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Move Every Day: A Conversation with Angela McCuiston

JD: What drew you to music as a career? Tell us a little about your background.

AM: My mom had a flute in storage and I was drawn to it immediately. I couldn’t wait until 6th grade to join band and play it. I had taken piano as a child and liked music, but it didn’t hook me. There was something magical about the shiny silver keys in the purple velvet that drew me.  I joined band the first day I could and to my delight got a sound right away.  From that moment I was totally obsessed – playing flute was my greatest delight – like suddenly I was free to speak another language I didn’t know I knew, like I had an entirely new voice.  For me, there just was no other option. I had no interest in other instruments, but I didn’t want to be a touring soloist either. I knew I had a unique path, but it had to involve playing somehow.

JD: What drew you to fitness and personal training?

AM: Again, I had had an interest in fitness from an early age. I remember working out to a Cindy Crawford DVD that my mom had and when my grandfather, an Army Colonel and the strongest person I knew, told me that if I did my squats I’d be strong enough to finally get up on water skis, I was dedicated. It runs in the family somewhat. My uncle was also a massage therapist, trainer and US Cycling Coach, and he and  I would talk anatomy for hours. After I got out of graduate school and was trying to figure out a career, I decided to give my fitness hobby my full attention. That’s when I found out how much I didn’t know and also all about muscle imbalances. That’s when it hit me that no one was tying in strength training to musicians and injuries. Thinking back on the number of injuries I had had (3 at that point), I realized I could combine my love of music AND fitness into something worthwhile. I had been teaching private flute lessons for years at that point and speculated that personal training could probably be the same, except that instead of teaching an instrument I could teach people about their bodies, and for sure the two are really very similar.

JD: You have an impressive number of certifications! What was it like earning those?

AM: A lot of  hard work!  The CPT (or personal training certification) is the cornerstone of all of it, your basis of knowledge ( kind of how graduating high school gives you a basis of knowledge that you can build on). From there, just like when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree and I knew I was not at the point musically where I wanted to be and had not learned enough or met my potential, I felt the same with my CPT. The CES (corrective exercise specialization) was the next step, and quite honestly, it was the hardest thing I’ve done since my master’s comps.  It’s incredibly detailed and thorough. I studied a lot for both and the CPT was hard, but even as an open book test, The CES was much harder. You have to have a thorough understanding of where muscles are, what they’re called, what they do and what other muscles they help or hinder.  It was a great decision, though, because I use it daily. The SFS (senior fitness) and CETI – CES (cancer fitness) were because I was working with a lot of seniors and cancer is something that a lot of people will deal with. I may not use all of them all the time but you never know, and the more tools you have in your tool bag, the better able you are to help people!  I will be getting my NKT (Neurokinetic therapy) certification soon, and it’s been REALLY DIFFICULT. It’s confusing, but when you get it right it’s so rewarding because you have the ability to literally change how someone moves and take away their pain. They can get their life back.

JD: Tell us about the foundation of MusicStrong and its mission.

AM: Well I’ve told you the back story – but its mission is that we seek to empower musicians through  smart strength training to overcome the muscle imbalances caused by their instruments, so they can live long, strong and health lives on stage and off!  If your first instrument (your body) doesn’t work,  you can’t play your second.

JD: What is something (or some things) that every musician should do to preserve their health and mobility?

AM: Move every day! Find something you love movement wise and make time for it.  When you don’t, pretty soon it’s been months and your mobility is gone. It’s easier to keep mobility than to reclaim it.  Other  than that, don’t just stretch, learn some bodyweight strength exercises that benefit you and your instrument and incorporate that into your daily routine.

JD: What is the most common misconception you see and hear regarding musician fitness?

AM: From musicians?  That stretching is all you need, and strength training can hurt you.

From non-musicians? That musicians aren’t really “athletes.”

JD: Tell us about “The Musician’s Essential Exercises.”

AM: That’s a book I wrote on the bare essentials exercises musicians need to stay healthy. I see a lot of musicians working out in hotel gyms, at home, etc. and they don’t really know what’s appropriate. These exercises work on the absolute core (no pun intended) of a musician’s fitness – the exercises you need to incorporate into daily workouts and the workouts you do in the gym. You can incorporate them into a plan you’re already doing or use one of the workouts already done for you in the back.

JD: If you could give young flutists contemplating a career in music one piece of advice, regarding
fitness or career or anything you like, what would it be?

AM: Follow your heart. You don’t have to know what you want to do  but if you have a passion follow it, it’s there for a reason. If an idea hits you, act on it, you never know which idea/actions will propel you to a life you love even if It’s not something you ever imagined. I never thought I would be doing this, but  I love that I have so much agency and flexibility in continually creating the career and life that I want. If someone tries to talk you out of it, ignore them. I was told I needed to have  a Music Education degree to “fall back on.” I felt that was completely unfair to me and my future students because I had no interest in general music or being a band director. I followed music performance because I knew it was right for me. When I asked my mom if she ever worried about my major she said “no, we knew you’d figure it out,” and she was right. When I started Music Strong and started bucking the norm about strength training for musicians and talking about how if you DON’T strength train you can end up causing MORE problems, not less, I was told by a well known magazine publisher, “We know Angela, we admire her enthusiasm.” What I was saying then is now being preached by tons of other people who are on the same band wagon and want to get the word out and buck the old system that is largely fueled by ignorance.

My hope is that one day every college has a Music Strong “Trainer in Residence” and we can stop blaming injuries on a person “not being good enough” or “not practicing enough” when really there are ergonomics or instrument modifications to be addressed, or maybe a performer is hypermobile and needs strength training to stabilize their joints but they’ve only been taught to stretch, or that our trainers can stop repetitive stress injuries before they start.  

I digress, but don’t’ let anyone tell you you have to go down only one path, you can create your own and never EVER be afraid to be ahead of the times.  Stay true to yourself and your passions, study everything you can and you’ll figure it out.

Just realized I really digressed here and misread your question –  Take care of your body and don’t be afraid to seek out a coach. You have a teacher to teach you flute, hire a teacher (or several) to teach you about  your body.Don’t be afraid to be a beginner again, that’s where beautiful things happen. Take every class you can in movement whether it’s Alexander Technique, pilates, yoga, Feldenkrais, Body Mapping, Kettlebells, stick training, strength training, anything that catches your eye, give it a go. Even if it’s not for you, you just might end up learning one thing that makes you a better musician.

About Angela McCuiston

Angela McCuiston is a NASM-CPT, CES, SFS and holds her M.M. in flute performance from The Florida State University.  An active musician, she plays assistant principal/piccolo in Sinfonia Gulf Coast of Destin, FL and with the 313th Army Band in Nashville, as well as teaching and freelancing in Nashville, TN.  Winner of the 2005 Piccolo Masterclass Competition for the National Flute Association, she has fused her love of fitness and music to form Music Strong, a business that provides fitness solutions to musicians.  In 2018 she accepted the position of Chair of the Performance Health Committee for the NFA and is sought out national as a resource in musician’s health and fitness.  She currently resides in Nashville, TN.

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