The Olympics came to a close this evening and I have again had some revelations about sports and music at their best.
When I was a student, I have the opportunity to play for Gyorgy Sebök the consummate piano pedagogue, for his chamber music class in Ernen, Switzerland. I was preparing for the cello-piano duo competition in Munich. I had worked like a dog. I was disciplined, focused and determined.
After playing the Beethoven A major sonata for him, Sebök sat back and quietly said " You play with your will." There was a stunned silence from everyone attending the class, including me. Although it was evident to me that it was not a compliment, I had no clue as to what he meant! It took many months to figure out that he felt I was not allowing the music to flow freely. In my attempt to play flawlessly and impeccably, I had restrained and corralled my music-making with my ambition "to succeed no matter what."
Today as I relfect on the astonishing, inspiring accomplishments of the athletes these last days, I am reminded that one has to take great risks in order to realize the rewards. That is true in music too. The fear of errors, the holding back even just a little bit, diminishes the performance and the audience can feel it.
The Olympics have given us another look at the potential of working hard, and following our dreams.
But after all the months and years of work and practice, when we arrive to perform there is nothing to do but to take a leap of faith with supreme confidence, let go of our will and do it!
I am struck by the many similarities there are between striving for success in music and winning in the Olympics. Strategies are of the essence when it comes to winning by mere milliseconds. Training involves perseverance, practice and mental focus. Yet without analysis, the work is all for naught. Some athletes find that they train too much, practice until it hurts and push themselves to the point of injury. Unreasonable expectations of what the body can withstand can lead to failure. Those who can step away, take days off and capture the fun of the sport, can perform impeccably.
Musicians all too often make the same mistake of driving themselves to exhaustion and injury. We too need to be reminded that our bodies must be recharged, our muscles need to be resilient and loose in order for us to be able to execute intricate, complex maneuvers day after day. It is difficult to attain the elation and joy of music-making if we are putting our bodies under duress.
Olympic athletes indicate that watching the score board, worrying about the judges and the fear of letting a team down undermines their ability to perform. Similarly, performance anxiety in musicians is excacerbated when we become distracted by thoughts about who mght be listening, how we think someone else might play a phrase, and listening to co-auditioners while imagining how much "better" they must be than we are! Keeping our composure is difficult when we are sore and tired.
Obviously, our "score" is not only determined by tangible measurements. We are sized up not only by our technical perfection but by how we touch and move our audiences -- immeasurable and only possible if we take risks, "let go" open ourselves up.
The similarities end here. I am envious of the support the athletes receive from their communities, of the dedication and presence of their coaches and the cheering from their teammates and their audiences which give them energy that lifts them up. Athletes are not alone. They perform at their best because their communities and countries are wholeheartedly behind them. We musicians need this support too.