Fitness sessions with live music, adjusted for three different populations

How do we design and modify our sessions with a fitness leader for different populations? For comparison, we describe three events: one for special needs students, one for a senior residence, and one for a dementia unit, where in each case two musicians play and a fitness instructor leads exercises. Note the difference in goals and what the musicians do differently.

In each case the music and activities we choose need to coordinate with what the fitness leader’s goals are for the session.

The high school special needs exercise class

 Goals might be: to build a sense of an inclusive, cooperative group, to deepen breathing for anxiety and stress reduction, to experience a wide variety of sounds and explore new instruments and textures, to practice following directions, to relieve stress through movement,  to acquire a bigger range of motion and improve coordination, or to have a positive, engaging and stimulating experience with new adults (us.)

What we know: For this population, modeling actions and talking as needed in short sentences, seem to be most effective.

 The session:

Two violists and the fitness instructor participated in this event.

 Breathing and introduction

I showed the group the Ocean Drum and had participants try it out. Then I had them imitate the sound of waves, then make a loud sighing sound. Then they sang a drone doubled by the other violist while I played the bagpipe melody Signal Mountain Sunrise over it. I played the melody to Simple Gifts while they sang and the other violist played the drone, and in a similar manner we played and sang the chant from Carmina Burana with drone.

New attendees were a bit self-conscious/shy about fully participating but the introductory activity got them ready and more receptive to what the fitness leader suggested. We passed out small percussion instruments and small slightly deflated exercise balls to those children and adults that were willing to accept them (giving them some sense of choice and control.) The fitness instructor led activities that incorporated the ball into exercises. She brought one of the participants up to the front and had him lead at times. Occasionally she would go over to a student and encourage their participation. Eventually most caregivers and children participated, helping to draw the group together in an activity they all enjoyed.

For the exercise warmup we chose short pieces in 3

Bach Cello Suite movement

Bach Menuet I (arranged for a duo), originally for solo violin

Gloucestershire Wassail (for a December event)

Skaters Waltz

Bach 2-part Invention Nr 4

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

We then switched up the pace to be more energetic (pieces in 2):

The Chanter’s Tune

Mozart Alla Turka

Bartok Maruntel

Basket of Turf

O Arranmore

Sweet Killaloe

Old Joe Clark

Swallowtail Jig

Drowsy Maggie

Lannigan’s Ball

Participants, highly energized, wanted to keep going, so we repeated many of the pieces and added drums and used the exercise balls at various times. Tempos were lively. Pieces were played with a great deal of energy, and with many repeats.

For the cool down we played

Skye Boat Song

Saturday Night Waltz

Dona Nobis Pacem

And finally, for caregivers, we read the first verse lyrics and played

O Waly, Waly (The Water is Wide) changing the words to “my friend and I “ at the end of the verse.


The Senior Residence exercise class

An orchestral cellist and I (on violin) played for an exercise session at a retirement home for about 35 seniors who were mostly in wheelchairs.

Goals The pieces were chosen to support more effective, enjoyable, engaging exercise of longer duration, encouraging participants to be more active. Having live music could also encourage more residents to attend and participate. Conversation and connecting to memories were possible added benefits.

In our playbook we included some music by orchestral composers (see the playlist below) as appropriate, but also included songs to encourage deeper breathing, and other music that encouraged increasingly energetic movement.

The fitness leader wore a headset so participants could hear her better.

For this group she could speak more, giving a longer introduction and instructions than she did for the special needs group, but there was a wide range of ability to process what she was saying, and a wide range of energy levels.

The exercise leader gave us a sense of the arc of the session: warmup, stretching, then gradually more vigorous movements, then cool down. She expected the session, once it got started, to last at most 20 minutes. We selected pieces from our playbook (the music we were prepared to play) based on her input, but this meant we had a lot of music that we would not play.

The Session

About 10-15 minutes before we were to start, and before the cellist arrived, I noticed many people were patiently waiting. I decided to play the violin parts to some of the pieces we weren’t going to include in the session, just to get the audience used to the sound of the violin and test out what they responded to, in a sense starting a nonverbal conversation.

I started to play a Bach Giga (they were listening but not otherwise responding) but then switched to Molly Malone, something I guessed would be familiar and well liked. They started quietly singing along, so I kept playing what I guessed would be songs familiar to them, knowing we were engaging with each other but also realizing that singing was a good start to their movement session. I also played an Irish tune, and many spontaneously started clapping, their bodies visibly waking up. The cellist arrived, and we were introduced.

