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Music Matters!

Group fitness music is more diverse, accessible and personal than ever before. Since the days of dancing to LPs, music has been the main companion in an instructor’s professional sidecar. Music inspires, connects and has the power to change moods. There is no better motivational magic than seeing the energy shift in class as a song you handpicked begins to play. Music is your auditory signature. How do you “sign” your name?

If music has become mere background static, it may be time to rethink your approach. Use the power of music to create a new personal soundtrack. Instructors and music companies share the latest from the digital front, comment on current classroom trends, and peek into the future.

Gone Digital

It’s official: Kiss cassette tapes goodbye. As of January 1, 2006, Muscle Mixes Music, based in Orlando, Florida—possibly the very last holdout in the move to CDs-only—has discontinued manufacturing tapes. But instructors aren’t satisfied with the death of cassettes and the standardization of CD players. Why do you think group fitness pros are entangling themselves in cables behind the stereo system? To plug in their iPods, of course!

“Wow, how things have changed,” says Misty Tripoli, a Nike® Elite Instructor from Los Angeles. “Didn’t we used to bring a cassette to class as a backup, in case the CD player didn’t work? Now I bring a CD in case the iPod won’t play!”

The popularity of the iPod extends beyond the convenience of having 500 or 1,000 songs in your pocket. It means you can manipulate your music with the click of a mouse. “Now I can create my playlist in a moment,” continues Tripoli. “I don’t have to flip through multiple CD cases to find what I want, and I can create a fresh class every time, depending on how I feel.”

Sound perfect? Not exactly. When you go digital, you do have to give up your pitch control, which means no more “in the moment” tempo changes to speed things up or slow them down. Rumors are swirling that the next generation of digital music players will offer this feature, which would make tech-smart instructors like Tripoli very, very happy.

There is another small glitch, no pun intended. Digital music players insert a tiny hiccup between tracks, even when set for continuous play. It’s just enough space to really throw off that flawless 32-count step combo. Currently, the work-around is to use mixed CDs digitally formatted as one long track. With this option you’re in for a smooth ride, but without the convenience of skipping from track to track to find your favorite song. The only way to scroll through your mix is to use the CD player’s fast-forward and rewind features.

With the surging popularity of digital music players, you can bet technoheads worldwide are hunched over keyboards testing code to overcome this issue. Fitness music companies agree that it’s not a matter of if the “hiccup” issue will be solved, but when.

Mix Masters

Along with the mainstreaming of digital music comes the desktop DJ. With amateur-level music-editing software programs now available, instructors are mixing tracks, changing music speed and adding sound effects with childlike delight.

Skip Jennings, a master trainer for 24 Hour Fitness, manipulates his cycling music to create three-song climbs. These are drills that change beats per minute (bpm) at set intervals, with one track blending into the next. Cycling instructors who use bpm as a teaching technique to gauge pedal speed are fond of the bpm manipulation feature. “It’s tough to find enough musical variety in the bpm range I need,” says Jennings. “Music-editing software gives me so many more options.”

MixMeister Express music-editing software is Jennings’ weapon of choice, but there are dozens of software programs priced under $50. Lydia Haskell, a jack-of-all-trades instructor who teaches at the Arena Club in Bel Air, Maryland, prefers the program Acid 4.0. She combines dance tracks from Apple’s online store, iTunes, into 32-count square custom mixes and then smoothes out the bpm to create a consistent mix. “Each mix takes me 3 or 4 hours, but it’s worth it to have exactly what I want,” Haskell says.

Give Me a Break!

While some instructors are polishing up their music-mixing skills, others appreciate the between-track pause inherent in digital music. John Garey, owner of John Garey Pilates in Long Beach, California, creates his own playlists for his mat classes. “I like to use background music that doesn’t have a strong beat for Pilates,” says Garey. “Today, I think more about what the music will do to enhance the class experience, rather than making the workout fit the music. This is much easier to do now that I can create my own playlists. Since Pilates is not taught to a musical beat, the music doesn’t need to be mixed.”

Group exercise formats like mat Pilates, yoga and indoor cycling offer instructors the flexibility to mix or not to mix, based on personal preference. Instructors who teach other formats are also finding freedom in track-to-track music play. “In our clubs, we teach sculpting classes track-to-track much more often these days,” says Linda McHugh, corporate group exercise program coordinator for 24 Hour Fitness.

“I don’t mix my music, so there will generally be a break between songs,” says Stacey Lei Krauss, a New York City instructor and master trainer who recently relocated to San Francisco. Krauss teaches fusion classes that blend dance, yoga and calisthenics.

