Many of you know that I am really motivated by sports analogies when it comes to music and ensemble musicianship. I have written in this blog about parallels I find between coaching and conducting as well as parallels between baseball hitting technique and violin technique. There have been lots of other posts in the past that touch on approach and purpose as it relates to both sports and music.
Today, however, I am thinking about the act of playing in an ensemble as it relates to the sport of mountain biking. I was out for a ride recently on a beautiful trail single track trail at Brumley Forest in the Durham, North Carolina area and couldn't help but begin to count all of the parallels between playing ensemble music and mountain biking.
First, my students hear me talk about having active minds all the time. In order to really be a fine ensemble player (or soloist), one must always be fully immersed in the moment of music making. That can entail not only thinking about what you are doing at any given moment, but also thinking ahead. One must be prepared for what comes next, and next, and next. When mountain biking, if you are reacting the obstacle you are right on top of, you are doing it too late. The mountain biker has to look ahead and plan their approach to rocks, roots, twist and turns and other obstacles that they might encounter. This involves a complete connection between the trail, the bike, and the rider. Similarly, the violinist must have a complete connection between the repertoire, the instrument, and their mind and spirit.
In fact, aren't both activities of mind, body, and spirit? There is nothing passive about navigating a great single-track trail. The mind must be singularly focused. In fact, I would say that any time my mind wanders when on the trail, I am destined to crash. Similarly, when playing in an ensemble, one's mind must be singularly focused on the task at hand. The musician's mind must be ready for all of the "roots, rocks, and twists and turns" of the piece and the performance. If the mind wanders, bad things can happen!
The body is the next step in the process; isn't it? On the trail, as approaching an obstacle of loose rocks, I have to mentally prepare to keep my cadence going through the obstacle. But that is just the first step. The body must commit to the experience. It must flow with the trail and the upcoming obstacles. The body must fight fatigue and stay in control with the unexpected happens. Isn't it the same in music? Your brain can tell you to play technical passages all day long, but if the hand isn't up to it, it won't happen. Similarly, in slow passages, I can't tell you the number of times that the plan for tone and phrasing in my mind has been thwarted by some insecurity or inability of my left or right hand technique.
I mentioned pedal cadence in the previous paragraph. This is critical to the cyclist. It is critical to continue pedaling through obstacles. It is less about the overall speed of the bike, and more about the steady cadence of the pedals through the obstacle. Similarly, I find that young musicians tend to want to increase the tempo (cadence) through many difficult or "fast" passages when in reality, they call for steady even cadence. The strength of the rhythm is much more evident when the tempo or cadence is consistent. Approaching an obstacle slowly and accurately with a steady cadence is always better than approaching an obstacle in a fast, haphazard and sloppy manner. So it is with music!
Here is one that non-cyclists might not think of: In both disciplines, one must listening carefully to the things that are happening around you. First, it just makes the experience richer for the cyclist. The sounds of the forest are magnificent at all times of year!! And, it really helps to know when you are approaching other bikers or animals (large or small) on the trail.
Here's another one: Riding a trail for the first time is a lot like sight reading a new piece. The first time through is a totally difference experience than, say, the fifth. The first time, you have to figure out what is going on. Perhaps stay a bit cautious. Then, after you figure out the trail or the piece, you can be a bit more aggressive. You have had to time plan out your approach, practice the hard passages, and prepare for the various aspects of the test ahead of you. Practice and repetition change the way you ride and play.
- Proper equipment makes a difference. There is nothing like the feel of a great bike the first time you try one. It feels different to ride: more reactive, lighter, faster, more controllable. The same is true with an upgraded instrument or bow. Better equipment is worth it!!
- Find joy and challenge in the obstacle. Both of these activities should inspire joy and satisfaction. Oddly, I even find satisfaction in an occasional crash; both in riding and in music!
- Embrace the euphoria of the experience. It is hard to put the mountain biking experience into words. It is simply euphoric. Those of us that play or conduct orchestras know that the music performance experience is like a drug. We want more all the time. There is simply nothing like it. We are all chasing that euphoria!
- Embrace the dynamic nature of a trail and music. We all love to find that rise and fall in a trail and in music. Some mountain bikers may call this the "flow" of the trail. It is dynamic and captivating. And so it is with music. There is always more to discover and find in a score or performance. It keeps us coming back time after time!!