So there I was, maybe twenty years old, sitting on the piano bench at the dance studio where I worked as an accompanist. My usual classes were all ballet, and I played classical music for those. Never have I grown so bored with eight measure phrases (or so good at hacking nearly any piece of repertoire into eights bars). On this particular occasion, I was filling in for the pianist who handled the modern dance classes, and those began not at the barre, but on the floor, with stretching.
“Get off that piano bench, Grace Ann,” said the instructor. “Stretch with us. It’ll do you good.”
This was a beginning modern dance class, and I’d taken beginning modern my self, so I knew the drill. Head and neck, shoulders, arms, back, and finally the big muscles in the legs. The instructor was right. At that point, I’d been spending four hours a day on the piano bench for years (practicing), and then I’d do more hours for the accompanist gig, or class reunions and wedding receptions. My young adult back was killing me, and stretching helped.
Fast forward another twenty years, and I’m married to a hardcore athlete, whose edition of Runners’ World tells me, “Stretching is the most neglected aspect of adult fitness.” We walk, we jog, we do weights, we watch what we eat, we keep an eye on sleep hygiene… we do so much, but I know that stretching rarely makes my list. Stretching helps prevent injuries, brings down inflammation, increases muscular blood flow, stimulates endorphins… for something that doesn’t entail much exertion, it’s good medicine.
And stretching, in another sense, is exactly what a well written character in fiction must do. In every book, if I do my job as an author, Lord Julian (who finally got a cover for A Gentleman in Pursuit of Truth) cannot be quite the same person on page one that he will be by the end of the book. He must risk his ego, his heart, or his safety, maybe all three. He must wrack his brains, and he must test his relationships so that somehow, he has a little better range of motion or resilience at the end of the book than he did at the beginning.
Villains don’t or can’t stretch. They shrink, getting more and more vindictive, greedy, narrow-minded, and selfish as their stories progress, and at some point (I haven’t always done this well), when they are presented with an opportunity to stretch, they refuse the challenge.
I was reminded of the crucial quality of willingness to stretch at the barn yesterday, when a student told me he knew how to say thank you in German. He was proud of this, so I taught him some more German. Please, good-day, farewell, one-two-three, my-name-is, the horse… With each word, he repeated it to himself several times, and did not care in the least that the word for the horse (“das Pferd”) can sound a little the English word fart (and maybe that’s not such a false cognate, when you think about it).
This guy was determined to stretch his vocabulary, just as he had to stretch his courage to sit on that great big beast and try to explain to it where to go.
As we enjoy the waning weeks of winter, I want to give some time and attention to stretching–physically, professionally, interpersonally. If I’m careful about it, there’s no downside, and I might have learn some cool new words.
Do you stretch? Is there an area where you’re thinking of taking on some stretching? Lady Violet Says I Do is finally coming out in audio on the web store, on-sale date of Feb. 1, 2024. I’ll send gift links to three commenters.