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With many hours of training runs and races this season, I had plenty of endurance zen time to contemplate my hours of practicing and performing music. So many things feel the same between running and the disciplined study and presentation of music - both require a huge sacrifice of finances, time, and energy; both consolidate months of training into minutes or hours of performance; and, if you do them right, both are intense labors of love.
As I sat enjoying my post-race chocolate milk after a blistering hot half marathon last weekend, I realized how powerful these connections could be, if we could just distill them into usable advice. What follows are nine things that running has taught me about music.
1. Check Your Form
When it gets hard, rely on fundamentals. When the heat index is in the triple digits, and your shirt is soaked through with sweat, and you can't possibly lift your feet for one more step, runners know that you must stay mindful of how your arms pump to create momentum forward, which part of your foot hits the ground, and exactly how many minutes it has been since you last sipped your water. When you are nearing the climax of your recital closer, and your embouchure is trembling, and your hands are shaking from nerves, top performers know that you must reconnect with your grounded posture and engage your airstream. Fatigue makes us forgetful, and in stress we must all check our form.
2. Plan Your Season
What is the top priority this year, your "A race"? Is it really wise to impulse buy a 5K with friends and go all out one week before your targeted national ranking triathlon? (In my case, absolutely not!) Are you targeting graduate school or summer festival auditions? Perhaps your junior or senior recital? Naturally, the life of a musician requires balancing many high priority performances, but is it really wise to schedule your prescreening recording session the weekend before that regional orchestra audition? If you have control over your schedule, plan wisely and sequence things in a way that makes sense for you, physically and mentally.
3. Take the Traveled Path (Sometimes)
When running on a trail in the woods, sometimes there are choices: jump the log or double back around it. One adds difficulty, and the other adds distance, and anyone can make that choice based on their needs at the time. In the academic world, this is the choice between taking a heavy course load one semester to graduate on time and keeping your schedule manageable but adding a summer or semester (or year) to your college career. Sometimes, though, one path may be much more worn than another - it seems like everyone chose to run around the rock rather than over it or finish their music education degree in five years instead of four. If there is a successful path that others have taken, it stands to reason that you could be successful there, too, so don't feel the need to reinvent the wheel every time. Keep your mind open to those paths less traveled... but only if they won't trip you up, literally or figuratively!
4. Invest in Quality Equipment
Buy the good shoes in the right size, and you'll avoid injury. Buy a good instrument and good tools and the good cane, and you'll never regret it.
5. Practice Slow and Fast
Five time world champion triathlete Javier Gomez is famous for saying "if you want to race fast, you have to train fast." The three key workouts for runners are speed, hills, and endurance - practice being fast, practice being strong, and practice persevering. In music preparation, these are the same principles, and we all often neglect at least one. Practice being fast: drill short motives at or above performance tempo, but only one or two intervals at a time to grow accustomed to moving quickly and precisely. Practice being strong: build your performance muscles through long tones and scales that make sense for your repertoire. Marriage of Figaro? D Major at pianissimo and double tonguing at your excerpt tempo. Mozart Concerto? B-flat Major in staccato sixteenth notes and wide interval intonation at forte. Practice persevering: balance focused work with putting trouble passages back in context, and use long tones as a way of building muscular endurance with your abdominals and embouchure. You will perform how you have practiced, no matter how that is.
6. Find Your Pacer
When you participate in a large race, there are experienced runners called "pacers" who hold up signs with goal paces and finish times on them, and they run the race as their sign reads for people to follow based on their individual goals. If you want to run a half marathon in under two hours, go find that guy or gal in the neon tank top holding the 2:00 sign and stick to him/her like glue. In music, this is not a simultaneous experience, but you can find a collection of people whose careers you admire and explore how they paced to get there. How did the top orchestral principals study and practice to win their auditions? Where did your admired college professors study, teach, and play before arriving at their current institutions? Be proud of your goals, and go find your pacer.
7. Take Care of You
When you are tired, sleep. When you are hungry, eat. When you are frustrated, take a break. When you are in pain, stop.
Skipping workouts and eating extra donuts will not earn you a personal record race time. Playing every other day or sitting in the practice room on your phone will not win you an audition. Long term results require long term work, and you must be ready to commit.
9. Spit to the Side
Last but not least, this one is perhaps my favorite. Sometimes runners need to spit (yes, literally), and one of the worst things you can do is turn to the side and hit someone right behind you. My record in a race is being spit on twice - not pleasant. Look before you clean out your bocal, and remember that your success does not necessarily mean someone else's failure. Or at least someone else's shoe covered in spit. Be kind to those around you, and best wishes in your continued lessons on the road, in music, and in life.