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Does Music Have a Place in Your Pilates Studio?

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Music and Pilates - InstructionBy Joseph Quinn

The world of Pilates and the art of music have a bizarre relationship.

The movements within the Pilates system have an unmistakable, intrinsic rhythm. Joseph Pilates polished his exercises with modern dancers as his human clay. Their flourish and fluidity brought him delight and inspiration. Relatively, a dancer’s (or choreographer’s) inspiration and flair come from expounding upon the ideas from within their emotional selves in relation to a piece of music.

So what’s bizarre about the relationship?

The weird thing is the fact that rhythm is such an important piece of the method, that music was inherent in the character of Joe’s initial students, yet the use of music during a Pilates session these days is typically shunned by many instructors and forbidden by most certification programs.

So when was the break-up? What’s the big deal?

Most discussion on the topic is rather cursory. It is usually a “Yes” or “No” answer with black and white reasoning. “The “No” camp cites music as invasive and a distraction…and that’s all there is to it, end of story. The “Yes” camp rarely provides us with anything more than a New Age CD that claims to be perfect for creating “a relaxing mood” for your session. It gives the “calming” sounds of wind chimes and waterfalls…which usually just make me have to go to the bathroom.

Is there no middle ground? Are our only choices deafening silence or “The Love Songs of Humphrey the Humpback Whale”? I am here to say, “Hell no!… but sometimes, yes.”

So let’s get our hands dirty and really get into this question we have all asked ourselves and others multiple times.

Before we go on, it is only right that I confess a stark lack of objectivity. I found Pilates as a result of back problems from being hunched over my guitar as a music student at U.C. Berkeley. I took on Pilates teacher training after college as a perfect “day job.” As Pilates is apt to do, it became a vocation and a means to living. I have embraced the circus that is running a Pilates studio, and I still study music.

So, let it be clear—I love music. It is for this reason that I write this article. I don’t want you to be afraid of music in the studio but I want you use it wisely and judiciously.

Cons: The Naysayers Have Valid Points
Most certification programs do not encourage the use of music in a Pilates session. Others forbid it. Their reasoning is, essentially, right on. Here are the primary reasons against music:

1. If an instructor is new to teaching and they are trying to keep everything organized in their rattled brains, music can wreck their train of thought.

2. If a client is new to Pilates, music can distract their concentration, a paramount principle.

3. If you are in a teaching environment where there are multiple teachers in a single room, the addition of more sound is unthinkable.

4. Pilates has truly evolved. The evolution of Pilates is an important and wonderful thing. The Pilates properties are so sound that the medical and insurance communities are beginning to support the system as a viable form of rehabilitation. Hooray! With this spectacular and deserved recognition, many in the profession want to nourish this appraisal. Therefore, encouraging new instructors to “rock out” is certainly not part of this new and splendorous evolution.

All of these points are true and I whole-heartedly support them…but they are not universally true.

Pros: Fluidity as the Anomaly
Of the traditional Pilates principles, “fluidity” is my favorite. The others (concentration, breath, center, control, precision) are essential in gaining the command of the exercises and ingraining them into your mind and body.

But “fluidity” is where the exercises transcend themselves. When all the other principles are in place, then and only then, is when we “let the rhythm hit `em,” to quote Eric B. and Rakim. It is the cherry on top. It is where the movements relinquish their scientific roots (in aesthetics only) and become art. It is where we “return to life.” Fluidity is the “zest” Joe speaks of.

Here is where I break ranks. Music has the ability to humanize the mechanical precision of the work.

If you have a couple of years of teaching under your belt, if you are alone in the studio with your client, if the client is paying out-of-pocket instead of an insurance group, if they are experienced and familiar with the exercises you have been working on but are still not ready for the next level…get loose with some music! Let them feel the joy that is strong and fluid Pilates.

I like to put it up to them as a challenge; “OK, you’re mat work and Reformer work is looking good. Before we go on to the next level, let’s put it all the exercises you have learned together into one fluid sequence of movements—and let’s do it to music.”

