The beat goes on

After a successful career as a professional speed skater and a top athlete, Beorn Nijenhuis (b. 1984) studied neuroscience in Groningen. Today, along with his PhD research, he works as a coach for professional musicians in training. What’s the connection between top-level sport and making music? We talked to Beorn about rhythm, ‘wobbly foot syndrome’ and coaching musicians.

How important is rhythm for skaters?
“Well, let me start with a long perspective: the movements made by all living organisms, from amoebas to humans, are often rhythmic. The ultimate goal of all life is to pass on genes to the next generation to ensure the survival of the species. It seems that simple, repetitive algorithms, such as those made by a hummingbird’s wings or an amoeba’s flagella, are more effective when they’re pattern based. Perhaps that’s why rhythm plays such an important role in music. Maybe music is an expression of the relationship our nervous system has with rhythm, which is determined by evolution. Skating as a sport is pointless in evolutionary terms, but there’s rhythm here as well: the movements are rhythmic, efficient and extremely precise. A perfectly executed rhythmic motion sequence results from intensive training and from focusing 100% on skating in everything you do in your daily life: it all has to be connected rhythmically.”

Is your life as intensive as it used to be now that you’ve finished your skating career?
“All those regimens, training at that intensity… no, that’s not something you can do for your whole life. My life now is calmer even though it’s often intense. When I was still a top athlete, I became interested in neuroscience and decided to study it, eventually specialising in music. In that sense, my sporting career led me to my current profession: coaching musicians.”

For your PhD, you’re researching the cause of ‘wobbly foot syndrome’ in skaters. What is that?
“It’s a condition in which the skater has less control over a leg or foot. I’m doing research into whether it’s a ‘task-specific dystonia’, a neurological condition in which the brain no longer has good control over a certain movement. Task-specific dystonia always involves an extremely precise, repetitive movement practised over long periods of time. You see this condition in a lot of sports, but musicians suffer from it too. It often means the end of a career. As a young skater, that’s what happened to my former skating coach, Gerard Kemkers.”

Is being a professional musician a top-level sport?
“The neuroscientist and musician Eckart Atenmüller referred to musicians as ‘small muscle athletes’. Both physiologically and neurologically, there is some overlap with top-level sport, not least in the intensity of the training. Although musicians don’t usually live like leading athletes, some aspects of an athlete’s life can be very useful for musicians.”

Are you a musician?
“No, but I don’t need to be. For musicians, all their training culminates in a concert, a subjective experience that can’t be measured like a sporting performance. Science has no idea exactly what creativity is or how it can be strengthened. As a non-musician, I can analyse musicians without prejudice, and as a neuroscientist and former top athlete, I’m able to provide physiological and psychosocial advice.”

What sorts of things do you teach musicians?
“I don’t say, ‘You should do this and do that and then you’ll be a champion.’ Coaches who say that are bad teachers! I try to identify and modify ingrained patterns of behaviour involving emotion, mood, energy, stress, lifestyle, focus… All these things need to be in balance with each other and form a certain rhythm. Coaching brings a lot of different strands of expertise together and I’ve only really mastered a few of them. But it’s that awareness which motivates me and keeps me on my toes. A good teacher is always sceptical about what he does. It’s why I keep on searching, keep on learning.”

Ronald Touw


Rise to the Rhythm

Saturday, September 21

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