Play it Again, Ed

Play it Again, Edectalogoredblue
Parallels between learning music and tennis by Ed Collins/2000, 2014

The gift of music wasn’t mine; fortunately, my first teacher inspired me to not let minimal talent and the occasional insult get in my way.

My instrument of choice was the accordion, which is easier to explain if you were born in the 40s, before rock and roll, when solicitors pedaled accordion instruction door-to-door (no kidding).

My first teacher, whose name is Don, tried his darndest to ground me in theory, but only sometimes did I make it easy for him. Music is a kind of language, and I made little attempt to learn it. When he spoke of diminished 7th chords and the circle of 5ths, I usually drifted off, eyes glazed over, and just waited it out. In my defense, and it’s not much of one, I didn’t think I’d progress to the point where I’d ever be playing music that required more knowledge. I guess I was setting my sights low enough so that I wouldn’t fail.

And it’s not that I wouldn’t practice, it’s just that in doing so I only used part of my brain. I practiced by rote––sort of a pedagogical system of monkey see, monkey do. And with this method it’s easy to be bad––you just look at the page, locate the notes, and play what you see, usually not quite right.

It’s right there, under your nose
What I’ve learned about music mostly applies to tennis, and vice-versa. I’ve come to believe that you have to discover a lot of stuff on your own––a special kind of curiosity must be developed from within. My clueless nature is of my own doing, but I want to lay some of the blame on my education. Only once in a while was I engaged––the bulk of the time I was given facts and formulas to parrot back, essays to be plagiarized, fill-in-the-blank homework assignments to be returned.

Like music, tennis is a complicated mix of emotion and mechanics––you need to play with style and feeling, but you also must know how it works. On this subject Don once quoted a 19th century Austrian composer by the name of Anton Webern: “Instinct will lead you, but you must also know.”

So Don implored me to study the music while I played the simplest song. I give similar advice on the court when I ask the student to walk through the strokes in slow motion, without the ball. When the attempt is half-correct, I’ll stop him. “In order to hit the ball without thinking you must know the stroke and footwork well enough to teach it.”

Music has a lot to do with rhythm, harmony and chord formation; in tennis it’s about perfecting the strokes and then modifying them in response to ever-changing situations––that and structuring points, knowing how shots are related, which leads to intuitive play.

Technique props you up
Since technique was the subject of the music and tennis students’ first lessons, they may conclude that basics are for beginners––this, despite knowing that the best players are the most technically proficient. Miles Davis, the late great jazz trumpet player, spoke on this subject when he said, “If you don’t have technique, you’re in deep doo doo.”

It’s easy to get ahead of yourself. Before the tennis player comes close to mastering the basic elements of the strokes, he’s searching for answers in tournaments, only to discover that shaky technique won’t hold up to the pressure of winning.

The tennis mind tends to race ahead of the action. Before the ball is actually struck the head lifts, the eyes seeking a hopeful result. And so the student is trained to develop the habit of focusing on the point of contact after the ball leaves the racquet.

Fear of missing elicits a brief muscular and pulmonary freeze–– muscles contract, breath is suspended. The beginner learns to relax his hand at contact, to coordinate his swing with an exhale.

Taking advice from nature––big trees have deep roots––the teacher takes his time laying a solid foundation of technique.

Love to practice
Don once asked me to define the word practice; when I mumbled something about repetition, he interrupted me. “Thoughtful repetition,” he said, “where you’re thinking about what you’re doing and you know why you’re doing it.” Then he tapped his fingers to his forehead. “You’ve got to keep it right here, in your pre-frontal cortex,” he said with no uncertainty.

This is accomplished in tennis by simply slowing down, which, Don told me, is the same in music. I once recall an adult student, a concert pianist, commenting on the tennis exercise of practicing within the service boxes, hitting softly. “I do this at the piano,” he said. “You play the piece at the slowest tempo, to learn it, to know it.”

What interests me most about this subject is how much is actual and how much is imagined. This explains, I believe, why so such focus is necessary to get beyond ordinary. It’s not just the number of practice hours, it’s also the time spent thinking about it. Progress seems to be what keeps the daydreams alive.