Not once have I made this challenge and not seen the client’s face light up in excitement. It’s human nature to want music. Rhythm is innate, it comes from our heartbeat.

HEY DJ: How to Choose the Right Pilates Music
So now you have all the necessary hurdles cleared that make music acceptable for your client’s “special” session. So what do you play? Fret not, my new friends. I will now not only provide the dos and don’ts to music selection, I will even provide links to iTunes for some of my absolute favorites.

1. Stay away from music with lots of singing. Lyrics will, indeed, distract you and the client. You are still giving cues and you don’t want your words muddled with the singer’s. Bob Dylan is a genius, but “Like a Rolling Stone” is awful for Pilates.

2. Make sure that the music has “groove” or “swing.” The rhythm should have feel to it and flow evenly. Canada’s super-group, Rush, demonstrate extraordinary musical dexterity with their rapid time-changes, but it will make for a stilted workout.

3. Know the music you are going to play. You want to have listened to it and understand each song’s mood. This is supposed to be a fun experience for your client, so keep it in the major key (aka: happy). Perhaps Radiohead’s Kid A is indeed a sonic Van Gogh, but you don’t want people crying introspectively on their Reformer.

4. Know your audience. Just because you totally love the new Jay-Z album, doesn’t mean your 76-year-old client wants to do The Hundred to hip-hop. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about conjuring art out of your client.

I only choose music that I would listen to outside the studio. Without further ado, here are my picks:

Classical Music
When selecting a classical piece, I usually choose based on two criteria: solo pieces and Bach pieces. Solo instrument performances keep things simple while magnifying the beauty. It is like a duet between the music and the client, while you and the Pilates Method are the conductor. Bach is my composer of choice because his lines and rhythm are clear. His “Goldberg Variations” as performed by Glen Gould are pure genius and blindingly beautiful. For maximum nuance, get the 1981 recording. His earlier interpretation of the same piece in the ’50s is more of a piano assault, extraordinary but voracious.

As for Pilates, an alternate classical choice with the same reasoning would be the Bach Cello Suites as performed by Yo-Yo Ma. The versatility of these selections cannot be understated. They can work for a relative beginner who is just trying to put together a short, basic sequence of exercises. On the other hand, you can pace an entire advanced hour of Pilates with these steady streams of beautiful notation.

Buy Goldberg Variations from Amazon
Buy Bach Cello Suites from Amazon

I follow the same guidelines for Classical when selecting a Jazz piece—solo. Jazz can get rather chaotic and can make your brain melt while sitting still on a couch, let alone trying to move to it. Joe Pass’ dancing guitar is gorgeous and can stand as its own rhythm and lead section. It is very groovy—in the jazz sense, not the hippie sense. Unfortunately the U.S. iTunes doesn’t carry all of his solo work. Here is one of his solo albums that is available. Is it heady? Yes. Can it be fun to play with? Oh yes. I like this selection for an intermediate class because it has a nice mix of slow tracks and then some more rollicking ones.

Buy Joe Pass from Amazon

Trip-Hop Mix
This is where we start to pick up the tempo for the more adventurous listeners and Pilates practitioners. Trip Hop is considered down-tempo electronic music with heavy hip-hop influences. It’s also called Acid Jazz. The music has all kinds of attitude with funky bass and big drums. My picks range over more than 10 years of the genre. This mix isn’t for everybody, but the people who like it will really appreciate it. I guess it’s kinda like black licorice that way.

House Music
House is a lovable variation on techno that is just joy. It has a characteristic steady beat known as the “four on the floor” which really keeps your client on point and is easy to cue to. It incorporates horns, guitars, divas and other disco staples. This mix by the Groove Junkies is not for the Pilates newbies, although it is perfect for a fun-loving advanced class, particularly on a Friday afternoon.

Buy Groove Junkies from Amazon

Music in the Pilates studio is not a yes/no question with a clear answer. It is a subjective question based on the instructor, the client and the studio itself.

