Day 6, Being an Athlete

Made it to about three and a half hours, around which time my body reminded me that even though the clock says 9:30p it still feels like 12:30a. To be safe I didn’t force it.

Today’s practices were all about the physical side of being a musician. When most people think of “classical music” few also think of training and athleticism. I don’t think any movie has made a training montage of a musician practicing like they would of Rocky preparing for the big fight. (Though the training montage in the movie The King’s Speech was set to the music of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto!) The truth is training for sports and training in the performing arts have tons in common.

  • They are both physical pursuits. Nutrition and sleep play a role in the quality of work.
  • There are quantifiable “muscle” aspects of both- How fast can you tongue? How soft can you play? How loud? How long can you play without a breath? Etc. etc.
  • To maximize your career you have to take good care of your body. Injury can take you out of the game.
  • When the lights are up there’s no “undo” button. It’s all about what happens in this moment. No one sees or cares what you did before or after this moment.

Anyway, the analogies I came up with were quirky and, like the Ender’s Game analogy, a little bit abstract. For me, their quirkyness make them even more memorable. The first was an analogy to running.

I’m not a serious runner but I’ve heard a few things about running technique. One of the biggies is that it’s a bad idea to run with a “heel strike” approach. In this running philosophy book called “Chi running” the author describes your heels like the brakes of your car. Would you try to drive while also holding down the brakes? The analogy I found for clarinet was the function of air and tongue in fast articulated passages. If the moment the tongue makes contact with the reed it completely stops the air, it’s sort of like musically slamming on the brakes. In contemporary music this might be useful to know, but in everything I’m working on it’s not only stylistically weird, it also creates a ceiling for speed. Ease up on the breaks and you’ll be able to drive faster. Relatedly, I remember one piece of advice given to me by my undergraduate clarinet teacher, Fred Ormand: instead of thinking of “ta” as the syllable for a single articulated note, try “ut”. That way the air is first and the approach is more biased towards continuing the air than stopping it.

Another physical insight about today’s practice: In order to help me relax (which is a weird command to give your body. Relax! It makes it seem like something more you have to do, which is the opposite of relaxing.) I thought of my body feeling incredibly heavy. This is something I think I heard once in meditation or hypnotism mumbo jumbo. If you pretend your body is heavy, it relaxes under imaginary weight. This definitely helped my ongoing efforts to find the minimum physical exertion necessary.

Along the lines of minimizing effort, in trying to use less jaw pressure (or “bite” as some teachers call it) I thought of an acoustic analogy: the reed of the clarinet is like the string on a cello. The embouchure is like the bow pressure/hand and the air is the speed at which the bow moves. If you’re pressing down on the string too hard, your technical speed will be greatly reduced! This was an extremely helpful analogy as it directly taps into the acoustics of both instruments. The string vibrates, the reed vibrates.

Lastly, the time goal that I set for myself is also somewhat athletic. I don’t usually endorse the idea of meeting a quantitative goal in art because it’s an inherently artless concept. So what if you’ve played 700 hours of Mozart? It’s the quality of that time that matters. Someone who paints houses for a living may have logged more time physically painting than another, more artistic painter, but their work probably sells for a lot less! But I think that there is something to be said for a daily minimum of time spent on one’s craft. The athlete who doesn’t train enough won’t be physically capable of achieving certain things, even if he or she has a firm mental grasp of them. And for the artist it’s even more important that she be free from technical limitations. Due to the fact that muscles in the body will lose their build after a short time, maintenance work is absolutely necessary. For growth, even more work is required. So the time I spend every day is to maintain what I’ve learned and develop even further. This blog has been great so far for helping me review what I’ve learned. Each new day takes me a little bit further, like a runner who is able to shave a few seconds off of his time.

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