Friday, November 28, 2014

Performance in music and sports -- learning to react and accept whatever happens

As I prepared to participate in my fist triathlon last year I got a lot of advice from friends as well as on-line sources about preparation. Mental and physical preparation. Everything from making checklists to how to handle your nerves. Apparently too many newbies focus all their attention on training, then show up on race day without the right gear at the right place and time, and frazzled to a crisp by self doubt.

Being a typical newbie I thought checklists were a bit much, but thankfully I was old enough to know my aging brain tends to forget things. As it turned out those checklists contributed significantly to my success and my peace of mind.

I have also run quite a few races, including the Honolulu Marathon. In spite of the relative simplicity of running, careful preparation still plays an important roll. I have one checklist for packing and one for getting ready that morning. As simple as it may seem, leaving out a step — like applying Body Glide to feet before putting on socks — could spell disaster before the day is done.

For most of my life I have been a performing musician. Recently Pattie and I participated in a Javanese Dance performance — as members of the University of Hawaii Gamelan — and with those first two triathlons fresh in my memory I saw some significant similarities, but even more so some interesting differences.

These was a time when I would get nervous before a concert. Not anymore. Even when I have a hard lick or two that I know I may not get right, that simply does not bother me anymore. The key is to acknowledge that you have done all that you could to prepare, and that you are ready.

This last concert was different than recent concerts in that we had a group of guest artists from Indonesia. This had an interesting effect on me. During the night before the concert I kept waking up to thoughts about the music. Not anything hard; quite the opposite. We all have had the experience of having a song stuck in our head. You can force yourself to stop playing the tune in your head, but the moment you turn away, it sneaks back. It was like that. I would just be falling asleep and there was that tune again. Was it worry, or just a very repetitive melody?

My triathlon training prepared me for this. My solution was to accept it, and not worry about it. I really did not need to sleep at that moment. This was my brain playing tricks on me, and it was okay. Before long I was fast asleep.

One of the more interesting was gamelan is different from western classical music is the degree of uncertainty. Only the true aficionado will know that during a performance there are multiple layers of variable probabilities unfolding like a quantum field collapse. Moment by moment the possibilities are resolved by sound queues. A signal can come from the drum, the rebab, the bonang, or the singer. When accompanying dance the gamelan must react to them; the process uses a woodblock called keprak (say it and you will know why), played by someone knowledgeable of the dance. The drummer reacts to the keprak, and the rest of the ensemble reacts to the drum.

The really interesting part of this is that the signaling instruments play a lot, yet much of what they play is devoid of signal. The drum may be making a lot of noise, but it is all about accompanying the action. The ensemble must not react to those drum strokes. The moment they hear a patten that contains a signal, then they must react.

What this means is that we never know exactly what is going to happen. The event unfolds as we go along. In rehearsal we practice our possible outcomes and learn to react. We do not set a specific course of action; it just does not work that way.

Success at triathlon requires a similar skill. When a swimmer practices for a fifty meter sprint, every stroke is known ahead of time. Same thing for runners, they know exactly how many strides they need to take to win a fifty meter sprint. In triathlon we must plan for many possible contingencies, then pay close attention to incoming signals and react quickly and effectivly when necessary, while at the same time not allowing ourselves to be be distracted by the chaos all around us.

Learn to enjoy those surprises, those moments when you say to yourself “Gee I never thought that would happen.” To react with “Oh crap …” will only slow you down.

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