What I have provided is by no means the end of the story. Obviously, for those who favor music, there are countless recommendations for the perfect accompaniment. If there is an album you love doing Pilates to, please post a comment below or send me an email because I want to know what it is. For those who dislike the use of music in the studio, perhaps this at least provides a glimpse as to why one could use it properly.

What I am certain of is that music helps humans feel emotions. I am also certain that the Pilates method can be a positive emotional outlet, hence Joseph Pilates’ writings in Return to Life. I know that movement to music exists in every culture for as long as civilization has been recorded because we operate with the rhythm by which blood is pumped from our hearts.

I also understand the importance of compartmentalizing the principles and their relation to each exercise and that this requires silence and deep concentration to do successfully. But at the end of the day, when the clients have all left the studio and my instructors have followed, and I want to have my play time on the machines, you can bet that I will be bumping my music loud with a smile on my face as I get deep in my core and loose in my body.

Joseph Quinn is the owner of Real People Pilates in Berkeley, California. He is currently the Pilates trainer for many of the athletic teams at the University of California, including football, basketball, golf and tennis. His work with athletes has been featured on ESPN on ABC and FOX News. Pilates is a close second in his heart to music. Hurl your welcome barbs to him at joseph@realpeoplepilates.com.

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Posted on Monday, July 14, 2008 at 10:11AM by Registered CommenterAmy Leibrock in , | Comments6 Comments

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Reader Comments (6)

Great Article! Sometimes, I let the "rhythm of the breath" guide the class, but sometimes in a class environment I use a classic rock series. My Baby boomers love it. During a quick break for breath, they will reminisce about the first "FOGHAT" concert, or Skynard. This year, I attended my very first Winter Music Conference and Ultra Festival (think Paul Van Dyke, Justice, MSTRKRFT). I use electronica music and create choreography that works for a fast paced class, as long as the clients can keep up. Gyms use music in the weight rooms, and studies show that music helps to keep people moving. Let your clientele be your guide. On a rainy monday night, my clients were yawning. I found that by bring the clients to a standing position, and applying Pilates fundamentals, we were able to inspire a solid workout while listening to this electronica... and then back to the mat! The 61 year old in the class, said, "I think my daughter would love this class, I need to tell her to come!"

I was a student of Pilates before I became an instructor and I remember many classes where I had hit the wall and the instructor's music kept me going. If the class had been "silent" or "relaxing new age" I know I would have crashed! I play all sorts ofmusic in my class and it always sets the mood of the class. I have had more students ask me for copies of my mixes because they enjoy them so much. Today I played an 80"s mix that has been on my IPod forever, the class loved it.

July 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterVal

I agree with the 'cookie' mentality!! When my instructor puts on music during our workout, I know it means I have reached a new level of mastery in that series! It is such a simple, fun, lovely reward. Not only is she telling me "Look at your progress! You've earned this!" but she is also giving our workout a whole new feel, allowing me to explore it further. Kudos for a great article, on an oft overlooked topic! Can't wait for the next one. (Are their other articles by this author on your website?)

July 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRita

Hi Rita,
This is Joseph's first Pilates-Pro article, but we have more in the works...stay tuned.

July 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Leibrock/Editor

As someone who has been on both sides of the fence, I could not agree more with Joseph's specifications for when music is beneficial... and when it can be a distraction.

Not long ago, I was the newbie in class struggling to understand what my instructor meant by "scoop your belly" and "articulate your spine". Music in the background would have destroyed my concentration and rendered me incapable of learning those basic principles of Pilates.

On the other hand, as I continued my training and began studying to become an instructor myself I found that music was often what spurred me on as I continued practicing those exercises I now knew but was working to master.

I look forward to the day when I can teach my students all those Pilates moves I love, with great music they can groove to!

August 4, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterLola

Beware of Broadcast Music, Inc (BMI) if you play music in your Pilates studio. I had a phone call from a woman who asked about our group classes and asked if we play music. We often play CD's or the radio in the studio and CD's during classes. I said, yes. A couple weeks later, I got a licensing contract from BMI that I was to sign and mail in with a check, with the option to cease playing music of any sort (including the radio) or pay the licensing fee.

August 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPhyllis

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