On Athleticism & Musicianship

| June 19, 2010

The following post was written straight off of a work-out. Fun times.

I have been wondering for some time about whether musicianship and athleticism (and, by extrapolation, identifying oneself as musical/a musician or athletic/an athlete) are actually all that separate from each other. There’s so much in pop culture (e.g., Glee, where jocks slushie the glee clubbers… and pop culture does take its cues from real life occurrences) that suggests that the narrative dynamic between these two subcultures is originally one of antagonism. The use of self-identification as a musician or an athlete (and, in K-12 education, your observable involvement in one “side”) firmly characterizes you as being in one or the other.

Of course, nothing is black and white and there are many shades of grey, especially on this issue. I just made a Glee reference so I guess I’ll just go with that (just another way that I think that show is one of the most helpful tools for music advocacy that we have as music educators, if we figure out how to use it correctly… but that’s another topic for another post). In the very first episode of the show Finn tells his football teammates that he’s going to do both football and glee club, and eventually we have three more football players joining the glee club. This is pretty similar to what I observed (and participated in) in during my own education. I’ve been involved in organized sports all throughout my life and remember seeing bandmates come in for rehearsal with jerseys on during game days. Maybe I was incredibly fortunate to go to a school where, at least to my knowledge, there wasn’t a huge division between these two extra-curriculars. I know it can be an issue, though, and I’m trying to get my thoughts on it down so I can think about how to help future students see that athleticism and musicianship are very similar. In fact, I kind of think that being involved in one helps your progress in the other, and vice versa.

See, I really don’t think that musicians and athletes are that separate. I kind of think that both groups of individuals would be surprised to learn just how many things they have in common. And no, I’m not talking about professionals in either discipline, just people, particularly students, who love what they do.

Being involved in music and/or athletics while simultaneously pursuing an education requires a lot of work and determination. I firmly believe that everyone has the potential to gain proficiency in any kind of task, whether it’s learning proficiency on an instrument or developing enough endurance and speed to run a 400m event. The hard part is setting goals for yourself and making the commitment to self-improvement. I think that this is where your teacher or coach comes in (and, really, why use different words? They both have the power to impact you positively and do many of the same things in my eyes).

Like so much of learning, you can do so much more with someone guiding you along the way for those first few weeks or months. “How do you practice, how often do you practice, what do you practice?” It’s the same terminology in both situations. Both music teachers and coaches organize a series of practices, whether they be in the form of after-school sports practice or in-school rehearsal with your teammates or peers in an ensemble, or a calendar or chart to help you log your hours outside of supervised practice. Once you move through the steps of skill acquisition (“how do I get comfortable throwing myself onto the ground to stop a field hockey ball from going into the goal?” versus “how do I get comfortable shifting up into thumb position, then playing scales up in that register?” and by the way, I can tell you right now that both are pretty uncomfortable) you develop expertise and all the little things that you once had to think about, like how wide your legs have to be in relation to the rest of your body before you swing a golf club or begin to sing, become natural.

From here, you begin really digging deeper into your music and/or sport. Sure, you might still have a teacher or coach pushing you along the way and assigning exercises or music that leaves you stronger overall as an athlete and/or a musician. But you also have the self-knowledge to know who you are and what you’re capable of. Eventually, if you stick with it, the desire and determination for self-improvement can become overpowering and you end up doing things that other people may not quite understand. After all, who would willingly subject themselves to countless laps in a cold pool, hours in a practice room playing the same passages over and over again to perfection, or spending money for equipment that you just have to have because it’ll make you better?

I’ll end this on a personal note. I had two major injuries during my college career, which was when I actually began to get really serious about music and begin thinking about going into education.

The first, during my freshman year when I wasn’t involved in college sports, was tendinitis in my left forearm. It was caused by switching back and forth between electric and double bass and using less-than-stellar technique on both instruments. Despite doctors and physical therapists telling me to try not to use my arm as much as possible, I still had concerts to prepare for and a jazz band that needed its bassist. Saying no to my director and staying away from rehearsal just wasn’t something I could do in good conscience. In retrospect, I probably should’ve taken off more songs/rehearsals than I actually did, but I have that mentality that is so often associated with athletics (thanks, high school track sprint intervals!) so I didn’t. Can the whole “push through” attitude be applied to music too? I think so, and I’m sure anyone else who’s played any or all of the Bach cello suites can agree!

The second, during my junior year while I was abroad at Goldsmiths College in London and playing goalkeeper for the women’s field hockey team, was a cartilage tear in my left shoulder (yes, I think there is something wrong with the entire left side of my body). I brought an arm up to block a shot in warm-ups and my arm spun back from the force of the collision. My teammates asked me if I was okay and whether I could play, and, obviously, I said yes. Who else was going to do it? I even played in goal for the men’s field hockey team immediately afterwards. I then went home and asked a flatmate to tape a bag of frozen peas to my shoulder. A few weeks later, upon coming home, the problem persisted and instead of taking time off to really figure out what was going on with my shoulder, I just came up with creative ways to play my instrument in my ensembles so I wouldn’t have to take too much time off (and I’m sure that helped my still-present, yet not as severe tendinitis so much). And later, once the problem was finally diagnosed, I was still playing in concerts. My college golf coach, actually, was more understanding of the situation and didn’t force me to play.

So, again, why is there this misconception that athletes and musicians are two different kinds of people?