Friday, July 18, 2014

Baseball and Orchestra

Yesterday, I had a great time watching 2 of my sons have a baseball coaching session.  While in Michigan, we connected with a former pro ballplayer and he offered to give the guys some hitting lessons and general coaching. We spent a couple of hours out at a local baseball diamond and the kids were given some great lesson on hitting stance and theory. 

As I watched, taking copious mental notes, I couldn’t help but to think how many similarities there are between playing a string instrument and hitting a baseball.   Coach walked the boys through all of the angles and theories of a good set up.  I do that with my orchestras.  He emphasized the importance of always returning to the fundamentals.  I do that with my orchestras.  He emphasized the importance of balance at all times.  I emphasized that with my orchestra.  The list goes on.  I will give a few examples here and I will probably add to this as time goes on. 

I will also mention that I have always been a little careful about using too many sports analogies and metaphors in the orchestra.  They resonate with some students and just don’t with others.  But, in the end, there are too many similarities to ignore.  We can find parallels in practice theory, performance under pressure theory (see previous post, Choke) ,  theories surrounding habits and attitude,  theory of set up and tone production, teamwork and communication, among others.  I realize that I am very open to these analogies and that others may be less interested in sports, so I try to be measured in when and how I use these ideas. 


Let’s begin with fundamentals.  Ballplayers must continually go back to basics when dealing with hitting and batting.  When little quirks show up in a swing or throwing motion, coaches break down the motion and the player “starts over” in creating that repeatable motion.  This happens in golf a great deal too.  We have to be willing to do this in the world of music as well.  How many times do you hear of a musician re-learning a bow hold or breaking down their vibrato to a very basic level?  I heard it said many years ago that the most important violin lesson that you ever have is your first one.  Isn’t it true that good intonation, vibrato, shifting, tone quality, and bow technique all grow from a good set up in the way one holds the instrument?  As a conductor, I (we) must be willing to go back to the fundamentals with even the most advanced student group.  Like the Coach did with my boys, we must know those fundamentals and be able to assess playing technique and articulate expectations clearly and accurately.

Balance and Set-up

Let’s now look at a good set up.  For a hitter in baseball, balance is everything.  Coach suggested that the hitter’s stance must be wide enough that weight is evenly distributed to BOTH feet and that the hitter is firmly anchored to the ground in a balanced fashion.  (My kids’ stances were way to close together and weight was on the back foot or shifting.) Coach stressed that with a balanced, rooted position, they could not be “pushed over” or moved against their will.  Now, for string players, I think there are a couple of points to make.  First, I think that many violinists and violists have a balanced set up when standing (playing solo repertoire.  But, I am an orchestra conductor and the vast majority of my work with musicians is in the seated position.  It is in the seated position that the idea of a balanced, rooted set up goes out the window.  All too often, the player sits back in the chair, with their back against the chair-back and proceeds to play.  This simply is not balanced or rooted in any way.  The upper string player must have two feed rooted to the floor and almost be “standing” while in the seated position.  They must to be able to move in any direction with their feet as the anchor to the set up.  I would suggest, also, that the feed must be wide enough apart to promote seated balance.  For cellists, that width is pre-prescribed by the width of the cello.  For violins and violas, however, it is a bit more nebulous.  I believe that their left foot should be in front of the chair and their right foot should be behind the front right leg of the chair, creating a 45 degree angle between the player’s shoulders and the front of the chair.  In other words, it on the front, right corner of the chair, with the shoulders turned gently to the right and feet spread apart firmly on the floor.  In this set-up, the player is free to move, look in all directions, breathe in to and out of passages and, essentially stand in a seated position. 

The Power Triangle and Geometry in Set-up

When Coach was looking at my kids’ batting stances, he gave them a series of angles to pay attention to.  The Power Triangle is a 60o angle that the forearms create when setting up.  The bat then creates a 45o angle with the ground as it lies on the shoulder.  This power triangle stays intact throughout much of the swing and it allows the hitter to generate maximum power on contact with the ball.  This, to me, is very similar to a violin set up where, at the middle of the bow, the bow, strings, upper arm, and forearm form a square.  Each angle is 90o and the student can look in the mirror to really create this beautiful set up.  Then, as the bow moves toward the tip, the angles all must change in order to keep a 90o relationship between the bow and strings.  The upper arm moves forward at this point, all in an effort to maintain the 90o string to bow angle.  Similarly, as the bow moves to the frog, the upper arm also moves forward changing these relative angles.  The key here is to understand those mechanics, identify them quickly, and to articulate the fundamentals in an effort to correct inconsistencies.  If these angles are intact, the player can generate maximum tone, beautiful sound, and appropriate bow techniques.  It all comes back to the fundamentals!

Compact Motion

I was struck in the hitting lesson by the compact nature of the hitting motion when executed correctly.  The power triangle and subsequent contact with the ball keep the hitters motion very succinct and quick.  This reminded me of one of my childhood lessons on a Mozart concerto.  I had just finished a big Romantic piece (possibly Adoration by Borowski) where I used every inch of the bow and really learned to generate a big, romantic sound.  In beginning the Mozart, my teacher stressed that now everything had to be “shrunk” to a much more compact motion.  The tone had to be generated in a much smaller area of the bow and the energy was much more compact.  This lesson comes to mind in almost every orchestral situation that I encounter.  Young musicians must be reminded that lots of bow is not always the answer.  Sometimes the energy comes from very little bow.  And the placement of the bow (upper, middle, lower) is absolutely key to accurate and clean ensemble playing.

Controlled Violence

I know.  That is an odd subtitle for an article on playing in an orchestra.  This is actually related to the previous paragraph.  The baseball hitter must learn to put a great deal of compact, controlled force into the point of contact of the swing.  It really comes from the core of the body and has much less to do with arm strength than it does with lower body and the core.  Similarly, there are times in the literature when the bow must meet the string with controlled aggression.  In reality, if the bow is moving quickly, a great deal of controlled force can be used at the point of contact.  This can provide necessary articulation and even excitement when used in the correct way, in appropriate passages.  I find that so often students don’t really believe me when I ask for this type of bow stroke or commitment to a passage.  It all comes back to control and understanding the physics of tone production.  Fundamentals truly come into play at every step.  I find that in rehearsal, I have to work to convince many students that I really mean what I am saying about this controlled energy. 

These are just some initial thoughts on this topic today.  I am sure that I will develop these more in coming weeks and months.  But, it was all on my mind today and I wanted to get a bit into writing.  I welcome your thoughts, reactions, and responses.  For now, I would encourage us all to have the patience and commitment to always return to the fundamentals.  Our student musicians will always be the better for it.