Tackle hard parts
In tennis one guards against becoming mechanical, unthinking, predictable––playing in a way that has little effect on the opponent. We call this rallying––playing to the middle of the court, meanwhile regularly passing up opportunities to attack. To win at higher levels, it’s the game’s transitions that require attention––situations such as approaching the net, serving and volleying, attacking the short ball, volleying from below net level, retrieving lobs, and countering the net rusher. Improve in these areas and opponents will describe your tennis using words like opportunistic, manipulative and deceptive.

Think a little bit ahead
I’m musically challenged in many ways, but none more than when I’m faced with changes within a song. Besides the verse, chorus and bridge, key and chord changes make it complicated for a simple brain. It’s as if you need a skill where you simultaneously concentrate on what you’re playing while thinking slightly ahead.

The requisite skills in tennis are physical, to be sure. Technique must be correct, the strokes grooved, feet- and hand-eye coordination developed (and endlessly rehearsed), but that’s only the half of it: In training someone to play tennis, you have to teach him how to play tennis.

The challenge is to concentrate almost wholly on the oncoming ball, and while doing so, know what’s likely taking place next. Think of chess, where one must somehow be analytical and proactive without making careless mistakes. Or billiards, where, before taking action, you visualize a shot, simultaneously, aligning the cue ball for the following shot.

This explains why many proficient players share the early experience of hitting against a backboard, where lots of simultaneous things must take place in order to sustain a rally of an erratically rebounding ball.

Acquired skills
On court, from close range, the teacher peppers balls at his net-playing student, to sharpen his reflexes. To develop quickness and balance, he feeds balls short and deep, side to side, randomly. To learn how to concentrate, he challenges him to make a series of shots. To improve his observational and decision-making skills, he places him in midcourt and teaches him how to recognize which ball is volleyed, half-volleyed, chipped and hit (topspin). He teaches the beginner how to combine a soft/short shot with a high/deep shot, the makings of a drop shot and lob. In the process, he develops spatial awareness and a game-playing mindset.

It’s here where I should mention the obvious: Music and tennis teachers are challenged by technology. Young people have grown up with the idea that it’s easy to “achieve” something quickly. Google, Microsoft Word and the iPhone make it necessary for us teachers to help them understand the length of the normal learning process.

Marathon, not a sprint
Years ago, at the end a lesson, Don asked me to play a song I’d been learning. He folded his arms, leaned back in his chair, then made me laugh when he said, “OK, give me your miserable best.”

Don’s choice of words speaks to the heart of the matter.

The one significant predictor of tennis success is not ability but sustained effort; call it stick-to-itiveness, which has a whole lot to do with motivation.

In my lengthy tenure of college coaching, I found a negative correlation between athletic (and academic) performance and talent, or skill, whatever you want to call it. Look at it this way: If one never has to try hard to succeed then he hasn’t cultivated the willingness or habit to train properly. Success is relative, of course, what I’m referring to here is the underachieving athlete. In a way he’s handicapped (just the opposite of what certain parents and coaches think).

How to help this person was, and continues to be, a daily challenge. There are no easy-to-follow solutions, since each person responds differently. I have learned, however, from my own music and tennis experiences, that one’s ability to learn and succeed is not fixed, it is not innate, it changes with body and brain changes, and effort, and influences, and external and internal motivation. We learn at different rates. We grow at different rates. It’s a mistake to conclude that success is defined only by comparing oneself to others.

Some lessons in tennis take only a few mistakes to learn; others require you to fail hundreds of times. The player who equates experience with success has an advantage; he knows exactly where he is and what it’s taken to get there.

The unfortunate among us believe that we are who we are and there’s not a lot to be done about it. We teachers spend a big chunk of our time convincing these people that they can learn, that they will improve, and that over the years they will be successful.

Good practice
I’ve come to believe that in tennis, as well as in music, much progress can be made by simply chipping away. Short sessions, as little as ten minutes, produce results. But it’s got to be a good ten minutes. Practicing mistakes is counterproductive. The wrong note in music, the unforced error in tennis, they become you, they make their unwanted appearance in performances, in competition––you drop a beat, you lose your place in the music, you shank the overhead on game point. Somehow, someway, for those ten minutes you’ve gotta “get into it.” You must do it right.

Performing is another animal
Playing something correctly, on stage or on court, with a bit of style, elicits a feeling that may be indescribable. It’s true that something akin to virtuosity comes more often in music when you’re playing by yourself. It happens less often with an audience.

