- Music and sports have a lot in common for it's all about attitude -
After my rant last week about the imaginary Guitar Playing Olympics you may think I have nothing good to say about the games. For a moment I thought so too, but realised over the past few days that it would be short-sighted on my part to see nothing worthwhile in this summer's Olympic Games. There is plenty to learn from them and from the competitors, not just from the winners but from the losers too.
For starters, let us consider as guitar players (or any other instrument-players) the following quote:
"We've got this saying, 'performance by the aggregation of marginal gains.' It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do....”
If a teacher had said this in a lesson just as you were considering a career in music you would have probably been curious. If that same teacher had already proved the success of his methods then you would be hooked. The 1% margin refers to every aspect and that includes the instrument you play, how you sit, the angle at which you hold the guitar, how you pluck the strings, how you press the strings down with the left hand and lots more. But that quote does not come from a music teacher, but from Dave Brailsford, British Cycling's Performance Director and the general manager of Team Sky, and he wasn't talking about music - he was referring to his work with the cyclists. British Cycling won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and is expected to win loads of medals again at the games next week. Clearly the 1% theory is a lesson which can be applied to musicians too in their pursuit of excellence.
Ancient Greeks included art, music and sport as competitive activities in their Olympic Games, from which I presume they were aware of how they complemented each other. They considered music important enough to sub-divide it into various types of categories including one in which songs were accompanied by the kitara, a plucked-string instrument. As late as 1948 there was an Olympic prize awarded for musical composition.
Consider the state of mind required to win a sports medal. It involves total concentration and self-confidence. These same qualities are required to play music in concert and to compete in music competitions. A champion in full flow, whether it be running or jumping or swimming has his mind in tune - pardon the pun - with a perfect technique. The same goes for playing a musical instrument.
One of the reasons why there are more losers than winners is that self confidence and excellent technique are qualities which don’t necessarily go hand in hand: there are excellent players with little self confidence, and just as surprisingly, not very good players overflowing with confidence. Neither of these combinations are conducive to winning, whether on the sports track or on the concert platform.
To see an athlete create a good balance between concentration, self-confidence and technique is to see a potential winner. It is the same for a guitar player, although two more qualities are required: musicality and the “a” word – artistry. These are more difficult to define, but their absence is conspicuous. In a guitar player we look for all five: concentration, self-confidence, technique, musicality and artistry.
Olympic winners almost certainly have all of the first three elements, and in the coming weeks it will be fascinating to try to anticipate the competitors who have them and those who don’t. The best of the great sportsmen are so pleasing to watch that their technique is a beauty in itself. In this way they come close, unintentionally, to being like artists, for an excellent sporting technique conveys the same ease, fluency and rhythm as an instrumental one.
The three elements of concentration, self-confidence and technique provide the context and support for a player and a sportsman to perform. The face-pulling and nervous ticks; the grunts, moans and desperate utterances of self-encouragement; the false starts as the starting gun is fired – all of them are an indication of the momentous internal struggle being waged inside the competitor by the pro and anti forces of concentration and self-confidence. Many musicians go through a similar experience in concert, only they disguise it more.
And the losers have something to teach us too. They teach us that if a thing is worthwhile it is worth doing for itself, and not just for winning. Music is worth doing for itself too, especially not just for winning.
There is good news for all of us: apply the 1% rule to every aspect of your guitar playing and you may end up with a 20% gain. And that may make the difference between losing and winning – or in musical language playing well or playing brilliantly.
London, 21 July 2012