Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Musical and Athletic Performance

I was recently asked to contribute to a book titled "Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Musical and Athletic Performance" by Bernie Williams, former All-Star outfielder for the New York Yankees. Unknown to most is the fact that Bernie is also a classically trained guitarist who was recently nominated for a Latin Grammy. I was really honored to be asked to add my two cents along with much bigger names like Paul Simon, Jon Faddis, Dave Weckl, and Bruce Springsteen. The title of the book is pretty self-explanatory. Perhaps how that relates to a trombonist in the MET Orchestra is not. The following is an excerpt from the book, to be released in July 2011. 

"Imagine too what it feels like to spend the entire day in the outfield having seen no action—and it’s now the bottom of the ninth and your pitcher has a no-hitter going when suddenly—crack! The ball is flying out into centerfield and the no-hitter hangs entirely on how quickly you can react. For three hours, you’ve been standing; now you’re sprinting like a gazelle.

Baseball is unique in this way—it’s perhaps the only sport where defensive players spend the majority of their time concentrating, anticipating, expecting, and strategizing. Great defensive players have impeccable mental concentration—an ability to block everything out and focus on the one thing that matters most: that ball passing over the plate.

It’s easier when conditions are good—the weather is optimal, you’re feeling good, you’re energized and those seven hours a week spent watching that ball fly over the plate from 350 feet away are reasonable. But when you’re tired, you’re ill, the weather is wreaking havoc, mosquitoes are having a picnic in the outfield—well, then it requires a level of perseverance that only a biblical Job could have. Yet great major league players do rise to the occasion day in and day out—but so do musicians.

If you want to witness intense concentration at this level by musicians, look no farther than the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is the busiest orchestra in the country, performing over 200 times a year—and operas at the Met can take on the time durations of a typical Yankees-Red Sox game, lasting upwards of four hours. The musicians in this orchestra are among the best in the world, and if you’re a violinist in the Met Orchestra, you’re fortunate to be playing the majority of the time. But not everyone is.

Take for instance a trombonist, who might have to count over 100 measures of rest and then play a critical fanfare right at the entrance of a new scene, after which they’ll rest for another 40 measures and then play another critical phrase. Throughout the opera, the majority of the time is spent waiting, counting, focusing and getting ready to play. The amount of time actually spent playing their instrument throughout the opera might be as little as five percent—maybe only twenty minutes total, yet they have to be tuned in and focused virtually all the time. On and off it goes like this for sometimes as long as four or five hours.

"Members of the trombone section definitely need an 'on-off' switch in order to execute their duties in the orchestra appropriately. I believe a prime example is the opera by composer Richard Wagner, Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), a 5 1/2 hour opera that features the famous 'Ride of the Valkyries' that has been popularized in everything from the movie Apocalypse Now to Elmer Fudd cartoons. The show opens with a driving string bass line that is capped off by the brass who have just counted 72 bars of rests. Immediately following this, the trombone section then rests for around half an hour before being called upon to play an extremely delicate, soft chorale. On paper this passage is seemingly simple, but performing it accurately after such a long rest period is significantly more difficult than it appears to the audience. The members of the trombone section recognize this difficulty and breathe a sigh of relief after having done it well and not drawing too much attention to themselves. Just as fans at a baseball game may think nothing of a 'routine' out on a pop-fly, the outfielder realizes that it only appears to be routine because of hundreds of hours of practice making sure that he is correctly positioned, acutely focused and ready to spring into action after minutes or sometimes hours of relative inactivity."
—Weston Sprott (Trombonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra)


This is a seldom-made comparison between the outfield of a major league baseball team and the “outfield”—in this case, the brass section—of a major league opera orchestra. Both the ballplayer and musician in this scenario need to turn the concentration switch on and off, continuously, for hours at a time. So how do you develop the proper approach to this level of concentration over prolonged periods of time? How do you remain focused and ready for when the ball is hit to you? And it will be hit to you, eventually!

Every great major league defensive player has an “on-off” mechanism they’ve developed. When there’s no play, it’s vital you relax, take your mind off of things—even if it’s for a few seconds. When you see an outfielder looking up at the stands or the sky in between pitches, you can bet they’re not trying to spot a relative or friend—they’re purposefully taking their mind off of the game for a few seconds, lest they burn out from the intense level of concentration required."

For more information about the book, visit the book's following sites:

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2 comments

  • Preston

    Preston

    good stuff. I live the comparison.

    good stuff. I live the comparison.

  • Mrs. E

    Mrs. E

    I had never thought of it that way before. Great article.

    I had never thought of it that way before.
    Great article.

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