Our band recently performed a gig during which I sweated as much as in any basketball game. It was the end of one of those early spring days when an unseasonable warm front moves through and the temperature explodes to summer-like levels. It was still too early in the season for restaurants and bars to turn on their air conditioning as the forecast for the following days was expected to return to cooler, more seasonable temperatures. But hot is hot, particularly under the added intensity of stage lights.
Perhaps it was because my rehydration concoction of choice for a gig is bourbon rather than Gatorade. To my knowledge, there are no peer-reviewed studies documenting that the intake of bourbon results in a greater perspiration output than does Gatorade. Regardless of the science, I was drenched.
It was clear to the band, through our exchanged looks, nods, laughs and congratulatory bonding, that we had played a memorable gig. Everyone played hard and played well. It was one of those nights where it all clicked. The music was tight, the sound clear and rich, the audience connected.
There are not many experiences as powerful, inspiring and just plain fun than being a part of a band and a musical performance that is really cookin’. When all cylinders are hitting in unison the result is in an intense connective, shared experience with not only your fellow musicians but also the audience. That is why more than a few musicians have been known to debate whether such musical moments are better than sex. The point of this essay however, is not to compare making music to sex. That would likely require a book length analysis. That noted, its purpose is to explore the similarities of the shared experience of playing music with that of playing basketball.
There are so many parallels between athletics and music. Both involve performance, require rhythm, develop similar teambuilding and character skills as well as physical activity. Yes, the physicality of music performance may not be as intense as basketball at age 25 or 40, but for an old blues musician, a performance on a sweltering stage can be plenty physical.
I have had a life long love affair with basketball. Even after my competitive playing days were long past, I continued to play a regular game of pick-up basketball in places such as Athens, Ohio, New York City, Kansas City, Birmingham Alabama and Lancaster, PA, among others. In the top five on every “Moving to a New City – To Do List”, was “Find a Noon Hoop Game ASAP”, usually the second action item on that list following “Find a Place to Live.”
What was the hunger that drove that obsession? Was it the need to continue to play the game after competing at a high level, including professionally? Clearly, it was not fame. Pick-up hoop results are never carried in the local newspaper or highlighted on ESPN. Certainly, a major driver was the fitness benefits and a certain amount was to feed the competitive instinct.
For many athletes, the loss of a highly competitive outlet is difficult to replace. This is not to say that you should just give up and not try to find outlets to feed your competitive fire. Competition can be good for the soul. The challenge is to wean yourself off of the relentless need to always win, even in a pick-up or recreation league game.
But it’s not simply about feeding the competitive instinct. Fortunately, the need to compete fiercely and always win begins to fade with not only the perspective, but also the physical decline resulting from aging. As I’ve aged, I’ve found that the relentless drive to win has become increasingly replaced by the quest for sports’ potential to offer an intense, shared, personal experience with others. There is a greater appreciation of those elusive, shared moments when it all “clicks” and the entire unit comes together as one in a shared experience, fulfilling to the highest degree possible your potential as a unit.
Yes, competing and winning is important. But at certain points in an athlete’s career, the mere process of playing the game and the power that results from an intense, shared experience with a group of players is more important.
During those moments when your unit is operating as one communication occurs on a different level. Suddenly, the end result becomes less important and satisfying than achieving what athletic or musical expression is, at its core, all about – human connection. The beauty and satisfaction of playing the game is in the quest to fulfill your full potential as a unit. When that occurs, whether in a 20,000-seat arena, an empty gym or a tiny stage in a basement bar, the feeling is magical. It is pure bliss. That is why you play. And when you achieve it, even if for only a moment or two, whether as a team or a band, you have “won”. The terms and rewards of “victory” are determined by no one other than the players or musicians who are on the stage or in the arena.
When it all “clicks”, there’s no need for verification, permanent record. Or trophy. It’s the intense, shared moment that carries on and is remembered, even if no one else but the players or musicians remember it. Yes, it’s a bit more special if the audience is locked in and fully engaged and along for the ride. But that’s a bonus. Even in an empty room or barn, the beauty of the activity rests in the intense, shared experience.
Whether as an athlete or a musician, you know it to be true for you have experienced it.