As a fledgling musician, I know what it feels like to get so nervous, so unsure, so self-conscious, that a page of music looks like it’s upside down. And in tennis I know how it feels to get so tight that the net somehow rises and the opponent’s court shrinks.

The challenge on the tennis court is to block out everything and just compete, but to reach this state of mind you first must figure out how to deal with some pressure. I’m not referring to the pressure your opponent applies, but to the pressure that comes from within. Allow human nature to intervene and we may choose to avoid it.

A tournament match is a test of what you truly know. To succeed, besides the three s’s (strokes, shots, strategy), you need a measure of pride, a dose of honesty and a whole lot of humility.

Speaking of honesty, music and tennis share a tried-and-true training methodology: Audio and video recordings speak for themselves; they reveal, they criticize, they praise and, most importantly, they motivate.

It helps to accept the fact that there’s a 50% chance of losing (one wins, one loses); in addition to preparing yourself to win, you prepare to lose. Here’s some cautionary advice for when you do come up short: Make no excuses. For example, as soon as you emotionally recover from a loss, ask yourself this question: What could I have done better that might’ve enabled me to win? Then, of course, it’s a matter of doing something about it.

A matter of finishing
Pressed to explain the essence of tennis, I sometimes begin by explaining the peculiar system of scoring, and how the points, games and sets are not valued equally. Certainly, in tennis no lead is safe. Within a point, 5 well-placed shots followed by a clunker leaves you empty handed; in a game, 40-love is occasionally overcome; in a set, a 5-2 lead is routinely squandered; and a one set advantage may mean that someone is just getting settled.

One of our oft-repeated college drills defined this subject. The player’s challenge was to make five consecutive shots beyond a backcourt target. Each time he missed short, the count began again. One afternoon, after a series of failed attempts, I overheard one guy say, “The first 4 are easy; the 5th one is &%##*! hard.”

“Must be mental,” his partner deadpanned.

A tennis player benefits when reminded that the great source of tennis fun (and confidence) is to combine shots to force errors or hit winners. Focusing on this––point by point––makes him more consistent, helps him concentrate, relieves pressure, and leads to more wins.

To climb the ladder, take chances
In the study of music I value my teachers’ effort to further my level of play––even though I’ve sometimes resisted, preferring uncomplicated tunes played at slow tempos.

I’ve been told that to perform my repertoire I must surpass it in knowledge and skill. In tennis you can reduce its complexity by either not taking chances or not venturing inside the baseline. Decisions, shots and strategies become limited, which make the game more simple, but eventually boring.

Most of us need someone to lend a hand––someone who knows how to navigate the process, someone familiar with tennis’ stumbling blocks, someone who can set achievable goals. (This someone should also let you fall flat on your face once in awhile).

The hurdle is not skill or technique, but fear of the unknown. To reach a higher level, risk must be accepted: new shots, aggressive tactics, a change in thinking––all hard to make after playing for a period of years, usually when a player becomes comfortable with his limitations.

Your life coach
It’s not going too far, I think, to say that to learn tennis, or music, is to become a better you. The fact is, the path to proficiency is long, really long––so long you never get to wherever you think the end is. In the process, they put us in our place; they foster a kind of honesty in ourselves, where you come to realize that you must earn your chops. They give you true feedback––you gain confidence and humility at the same time. They’re like a good coach who motivates you to get better, to let go of mistakes, to not compare yourself to others, to be unafraid of failure, to love learning.

In tennis and music you can play by yourself or with others. (Being kind and generous makes people want to play with you). And tennis, of course, is a good vehicle for competition, which is a need for many of us. They each teach you how to concentrate better, think better, problem-solve better.

Music and tennis are antidotes for boredom. When all else is chaotic, they’re a relief and a refuge, a way to take a break. They teach you respect––how to gain it, how to give it. They provide avenues for non-verbal self-expression, creativity, original thought. They enable you to craft your own style, which, if you so desire, provides the satisfaction of being seen and heard.

I could keep going here, but suffice it say that self improvement just makes you feel good. To do today what you couldn’t do yesterday lifts your spirit, emboldens you, puts a skip in your step and air under your feet. ¨