Sunday, January 18, 2015

Musing on Slippery Roots

The other night I was winding things down, attempting a productive review of the upcoming week’s training sessions and weather forecast, listening to the rain pour down, trying not to imagine how cold and wet the trails were going to be the next day.  The evening’s radio program was showcasing a set of Chopin’s Études.  It was a familiar sound, and, focus drifting away from the deluge outside, a particular piece caught my ear and gave me that goose bump feeling that only a good set of notes can do.  It sent me back to what it was like to practice that kind of music on the piano and, in general, what it's like to practice anything so intricate and expressive. 

Étude is a French word meaning “study”, and in the musical context, denotes a short, technically difficult piece of music designed for practicing a specific musical skill, while also being expressive and beautiful.  It’s not the kind of thing you can just sit down and churn out.  It takes interpretation and practice. Playing an étude is to music what riding a technical section of singletrack is to mountain biking, whereas structured intervals are analogous to the rigid arpeggios and scales compulsory to any student of classical music. Each type of exercise is important in its own right, but it’s playing études that keeps the spirit healthy…which got me thinking on the week’s training plan...      

Was not a cyclist
“Seven times in a row”, my piano teacher used to tell me, “that is how many times you should practice a difficult movement to master a tough set of notes, or to commit a section to memory.” Seven may have been an arbitrary number - I remember it taking many more than seven repetitions to truly master a difficult piece of music.  Yet that bit of advice has stuck with me, because, for me at least, the “seven times in a row” invokes the calculated persistence required to sincerely master something.  And when I look back at those ten years of piano lessons, I’ve realized that music was a tremendous medium though which to absorb (and appreciate) that concept of mastery.     

Thus, for one day’s workout, I thought of riding a trail that would be equivalent to playing an étude, and pedaled out to the Chuckanuts to practice a 1 kilometer section of particularly gnarled, twisted, rooty singletrack seven times in a row.  Each loop was only about 2 kilometers in total, with a steep climb to repeat each round.  The trees were dripping from the night’s rainstorm, and the woods full of dense fog.  I had rolled my way through the trail before, but never actually taken time to study it.  The first time through, the roots and steep roll overs seemed unrelenting.  I was clumsy, dabbing all over the place, fixating on each obstacle, hesitating, slipping everywhere.  Everything was piecemeal and cumbersome.  It was like facing the dense string of notes on a page of music for the first time.  At first they pose a mass of discouraging obstacles, but after enough times through, you grasp the way they go together, and eventually the notes disappear, and it’s just music.  By the fourth time through, I was down to two dabs.  On the fifth time, I cleaned it, and rode it faster than I ever had before.  Rounds six and seven I discovered even smoother, faster lines.

For me, mastery is a relative experience.  It’s not so much about being a “master” of something in general, but rather about the act of mastery, at any scale, whether it’s a single piece of music, or a single trail on a mountain.  I was by no means a great pianist, but I certainly did master a few pieces of music.  Devotion to mastery is, for me at least, the hallmark of sport.  The discipline and inspiration to do something better than you've ever done before is an enjoyable form of that devotion.  Looking back, I’ve come to realize that persistence is one great thing that I learned from studying music.  Persistence, with the reward of mastering a piece of music enough to make the act of playing not just an exercise, but a rich, personal experience.  Eventually you’ve just done something that perhaps you’ve never done before, or in a way you’ve never done before, and the momentum carries you on to the next bit.  Nothing so effortless has felt so satisfying. 

Mastering a trail is parallel to the dimension of mastering a piece of music, or vice versa.  It's not simply about hitting each successive note on the page, but to express, in your own way, the whole of all the notes together, to the point where the notes and the pages disappear, and the motion of your hands across the keys is as much an expression of you as it is the music at hand.

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