’ ” Bogard recalled. So he quit working out after a year.
Now 26 and nearing completion of a master’s degree at the Curtis Institute of Music in Phildelphia, Bogard is in the best shape of his life, and his voice is clearer and stronger than ever. He credits a relatively new course offered by the conservatory, “Fitness and Conditioning for Musicians.”
Students who enroll in the noncredit elective attend exercise sessions at Zarett Rehab & Fitness, where they receive physical therapy and work out under the supervision of trainers attuned to musicians’ special needs.
“Rather than going to a gym at midnight on their own, they receive much more supervision and care and attention,” said Thomas Bandar, assistant dean of student affairs at Curtis.
Midway through a recent workout, Bogard strapped himself into a 25-pound weight vest, slipped cloth booties over his sneakers and skated side to side across a slippery mat designed to strengthen abdominal and leg muscles and improve coordination. Later, he climbed onto an apparatus that helped him build his back muscles.
“I want you to feel it here,” said Joseph Zarett, tapping Bogard between the shoulder blades.
Zarett, who owns the facility and supervises training, said he had used his experience and knowledge as a physical therapist to customize the program for each student. He chooses exercises that improve students’ posture and core strength, while — depending on the instrument they play — protecting their hands, wrists, forearms and necks.
“When I was going to the gym on my own, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Bogard said, wiping sweat from his forehead. “The pressure from tightening the sternocleidomastoids [muscles on the side of the neck] was destroying the quality of my voice. These guys teach you how to do it correctly.”
To Bandar, “musicians really are like athletes.” Rather than cardiovascular strength, they develop Olympian-level fine motor skills, he said. And just like gymnasts or marathon runners, they often suffer injuries from overuse.
Since 2010, when the program began, 30 or so students each semester have signed up to attend personal training sessions two or three times a week. Ren Martin-Doike, a violist, developed tendinitis in her elbow during her first year at Curtis. Having never belonged to a gym, she was wary of the course at Zarett’s.
“I learned a lot,” Martin-Doike said. “They really work a lot on posture and preventive measures you can take to strengthen the right muscles.”
The training changed her body mechanics while playing her instrument, and also the way she sits at her desk. “I don’t get hurt now,” she said. “I’m really vigilant and really aware.”