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I'm conceiving a story where this might come up. How long can musicians perform before performance drops? There are hard limits imposed by biological needs (e.g. having to go to the toilet), but I'm wondering if those are the actual limits or do musicians get tired long before those biological limits are reached.

If it varies by instrument (I imagine it does) I'm most interested in singing, the piano & violin.


For example I could say a character wakes up sad one day but knows music cheers him up, so he takes out the instruments and plays until he gets tired, and the question would be how much time has passed before the next scene occurs. I don't need a very precise answer; I only need to know if I should write "2 hours passed" or "30 minutes passed" or something.

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    This is too broad, even with the instruments restricted, to be answered in the general form you've asked it. Is there a motivation behind the question that might allow for a more specific answer? – Aaron May 4 at 1:00
  • As a brief illustration: the current world record for a 100-mile runner is 11h:14m:56s, and the current world record for 100 meters is 9:58 seconds. 100 miles is approximately 161,000 meters, and the 100 meter record is roughly 10 seconds. Expanding the 100 meter record to 100 miles would give a (approximate) time of 16,100sec ~ 4.5h. So the endurance test depends on speed and distance. This is true as well for music: how physically and emotionally demanding is the music? Are there rest intervals, and for how long? How long does the music last? .... – Aaron May 4 at 1:15
  • @Aaron I'm conceiving a story, and the story would vary depending on the answer, but it wouldn't be drastic. For example I could say a character wakes up sad one day but knows music cheers him up, so he takes out the instruments and plays until he gets tired, and the question would be how much time has passed before the next scene occurs. I don't need a very precise answer; I only need to know if I should write "2 hours passed" or "30 minutes passed" or something. – Allure May 4 at 1:49
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    I’m voting to close this question because although there is a music tie-in, this is really a question about how to develop a literary character; the musical aspect is secondary, at least until the character is more clearly defined. – Aaron May 4 at 2:38
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    @DaveJacoby tell that to musicians playing Wagner at Bayreuth Festival ;-) – musicamante May 4 at 3:01
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I could say a character wakes up sad one day but knows music cheers him up, so he takes out the instruments and plays until he gets tired, and the question would be how much time has passed before the next scene occurs

The answer is another question: "How long is a piece of string?"

To make it clear let me change the subject in your question from playing an instrument to running -

I could say a character wakes up sad one day but knows running cheers him up, so he puts on his running shorts and shoes and runs until he gets tired, and the question would be how much time has passed before the next scene occurs

Posed that way it is very clear that it depends on the person. There are actually 6 day races in which competitors run for 6 days with breaks for eating, drinking and the toilet. Whoever runs furthest in the 6 days wins. A select few people are capable of taking part. At the other extreme there are people who struggle to run for a bus. Or, if you prefer to limit it to professional runners, there are sprinters like Usain Bolt who have to stop after less than 400m. The same is true for musicians.

Obviously the ultra-marathoners don't start with 6 day races or even marathons. They start with much shorter runs and build up. Doing otherwise would lead to immediate injury. The same is true with playing an instrument. If you start off by trying to play for 12 hours you will quickly get injured.

However, as famous violin teacher Leopold Auer used to say "If you are serious, practice three hours a day; four if you are a little stupid." (see Mary Ellen Goree's comment in this thread).

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It's going to vary quite a bit, and depend mostly on two variables: individual stamina and the method of sound production.

I'm primarily a guitarist. If I've been playing for five hours and I have to play a song that has a very high note, fatigue isn't really going to hinder me. But the trumpet player on the same gig may struggle, as he or she has been using smaller muscles, and needs to really work that very tired embouchure to hit the pitch.

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It varies from person to person. Factors are health, environment, ergonomics, technique, diet, sleep . . .

A pianist with an ergonomic technique will not tire because gravity does all the work. All they need is proper alignment and they can endure for a long time. Gravity will keep them relaxed. It is called resting up.

I once played two fourteen hour cattle call auditions for a B'way show. The first day was effortless but I didn't get much sleep that night and was dragging the second day but my arms gave me no problem. I'm sure I did but don't recall taking any bathroom breaks. I cut down on liquids on purpose. I played another three day cattle call but singers were spaced out in half hour increments. After accompanying someone for one minute I reclined in a theater seat. These three days were more exhausting because when I sat in the theater seat I slouched and leaned back causing gravity to pull down on my neck and back.

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