Last Call: 6 Ways to Make Friends with Our Common Enemy—Mortality
John Bohlinger's tips for keeping your body and mind primed for playing well into your golden years.
Do you know what kills many older elephants in the wild? Their teeth. Elephants eat everything they find … which, in Africa, is pretty much trees and shrubs. Gnawing on bark, branches, and thorns makes for some serious dental attrition. As elephants age, their teeth are worn down to nubs and they starve to death.
If I were an elephant, I would've starved to death long ago. Luckily, I'm a musician, not a pachyderm. My teeth have seen better days, but I will probably be here for another 20 to 60 years, barring fatal illness, unprovoked violence, or getting flattened by a bus.
I don't worry about dying. My only real fear of aging is that my body will disintegrate, and I won't be able to play music. Not being able to walk, feed myself, or control my bowels would be rough, but I can't imagine not playing. That scenario makes the old panic attack kick in hard.
When I see older musicians, I take note of how they're playing, to hopefully assuage my fear of a decrepit future. Strangely enough, there doesn't seem to be much of a pattern. Some players who rocked it hard (booze, drugs, no sleep, etc.) might look worse for wear, but then seem to play just fine, while others who lived a tamer life have lost their chops. To a certain extent, that's just the luck of the genetic draw.
For now, there's no fixing genetics but there are things you can do to better your chances of making friends with that cruel saboteur: age.
The Big Two: Diet and exercise are your best allies. Regrettably, there's never been an easier time to be sedentary and eat delicious yet deadly, plentiful yet poisonous, food-free foods. If you drive-through, super-size, and shove grease down your gullet while binge watching, your golden years are going to be rough. Avoid processed food, make a burrito at home, combine it with a few carrots, then walk around the block. It's amazing how much better your body will run with the right fuel.
Stretch: Along with the general toll of time, guitar players will experience repetitive motion problems because they overuse their shoulders, elbows, and hands. Preemptively counter the long-term effects with daily stretching and strengthening exercises. Yoga is one of the easiest and most effective ways to address this. Yoga heavily emphasizes the relationship between breath and movement, which can enhance a musician's craft. I do yoga breathing exercises right before every take in a recording session. That helps me lay it back. I've even found a Yoga for Musicians class. I use some of the basic stretches every day at home and before I play.
Get Poked: No matter how cautious you are, there are times your body is going to fail. In Nashville there's a funky community acupuncture place where, for as little as $20, you can go into a huge room lined with recliners where a compassionate caregiver will listen to your troubles, then skillfully place needles into your ears, arms, hands, feet, neck, head, shins, face, shoulders, etc. Although it seems impossible, you pass out for about 45 minutes and leave wondering what just happened. I rarely went last year and have been nursing tennis elbow for about six months. I've gotten poked five times in the last two weeks and my elbow is starting to feel normal. For the skeptics out there, WebMD claims “study after study indicates that, yes, acupuncture can work."
Stay Positive: Research shows an indisputable link between having a positive outlook on life and better overall health. Positivity requires mindfulness. Observe your thoughts; when they go dark, recognize what you can't change, then drop it and focus on the good. Make peace with the fact that life rarely, if ever, goes as planned, and yet things tend to work out. Live in the present, be grateful for what you have, and show people you love them. You can train your mind to seek the good, and eventually you'll do it all the time. As an added benefit, this optimism and love makes other's lives better and tends to repel negative people.
Play On: Much like an elephant's teeth or an iPhone battery, we are built to self-destruct, but playing music optimizes and possibly extends our brief time here. Music reduces stress, improves mood, lessens anxiety, improves memory, eases pain, and improves cognition. Music is medicine, and this is one script I don't mind taking.
The best way to ensure you can always play is to play at least a little every day. So, put down this mag/walk away from the screen, pick up that sweet 6-string, and play something fun.