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Food for Thought: A Guide to Healthy Eating for the Working Bassist

We all know that it’s important to eat right, get exercise, have a healthy lifestyle, and stay away from fried foods and candy, but what does that have to do with playing music? The fact is, playing an instrument is both a mental and physical endeavor that requires a certain amount of fuel. It may not be as strenuous as playing a sport (unless you run around on stage a lot), but there are many similarities between the way athletes and musicians prepare for events. You don’t have to join a gym or start going to yoga classes, nor do you need to keep a log of your fruit and vegetable intake on a given day, but when we eat better, we tend to perform better. Just like an athlete, we want our mind and bodies to be in shape so that we can improve when we practice and excel when we perform.

Whether we’re getting ready for a gig, a practice session, or just going over to a friend’s house to jam, it’s a good idea to be aware of the foods you eat or when you’ll get a chance to eat. It’s difficult to control certain things, such as what time your gig starts or the two-hour jam session that turned into a five-hour jam, but it’s important to be prepared for the different scenarios. So here are a couple of common situations that require a bit of food-awareness as well as my suggestions for healthy eating options.

Scenario #1: Practicing

It’s important to have a bit of brain-fuel before we sit down to practice because we’re trying to learn and to improve. If we’re working on technique, we don’t want our body to feel drained and our muscles to ache… we want to push ourselves and feel up to reaching faster tempos with greater ease. If we’re learning tunes or ear training, we’re doing our best to memorize or figure out new information. Both require attention, discipline, and the ability to remain focused.

Before practicing, I suggest having a healthy snack that will stay with you for while, such as multi-grain toast, a granola bar, yogurt or some fruit (a sliced apple with peanut butter is my personal favorite). You don’t want to have a high-sugar snack, because that will give you a jolt at the beginning and then taper off.

Make sure you have your snack before you practice, not during your practice, and that it is a finite amount that won’t have you returning. For example, don’t have a bag of chips next to you while you practice because you’ll be inclined to snack continuously and you’ll get grease all over your strings… yuck. You also don’t want to use snacking as an excuse to get up in the middle of your practice session, unless you’re two or three hours in and need a break. It’s easy to sit down to practice and realize ten minutes later that you should grab something from the kitchen. Bad idea.

Another good tip is to have a bit of caffeine beforehand. I’m not trying to encourage a coffee addiction for the sake of practicing, but caffeine can sometimes help you be more alert and keep you attention in one place. Unsweetened iced tea, green tea, or a coffee beverage is a better choice compared to soda or energy drinks.

Although these snacking ideas are good before individual practice sessions, they’re also good things to do before rehearsals. Since you may be stuck in a rehearsal for a few hours, you don’t want to be the one that keeps missing the stops or that feels drained and is anxious to get out for some food. If you having something to eat before you go, you’ll be able to survive the “wow, I can’t believe it took that long” rehearsal without keeling over.

Scenario #2: The Pre-Gig Dinner

If you’re a working musician, chances are your playing a four-hour gig in the evening… 8pm until midnight, 10pm until 2am, or something similar. Don’t (I repeat: don’t) show up to a gig without having eaten in a long time. It’s important to fuel up before your gig so that you’re a) able to recall the arrangements you work out in rehearsal, b) able to play for an extended period of time without cramping up, and c) not running around on a break and spending an exorbitant amount of money on crappy bar food.

You want to be on your game, so don’t let something like skipping a meal be the reason for your brain farts. When you eat before a gig, you also want to be aware of eating the right thing. I learned a few years ago that I prefer not to eat meat or a lot of dairy before a gig, and that grain-based foods such as pasta or rice tend to make me feel better for longer periods of time. I’ll cook pasta in olive oil with vegetables instead of macaroni and cheese. I’ll have some sautéed or grilled chicken breast instead of a steak. I know that tomatoes can sometimes be heartburn-inducing and can interfere with my ability to sing. Learn what is best for you and come up with a dinner that is easy, tasty, inexpensive and not too time consuming.

If you’re on the run, as most of us are, you probably don’t have an extra 45 minutes to spare preparing dinner before you gig. Thankfully, since there has been more of a movement towards healthy eating, you can still probably get an “okay” meal on the go.

If you stop into a pizza place, consider getting something like a turkey hoagie and a bag of pretzels instead of a cheese steak and chips. If you find yourself at a turnpike rest stop, see if the Starbucks is serving oatmeal or if they have paninis. A Big Mac may sound like a great idea, but two hours later, you may regret that decision. And lastly, try not to eat immediately before the gig or at the gig just before you begin playing. You want your body to digest the food a bit before you hop on stage. This can be difficult when the meal your ordered shows up at 7:45 and you hit at 8pm, but do your best to avoid those situations.

Scenario #3: The Mid-Gig Munchies

If you find yourself starving in the middle of a gig or exhausted and in need of a pick-me-up, it’s always good to have a snack on hand. Granola bars are glorious things, as are other small snacks like fruit leather, Welch’s fruit snacks, a bag of pretzels, a box of raisins, or a bag of almonds or peanuts. Snacks like these can live in your gig bag or the glove box of your car without spoiling. Just make sure that you have an extra granola bar or box of raisins in case you need to share with your band members (not to mention all the other essentials).

Scenario #4: The Post-Gig Snack

After a gig or a long rehearsal, the famous last words are “meet you at the diner.” Diners are wonderful places, as are convenience stores like 7-11 or Wawa (for you east coast folks). If you find yourself at a diner, the temptation is to get either the full breakfast or the super-greasy onion rings. They sound like great ideas, and since you’re starving, you figure you’ll have no problem cleaning your plate. Eating a ton of food late at night can keep you awake when you finally settle into bed, and it can give you heartburn or an upset stomach… not a fun way to spend a long drive at 3am.

I suggest getting a salad, some cereal with milk or toast with jam. Have just enough to feel like you’ve eaten something, but not too much that you’ll feel bogged down. Plus, you won’t pack on the pounds from eating food late at night and then not burning it off before going to bed.

If you stop off at a rest stop or convenience store, try grabbing a granola bar instead of a candy bar or baked chips instead of cheesy snacks. Although ice cream and a Snickers bar sounds like the perfect thing, try and find a suitable substitute. If you give into your sweet side, try getting a bag of M&Ms or Hershey’s Drops… you can eat just a couple, have them at smaller intervals, or share them with your carpool.

So there it is, a guide to some healthy eating strategies that may help you practice more effectively, be more alert on gigs, and feel better overall. If you’re not convinced that your food choices can impact your playing, do some experimenting and try some of these strategies. Remember that playing bass is a very physical activity… we want our muscles (and our brain) to function in the best way possible. Our diet and lifestyle choices can certainly impact they way we feel and perform, so try and be aware of what and when you’re eating.

Let us know what some of your favorite pre-gig or pre-practice snacks are. Post them in the comments!

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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