In his story about Monday nights’ NCAA college football championship game between Clemson and LSU, Washington Post sportswriter Barry Svrluga described LSU quarterback Jason Burrow as “…part magical wizard, part lunch-pail worker…”, and that really resonated with me. (If you missed the game, Svrlugas’ story paints a great picture of the dominance of Burrow and the LSU Tigers.) I think there are lots of parallels between the work of musicians and athletes. The best example of which might be the countless hours spent toiling alone; in the practice room, the weight room, watching film, taking batting practice, playing scales, practicing a piece at half-speed and listening back to recordings that can feel nothing short of humiliating. A process, and sometimes a grind, of going to work every day, that gets the performer to the next step, and the one after that, and so on. Hopefully culminating in brilliant, or at least adequate, moments in a game or performance. Even his title, Joe Burrow showed an engineer’s precision and a wizard’s magic as he went out a legend, suggests that both painstaking diligence and magic were major components in the victory.
A few years ago there was a story floating around the internet about the great J.J. Watts’ first day on the job in Houston. I’ll save you the trouble of hunting the story down and tell you that he couldn’t sleep, and so he went to practice facility to work out. In the middle of the night. A maintenance worker had to let him in because he didn’t have an access card yet. He understood that a superior game-day is essentially a side-effect of the process of training as an elite athlete. Likewise, Yo-Yo Mas’ unquestionably masterful performances of the six Suites for Solo Cello of J.S. Bach are as much (and maybe more) the product of practicing that music one measure at a time for almost his entire life. J.J. Watt and Yo-Yo Ma are both great because their processes are great, and they show up to work every day to engage with those processes.
Endurance athletes often spend large chunks of their offseason logging relatively slow base miles. A cyclist will get out on the road and ride at, what is for them, a moderate pace, building the fitness that they will later sharpen to a point for races. If they don’t build that general fitness their race fitness may never take shape, or it may be unreliable. The same is true for musicians. I can feel it in my own playing when I haven’t been playing scales, arpeggios, etudes, etc.. My performance feels less sure, my senses of time and pitch are not a sharp (sorry), and I feel out of synch. But if I HAVE been doing the basics, all the “harder” stuff, the flashier stuff, is much more likely to just be there when I go for it.
There are other great examples of how moments of “magic” are actually created by hours of workmanlike practice. In his liner notes for Kind of Blue, pianist Bill Evans wrote: “There is a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that an unnatural or interrupted stroke will destroy the line or break through the parchment.” That manner of creation captures in one moment the evidence of the artists’ volume of practice. The resulting line is a record of the gesture that was honed through a long process of repetition and refinement. It may have taken a single second to complete, but that line is the tip of an iceberg made of hours, days, weeks, months, and years of practice. You could say that the art is that process and toil, while the line, the notes in the air, or the final score, are nothing but markers along the road of the hard work.