I’ve often said that if there’s one other activity that I enjoy as much as music-making, it’s playing a good game of basketball. About two years ago, I became too frustrated with the music scene in Lebanon due to various internal and external reasons. So I decided to take a year off and say “no” to a lot of work offers. This freed up a lot of my time, especially during the day since I didn’t have to practice my instrument as much.
In order to fill up this time, I began practicing and playing basketball almost on daily basis which in turn motivated me to go to the gym more often. Here’s how that process helped make me a better musician:
1. Physical Benefits
Let me start with the obvious. We all know that exercise is very important for a healthier lifestyle, especially for us musicians. Considering the amount of hours we spend on our instruments in uncomfortable positions with little activity in larger muscle groups, we openly invite chronic muscular tensions. We hear all sorts of advice about taking frequent breaks (every 20 minutes or so) stretching, strengthening our back muscles in the gym and so forth.
For me, going out into the court to practice Basketball skills helped me move all of my muscles in ways I would never do in musical practice. This reduced a lot of the tensions in my neck, shoulders, back and legs. Also, in combination with The Alexander Technique (a system designed to promote well-being by retraining one's awareness and habits of posture to ensure minimum effort and strain) it helped me avoid holding any stiff positions for too long. Instead, I focus on constantly making small movements during activities that require sitting or standing for an extended period of time.
2. Learning New Skills
As a professional musician, I find that I don’t spend that much time learning completely new skills. Maybe I should be, but that’s another subject. Most of my practice goes into developing older skills and sharpening them. Even if I do learn new skills on the instrument, it’s still within the scope of music.
Once I started to practice fundamental Basketball skills, my brain circuitry was on fire! Everything I practiced was unfamiliar and exciting which reminded me how I felt as a beginning musician, I was constantly fascinated with the guitar and the sounds I could produce. However as time progressed and the closer I got to becoming a professional, the less adventurous I became. This is what happens when routine kicks in. However, learning new skills in a totally different field greatly rejuvinated my enthusiasm and perception of musical practice and performance. It reminds me of the long and demanding path I had already taken to develop the musical skills that I now take for granted.
3. Conditioning and pressure situations
Playing sports that require high cardiovascular endurance (examples: Squash, Basketball, Football…) can greatly impact our performance in pressure situations. Whenever we have a difficult performance, we usually experience the standard symptoms: faster heart-rates, sweating, anxiety and so forth. A big part of learning a sport means learning to stay focused and in control of your body and mind (as avoiding unnecessary muscular convulsions or unproductive thoughts) while your heart-rate is up and your body is tired. When I got better at this, I also got better at handling stressful musical situations.
We, as musicians, can panic before a serious performance which leads to an increased heart-rate and shallower breathing. Through sports I learned that this doesn’t have to mean “loss of control” but that it is a normal reaction to the Adrenaline rush which can be used to my advantage if I can manage to keep my mind from getting as excited as my body. If you'd like to read more about the physiological and psychological symptoms of fear in musicians, I recommend a reading of "Freeing the Creative Mind", my final year thesis at Prince Claus Consevatory (Holland) available for download here.
4. Creativity and Improvisation
I noticed that learning Basketball skills is very similar to learning musical improvisation skills. I would practice certain moves, knowing that they would work in certain situations, but just like in an improvisational setting, in a Basketball game we do not plan our moves ahead of time as that will mostly lead to failure in execution. Instead, we prepare as much as we can and strengthen our fundamental skills so that when it’s time to perform, each situation brings about its own unique creative solution (often as a combination of moves).
Both Basketball and Jazz give us very little time to react, so letting go of the intellect and allowing our intuition to guide us and help us in choosing the best possible option is really the only viable way, as the intuition operates at a much faster pace than the intellect. (Intuition works on a subconscious level by making creative links between the presented problem and the best memory-stored solution)
5. Conclusions: Sportsmanship & Musicianship
Aside from the points I have mentioned above, I find it important to mention the fact that sports and music are communal activities. They are usually done in teams or groups and so require the individual to let go of personal interests in order to pursue higher goals rather than mere self-satisfaction or proving one’s worth to his peers. In letting go of such egotistical motives, sports and music become much more enjoyable for the performer and exciting for the audience to watch. This is known as being "in the zone", see “Flow” for further details.
Sportsmanship and Musicianship mean the same thing. One teaches us to win/lose a game ethically and in full consideration to our opponents/team-mates, the second teaches us to play music within a group in the same way. Sportsmanship teaches us to forgive our mistakes and our team-mates mistakes, and to hold the group above the individual. Musicianship allows us to let go of any mistakes we make and smile at them knowing that the flow of music continues throughout the group and the audience. Mistakes do not have as much weight in that perspective as they do in the mind of the individual.
In conclusion, I ask you to leave your chair or your instrument for a while at least 3 times a week, find your sport and feed your passion for it by learning it as your learn your scales and songs. It’s well worth the effort and it’s good to know you can be good at something other than music!
Edited by: Lara Zeineddine