“I download most of my music and go for all different rhythms and sounds,” she says. “This encourages me to change the way I move and gives old movements new life. The space between songs does not bother me at all, and if it doesn’t bother me, my students aren’t disrupted either!” Krauss believes her approach to music has opened up new, creative avenues, enabling her to use styles and tempos she never thought possible before.

Leave It to the Pros

If you aren’t willing (or able) to labor for hours creating a custom mix or if you’re uninterested in listening to 30-second clips on digital music websites, never fear! You can leave it to the professionals. Companies like Power Music, Muscle Mixes Music, Dynamix Music, Burntrax Fitness Music and many others have been at this for decades. Now, more than ever, they know what you want and how to get you lots of it.

“What we offer the instructor has expanded exponentially in the past 5 years,” says Stacey Richards, group fitness product manager for Power Music in Salt Lake City. “Hip-Hop, Reggaetone, Belly Dancing, Mind-Body and Cycling are lines we’ve expanded to give instructors what they want as they discover new ways to work out. Recently, we produced an ‘Instructor’s Choice’ series for step and high-low and received an overwhelming response.”

Rich Hart has spent 14 years as the music director for Dynamix Music in Baltimore. He has seen the number of music categories the company offers surge from a dozen to more than 30 in just 5 years. “Our customers recently asked for more mind-body music, and we delivered,” says Hart. “Not long ago we only offered cool-down music, but today the Mind-Body category fills three pages in our catalog.”

Additionally, as instructors specialize in different modalities, companies like Dynamix Music have moved away from step/high-low combination CDs and now offer most of their new music in topic-specific volumes. “We began with step and high-low and have expanded into yoga, Pilates, athletic training/kickboxing and cycling,” says Sharon Mann, owner of Burntrax Fitness Music, based in Vancouver, British Columbia. “There seems to be an urgency to have fresh, new indoor cycling music, so we’ve doubled our production in the past 2 years, just to keep up with the demand.”

I’ve Got the Music in Me

Online music stores now offer instant access to millions of songs, each for under $1. When it comes to finding music for formats that don’t require specially edited tunes, this technology grants instructors new freedom, letting them be less reliant on DJs and fitness music companies. Instructors who hand-select their playlists experience an emotional investment in music that changes the way they teach. Nowhere is this more apparent than in indoor cycling.

At Group Xpedition, the traveling educational conference offered by 24 Hour Fitness, the instructor buzz is all about indoor cycling music. “You don’t hear, ‘This is a great song to step to,’” says McHugh. “But you definitely hear that said about cycling music. Instructors are always looking for songs that will motivate their classes and bring about emotional responses to the workout.”

Rob Glick, an Orange County, California–based master trainer for Schwinn® cycling and program developer for GRAVITYGroup, takes it one step further. “In the past we’ve been able to interpret music in dance-based classes, but not anything like [the way] we can now in cycling. As an instructor you can have an identity within your club based solely on your music choices.”

Pop, rock, swing, trance, classical, gospel . . . anything goes in an indoor cycling class, and for many savvy instructors, variety is the spice of life. Attend one of Glick’s classes and you’ll be coached by the lyrics in Christopher Cross’s “Ride Like the Wind”; recover to novelty songs like “Brick House” by the Commodores; and ride long stretches of imagery-laden highway to remixed lounge tracks (think: really cool coffee shop music). Any way you slice it, this ride is personal!

The trend toward enhancing the workout experience with music is finding its way into everything from group strength to cardio kickboxing. Chalene Johnson, creator of Turbo Jam and Turbo Kick, rediscovered the power of bringing music to the forefront of her class design. “I realized a few years ago that I was kind of pleasing everyone, but really inspiring no one [with my music choices],” says Johnson. “I believe one of our greatest assets as instructors is our personality. If I can use my music as an extension of my personality, I can better connect with my students.”

To that end, Johnson now spends as much time on music selection and editing as she does on choreography. Music choice is now the first step, with class design inspired by the songs she selects. This approach began with Turbo Kick but now spills over into all the formats Johnson teaches. “Whether it’s sculpting, Pilates or cycling, the music can help people work harder, go longer and provide a memorable experience,” Johnson says. “So why not highlight the music with your movement?”

One, Two, Step?

What’s the one music trend that hasn’t changed since we entered the new millennium? Step music is still king. “Not necessarily because it’s being used for step classes,” says Denise Imbesi, founder and president of Muscle Mixes Music. “The 128–32 bpm range is perfect for everything from group strength to seniors, cardio dance and core training.”

Richards agrees—and is also hearing something new from customers. “It used to be, ‘What new step music do you have?’ But now instructors ask for music by bpm, not class type. By far, the 128–32 pbm range is our biggest seller.”

