Classical fitness: Symphonic orchestration finds place in exercise classes

| Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

If dancing and marching are the traditional pairings of music and movement, using music for exercise has come on strong in recent decades.

One advantage of music for working on fitness is obvious — setting a steady beat that is substantially quicker than the normal heart rate.

The surprising entry in music marketing to keep people moving is classical music.

In late October, yoga instructor Molly Tighe began using classical music in her early-morning class. The playlist began with “Daybreak” from Maurice Ravel's “Daphnis and Chloe,” next was the quickest in a movement from an early string quartet by Ludwig van Beethoven, and concluded with music by Ravel and Alexander Borodin.

“I like it because it sort of helps you to be transported more into the moment and, therefore, into your movement and poses,” says yoga class member Barbara Harkness of Richland.

“I don't know anything about classical music,” Harkness says, “but the Ravel sunrise is perfect for 7:15. If I don't get there in the morning, I don't get there. Starting the day with classical music and yoga sets the tone for the rest of your week.”

Viktor Prisk uses music for his exercise for better motivation, rhythm and focus. An orthopedic surgeon at Allegheny General, Dr. Prisk is a fitness advocate, bodybuilder and avid dancer.

“The interesting thing about classical music is that it has a very sophisticated and complex structure you can focus on and be more mindful. The idea of mindfulness is relaxing your mind and getting your cortisol level down,” Prisk says. “Studies have shown that classical music can decrease blood pressure and heart rate, and that you have a lower rating of perceived exertion.”

The pace of the music matters. When the music matches the heart rate or running pace, it can improve the efficiency of oxygen consumption, he says, but if the pace is slower it can hinder it.

Other studies, Prisk says, show that music that interests you is better at improving performance.

“Whether rock 'n' roll or classical,” he says, “you have to listen to what you find motivational.”

Tighe, a professional archivist and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's archives consultant, decided to try classical music in her yoga class after talking with Jessica Ryan, the symphony's manager of education and community programs.

Ryan, a violinist who plays viola and piano, prepared the playlist based on what Tighe told her about ranges for beats per minute and the structure of the class.

“I'm a fairly new yoga teacher,” says Tighe, who had not been using music in her classes until working with Ryan.

“The advantage of using classical music in particular is that it parallels a lot of work in yoga practice in creating, cultivating a universality and sense of oneness,” Tighe says. “‘Yoga' actually means ‘union' in one translation.”

Another exploration of links between classical music and exercise will be offered by Ovrearts at two performances at the end of January. Ovrearts, which is in residence at Heinz Chapel, presents a handful of concerts each season and has previously collaborated with a puppet company and a modern-dance company. It presents new music, using a pool of composers and performers to create its programs.

“Asana Utsava: A Celebration of Music and Movement” is the brainchild of Katherine Durgin, a member of the Ovrearts board of directors. She wrote to local yoga studios about the project and asked each write back what was unique to its perspective. Then, she sent the answers to the composers who are writing music specific to each studio.

The nine yoga studios will perform their exercises to the new music at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 30 at Heinz Chapel and Jan. 31 at the Bloomfield/Garfield Community Center. (Details:

“I have always used classical music. It's always in the background, a great soundtrack to one's life,” Durgin says. “I feel classical accentuates everything you do. Yoga is great exercise, because it's all about being in touch with oneself. Classical music allows someone to really feel that connection.”

Using classical music has successfully past the first stage at Tight's yoga class, which shouldn't be surprising. Many people program a classical playlist while running.

When Tighe began using classical music in her class, she thought she might repeat it a few times. But after checking with the students and finding they liked it, she asked Ryan to make it a continuing collaboration.

While Ryan's other responsibilities limit the time she can spend on programming exercise music, she says she'll post playlists on the web at

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or

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