Warmup: For the audience warmup exercise led by the fitness instructor, the cellist played Bach Prelude in G for cello solo and then we played a Bach Gavotte in G originally for keyboard, Rondeau (Theme from Masterpiece Theater) and Haydn St. Anthony Chorale.

For stretching we played Copeland Saturday Night Waltz, Skaters Waltz and Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

For more vigorous movement we played Old Joe Clark, Chicken Reel and Lannigan’s Ball, gradually increasing tempo, volume and energy level.

Then we played Simple Gifts, preparing for cool down. Thus far the session had lasted about 20 minutes. But the fitness instructor noticed the participants were fully engaged and still had a lot of energy, and asked us to go back to playing something faster, so we played the rest of our more energetic pieces: Papageno’s Song, Swallowtail Jig, Pennsylvania Polka, Drowsy Maggie and Arkansas Traveler.

Goals met:  Instead of the expected 20 minutes, participants exercised more than 30, and were engaged and energetic. Hearing live music, residents from elsewhere on the floor continued to arrive during the session. Afterward, a number of participants asked us questions or told us stories and conversed with us.

The playlist:

Bach unaccompanied Cello Suite movements

Bach Gavotte originally for keyboard

Rondeau (Masterpiece Theater theme)

Haydn St Anthony Chorale

Copeland Saturday Night Waltz

Skaters Waltz

Take me Out to the Ball Game

Old Joe Clark, Chicken Reel and Lannigan’s Ball

Simple Gifts

Papageno’s Aria

Swallowtail Jig

Pennsylvania Polka

Drowsy Maggie

Arkansas Traveler

Questions: What music would you change to adjust to the difference in energy levels and physical fitness between these two groups? What songs with positive associations might be familiar to this group?


The dementia unit

 Exercises were led by the fitness leader, wearing a headset, from the senior home.

Goals. Our goals were to stimulate the brain and body by a variety of sounds and activities, to encourage deeper breathing and intentional movement, and to convey, through our music choices, a sense of hope.

Verbal instructions were minimal. Because many participants were unaccustomed to vigorous movement or interactions, we chose slower tempos and shorter versions of pieces.

The session

The musicians were two violists. There were 20-25 seated participants. Most were not communicating with anyone and had very little facial expression.

 While waiting for the other violist to arrive, I played Bach cello suite movements (ones in in major keys). Some listeners smiled at first while others didn’t move or respond much. Unexpectedly, after a particularly expressive Sarabande movement from Bach Cello Suite 5, most of them suddenly applauded loudly. I also tried playing melodies from songs I thought they might recognize, and some began to hum along.

After the other violist arrived, the fitness instructor let residents try the Ocean Drum (to provide aural, visual and physical stimulation) while we played Loch Lomond, Auld Lang Syne, Danny Boy and other songs that were familiar to them. More residents started singing or humming along. Then the other violist played drone pitches while I played the bagpipe melody

Signal Mountain Sunrise over it. I introduced us and announced that it was time to exercise.

The fitness instructor began leading exercises that included each person holding a slightly deflated exercise ball. Occasionally she would go over to a resident and encourage their participation.

For the exercise warmup we chose short pieces (meter in 3) that we could repeat in whole or in part as needed:

Bach Menuet I (arranged for viola duo, originally for solo violin)

Skaters Waltz

Bach 2-part Invention Nr 4

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

We then switched up the pace to be more energetic (pieces were in 2 or 4):

The Chanter’s Tune

Basket of Turf

Sweet Killaloe

Old Joe Clark

Drowsy Maggie

Lannigan’s Ball

Mozart Alla Turka

For the cool down we played:

Skye Boat Song

Saturday Night Waltz

Dona Nobis Pacem

Unanticipated benefits: By then most of the floor’s staff as well as many more people in wheelchairs had gathered, some listening, some participating. Most of the original group were moving energetically and more intentionally, in sync with the music, and their gestures were markedly smoother.

Staff said they really needed the music too.


Evaluating the sessions.

Are we responsive to the reactions of the participants? Did we connect to them?

How effective are our music choices? Did we meet the goals we had in mind for the session?

What was different with this group?

For further consideration: What else could we do with these populations? Who can help you with the design of other sessions?


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