Musicians and athletes have much in common. There have been many famous musicians who were excellent athletes including Miles Davis, Benny Carter and Red Garland (boxing); Andy Fusco (football); Harold Wright (baseball); Julio Iglesias (soccer); and Kenny G (golf). Likewise, there have been many athletes who have been fine musicians. Basketball greats David Robinson (pianist) and Wayman Tisdale (bass player); baseball’s Bernie Williams and Bronson Arroyo (guitarists); and football’s Mike Reid (pianist/composer) are but a few of the many professional athletes with real musical ability.
All high achieving musicians and athletes have a great passion for their career endeavors. Both maintain organizational skills to succeed; the ability to practice for many hours day after day; a desire to learn more about their discipline; a strong belief in themselves; innate talent; and above all, an undiminished passion for their occupations. But the sport of golf seems to have a unique relationship with the art of making music. In fact, one often sees golfers wearing headphones on the practice range listening to music in order to relax themselves while improving the tempo to their golf swing. Musicians have relocated to warmer climates in order to play golf on a consistent basis (i.e bassists Ray Brown & George Duvivier). But more to the point, both golf and music require a very specific type of physical exertion that begins and ends from a relatively stationary position. As a golf enthusiast who is totally absorbed with every aspect of the game, I have come to understand the parallels that exist between golf and music and how the study of one discipline can benefit the other.
The golfer and the musician are required to set inanimate objects (the golf ball or the reed, lips, string, drumhead, vocal cords) in motion to obtain a successful result. Accomplishing these goals involves a great deal of intellectual and musculature coordination in addition to the characteristics stated above. The professional golfer needs to be concerned with flexibility & strength (workout regimen); control of stress levels while in competition (breathing & visualization), diet, grip, stance, posture, balance, alignment, swing plane, weather conditions, course conditions, equipment, varying lies of the golf ball on the course, etc. while continuing to practice, study and perform in varying conditions throughout the world.
Likewise, the professional musician must also be concerned with one’s breathing, posture, equipment choices, embouchures, styles of music, music notation and interpretation, weather conditions, acoustical surroundings, volumes of sound, blending with others, pitch variations, control of stress levels, etc. while continuing to practice, study, and perform different music with changing personal under constantly varying conditions.
Golfer Phil Mickelson, who recently won the PGA Championship at age 50 to become the oldest winner of a men’s major golf championship, can serve as an excellent example of how to elevate one’s level during a long career for all musical performers. (His historic accomplishment along with Tom Brady’s Super Bowl victory at age 43; 46-year-old Helio Castroneves’ victory at the Indy 500; and tennis great Roger Federer’s successes into his late 30s defy pre-existing notions of age and success in athletics.) Mickelson has always been a very talented golfer, a prodigy who experienced success from a very early age. He spent more than 25 consecutive years in the top 50 of the official world golf ranking, is the winner of 6 majors, and is a member of the Golf Hall of Fame. Yet, he remains committed to improving and keeping up with golfers less than half his age. He has undergone a late career transformation of body, mind and technique which has resulted in success on the golf course. The way he has gone about this journey is what we as musicians need to understand and integrate into our professional lives.
A. To continue to compete at the highest level on the PGA Tour and to deal with his psoriatic arthritis, Phil has made some dramatic changes. He fasts for 1.5 day/week followed by a diet of vegetables, whole unprocessed food, nuts and very little dairy and meat. This has resulted in a major weight loss. He also works out for 75 minutes/session with trainer Sean Cochran starting at 5:30am using strength and mobility exercises to improve his core strength and flexibility. Throughout his professional career, Phil has worked with some of the finest swing coaches including Butch Harmon and over the past 6 years, Andrew Getson. The fact that one of the greatest golfers in history who possesses extensive knowledge of every aspect of the game continues to seek instruction and is willing to alter his lifestyle and swing mechanics should be an inspiration to everyone. As a result of all the above, Phil Michelson is now in the best physical condition of his career, has more energy and flexibility, and hits the ball further than he did 10 years ago.
Musical performers can certainly adapt some of the Mickelson formula. As I’ve written about in previous articles (https://joffewoodwinds.com/articles/not-like-riding-bike), the study of music is a lifelong pursuit–an endless quest for perfection that requires continuing study. If Phil Michelson can still strive to refine his performance with teachers and consultants, so can we! Healthier eating habits resulting in weight loss along with daily workouts to improve our strength, flexibility and core muscles is a win-win approach for enjoying life more, living longer and improving our musical performance. We often forget that making music for many hours/day IS an athletic activity.
B. Phil has admitted that he has had a hard time keeping focused for periods of time: “My ability to regain focus has been the biggest challenge as I’ve gotten older.” To combat this tendency, he has adapted a form of meditation. When he practices, he is now extremely focused and always has a very specific goal or objective in mind. For instance, when working on his putting, he states: “I am going to hit 30 5-foot putts, 30 7-foot putts and 30 10-foot putts in my pre-shot routine, feeling relaxed, and hitting the ball flush.”
Maintaining focus while practicing or during performance is something we can all relate to and a characteristic that becomes more difficult as we age. Phil’s approach to putting practice is one that is easily transferable to music. Instead of practicing for several hours consecutively going through endless amounts of exercises and repertoire, why not concentrate on one facet of playing with a very specific objective within a short span of time? As an example, instead of going through the motions when practicing scales, have a well defined plan. Play/sing a specific scalar mode in all keys slurred, one octave in length while emphasizing the legato connections from note-note. After completion, then play/sing the same scales two octaves in length with the same focus. Continue in this fashion throughout one’s range. The next day, play/sing a different scalar mode using the same system. This approach is likely to lead to success and a feeling of short-term achievement.
C. Just before every round that Phil plays on tour, he goes through an extensive one-hour shot making warm up routine (in addition to stretching) during which time he utilizes new technology to monitor his shots, including the Protracer, the orange whip, speed sticks, as well as feedback from coach Andrew Getson.
Practicing before any performance is well understood by any professional musician. The need to stretch, engage our breathing apparatus, check on the conditions of our instruments as well as the musical demands of the gig make this “pre-round” warmup vitally important. The use of technology should be incorporated to help us in this process. Breathing Bags, Voldynes, Breath Builders and Inspirons are all beneficial in monitoring the efficient use of our air. A metronome should always be available to work on passages or tunes at various tempi. Reed adjusting tools should be handy to make any last-minute alterations for woodwind musicians. Pitch tuners should be used to check on the relative pitch relationships on our instruments as well as in various passages.
In conclusion, billions of dollars are invested annually in the sports industry which has resulted in extensive research on improving athletic performance. In golf, this has resulted in The Titleist Performance Institute. This is one of many sports centers using innovative science-based technologies and unique conditioning methods that has benefited professional and amateur athletes.
It is my hope that music industry companies will invest similarly and create TPI-like training sites for future generations of musicians in order to enhance the musician’s ability to adapt a Phil Mickelson-like approach to maintaining a long career of excellence.
Writer’s Note: I have also had the good fortune to study with golf instructor Andrew Getson over the past 6 years. Unfortunately, my golf game in no way mirrors Phil’s. I often compare Getson’s role in working with Phil and golfers of my level as similar to experiencing Beauty and the Beast!