Coming in a close second to step-speed tunes is the continual demand for more older-adult music. “The Baby Boomers are all turning 60!” exclaims Hart. “That means both instructors and participants. “In the past, as an industry, we haven’t serviced this market as well as we should have. This is a growing market that we are sure to see a bigger demand for in the years to come.”

For Power Music, whose request for this genre has quadrupled in the past 5 years, this means offering new releases every month. Seniors’ tastes in music are as diverse as they come, so compilations include both classic and updated arrangements from the ’30s and ’40s, remixes of dance “oldies but goodies,” and softer hits of the ’90s—all in the 128–32 bpm range, of course.

Cover Me

The buzz is not just about the massive quantity of professionally formatted music now available. Instructors are also talking about the huge gains in quality in the music produced specifically for fitness classes.

The ongoing dilemma has long been, “Do I buy a CD from a reputable fitness music company made with cover versions of my favorite songs, or do I purchase a mix of original tunes from a local DJ?” In the past, cover versions have come in a distant second to the real thing, but not anymore.

“Music in fitness has always been about what is hot now,” says Glick. “Today, covers [of current songs by original artists] are so much better than they used to be!” Glick believes this is because music companies are investing in studio singers who sound like the real artists. They are using upbeat musical arrangements different enough from what’s played on the radio that instructors and students no longer compare the two.

“An added bonus is that due to technology enhancements, music companies have figured out how to speed up a song without turning the singer into a cartoon character,” adds Glick. Mickey Mouse has left the building.

For Garey’s mat classes, covers mean convenience. “I really appreciate the Dynamix Music Pilates mixes because the songs are created specifically for what I teach. The vocal tracks are just the right level, they aren’t distracting, and the songs are well selected to create class flow.”

Covers have other advantages. Imbesi explains: “Original songs from older eras—Motown, for example—do not reproduce at the quality we’ve come to expect from CDs and digital players. If a cover is created digitally, the quality increases, and if a new arrangement is written, it can give the song more energy and ensure it is the perfect bpm range for fitness classes.”

Michael Betts, director of JumpyBumpy.com in London, an online service that offers choreography, music and videos for group exercise instructors, distributes music from the Germany-based company Move Ya! “Our range of remakes [covers] are our best-sellers,” he says. “Things like Disco Fever and ’70s and ’80s compilations. On these CDs, you can have a whole mix of great music that everyone knows and the whole class can sing along to.”

Imbesi sums it up: “Would you like a real Rolex or a fake Rolex? If you couldn’t tell the difference, would you really mind?”

Rock the Remix

The rediscovery of the remix is one common thread among instructors who teach almost any format. Since the days of disco music, producers have been taking the radio versions of hit songs and remixing them for extended play. Originally, this was to give nightclub DJs longer breaks between song changes. It also provided multiple versions of popular songs at different speeds and with different emotional effects, which helped entertain the crowd.

“I do my best to find a remixed version of a song so that [I’m not using] the overplayed version my students hear on the radio every day,” says Krauss. “Remixes tend to have more energy than the radio single, making them perfect for what we do—get people moving,” adds Jennings.

Remixes also lend themselves well to the “final song” of a choreography class—the last track where all the moves are strung together in a high-energy finale that leaves students feeling more like high-paid performers than group exercise participants. “My latest final song is a Madonna remix of an ABBA song,” says Yoav Avidar, an international fitness presenter from Tel Aviv, Israel. “I’m always hunting for familiar songs in surprising remixes to keep my students inspired.”

The Spice of Life

“Instructors are always requesting music that is familiar to them and suits their tastes,” says Betts. “This is, of course, a challenge because everyone has different tastes, and it’s why there’s a more diverse selection of music on the market today than ever before.”

“Instructors will always want what’s on the radio,” says Hart. “But they also want to explore new sounds and new ways of moving. Today, they seem to feel they have permission to do so more than ever before.”

“Now that I’m using many different types of music in my movement classes, it encourages me—and my students—to move differently,” says Krauss. “For example, a simple ‘reach-pull’ can take on a new life just by changing the type of music.”

For Jennings, who loves a good dance remix as much as the next instructor, music in fitness today is without limits. “I’m no longer afraid to use new, old or different styles of music in my classes—classical to Western, R&B to old jazz.”

Group fitness music is as varied and unique as the people who teach to it. Whether they are mixing their own tracks, playing their favorite singles or reliving the ’70s with a special mix, instructors express their creativity and individuality while inspiring students to move. As instructors discover the conveniences of the digital era, the industry’s musical horizon is quickly expanding to include every type of music imaginable. Sculpting classes set to hip-hop beats, cycling to country—it’s all happening at a club near you.

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