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Artists, Athletes, and the Passion to Excel

by Erin Yanacek

This article was born out of a debate between my boss, Andrew Swensen, and me. We were comparing art forms and other activities, including sports, and I suggested strong parallels. Andrew disagreed, at least with my claim about sports, and we were equally baffled by each other’s perspectives. An avid cyclist, trumpeter, runner, and enthusiast of many other hobbies, I have always recognized deep, intrinsic parallels between these activities. It baffled me that Andrew, who has a PhD in Russian Literature, an aptitude for multiple art forms, runs an online arts journal (The Muse Dialogue), and a slew of other specialties did not recognize the same similarities.

(Photo: Jon Pratt)

Erin Yanacek, athlete (Photo: Jon Pratt)

Two years ago I ran my first marathon, and last year I won second place women’s in the Dirty Dozen, a local Pittsburgh staple that takes cyclists on a 50-mile race around town, hitting 13 of the steepest and longest hills. In between those two athletic events was matriculation in a Masters program for trumpet performance. These activities look diverse on paper, but for me they are intrinsically entwined on many levels.

The most conspicuous similarity is the process of becoming proficient in each of these crafts.  In his book “Outliers: The Story of Success,” Malcolm Gladwell suggests that in order to master a craft, an individual must log approximately 10,000 hours of relevant work. This means that if a 4-year-old begins to learn the violin and practices an average of 2 hours a day, he will have achieved “mastery” by the age of 18.

Of all of my passions, playing the trumpet is the farthest along in this process and is the passion I have chosen to pursue as a profession. My psychology of trumpet playing has moved from worrying about which valve goes with which note to a mindset of music-making and expression. After 13 years with the instrument, I may have crossed the 10,000 hour mark by now, but I still look up to individuals who are farther still along the process. I hope someday to be able to perform with the selfless concentration and pure ability to convey meaning through music to the same degree as Yo-Yo Ma, for example.

The idea of a masterful musician’s mindset is not unlike the mindset of an athlete in a competition. Levels of focus and awareness are raised to a seemingly electric state.  According to W. Timothy Gallwey, writing in The Inner Game of Tennis, they are in a state of psychological “flow.” Performers or athletes are one with their tools, whether their tools are a musical instrument, their body, or a bike. The normal chatter of their minds is silenced. Skydivers and thrill enthusiasts are frequently quoted as saying that the moments in which they are engaged in their activity are the most peaceful moments of their lives. Their minds are forced to be quiet so that they can focus on perfection and survival.

Erin Yanacek 1

Erin Yanacek, artist (Photo: Alisa Garin)

Even at this early point in my career, a book could be made from audience comments about my small female self, playing a loud, powerful instrument like the trumpet. While generally well-intentioned, each of these comments elicits a metaphorical palm-to-forehead for me. For the same reason, a similar comment would be offensive to a female wrestler, to a male ballet dancer, or to, say, an American student studying Russian Literature. There are physical and mental factors in the mastery of a skill that are much more important than certain predispositions such as gender, size, or nationality. It has become a passion of mine to break such stereotypes, but I hope that eventually, concert-goers and audition panels won’t be surprised, pleasantly or otherwise, by my gender.

A few years ago I watched Michael Phelps win 7 gold medals in a single Olympics. I was in awe—and deeply inspired to practice the trumpet. The inspiring element was the physical mastery of Phelps’ stroke, and the massive muscular power behind his swimming. His body was trained to work and move smoothly and efficiently. He carried no extra tension, and he did not contort his body in a way that would ultimately cause injury. To play the trumpet well, similar habits are essential, and hours of daily practice are essential. To witness such a masterful swimmer at the peak of his career inspired me to continue to strive for that mastery as a trumpet player.

My list of parallels could go on forever. A few more parallels include sports coaches as similar to musical conductors, traditions of mentorship in the various crafts, the development of personal identity and purpose through continued participation with the craft, and the finicky creative and inspiration phases that all craftsmen encounter.

There is a tendency for individuals to become entrenched in their own line of work and full of pride for their craft. I believe that this becomes dangerous when an individual loses sight of the deep parallels that run between themselves and those with different specialties. This lack of insight will certainly impact one’s own ability to be inspired by a larger, more important picture than oneself. On a more widespread scale, a narrow mindset concerned with and aware of exclusively itself will only be detrimental to an organization.

So Andrew, I am curious what you think–what do classical music and Russian literature have in common with, for example, professional bodybuilding?

Articles of Related Interest from The Muse Dialogue

“Seeking the Love of Music That I Once Felt” by Erin Yanacek

“Artists, Craftsmen…and the Craft of Art” by Erin Yanacek

“A Question of Arts Survival” by Andrew Swensen

“The Classical Musician’s Paradigm Shift” by Annie Gordon

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I agree that all these different pursuits (sports, music, etc.) involve the same kind of dedication, focus, and profound engagement. At whatever level I am capable of performing at, I take the athletic attitude toward everything I do. Whether it’s playing flute, dancing tango in a ballroom dance competition, meditating, running the Pittsburgh Marathon, preparing a presentation for a computer programming conference, sweating during the final round of the Pittsburgh Chess Club championship, or designing and cooking a hearty cauliflower soup, it’s all the same to me. There is really no difference. It’s about pushing the limits of experience, perceiving and creating novel beauty.

  2. Consider, for example, the numerous parallels found in both football and opera: There are coaches, practice/rehearsal, learning a single part in isolation to later become part of a fluid whole, preparing for hours each week to gear up for one high-energy performance/game that lasts but a few hours, trainers to repair injuries, the necessity for mental and physical agility, mastery of specific language skills, etc, etc.

    There are reasons why so many artists are also sports fanatics. They understand the commitment and drive that is needed to be successful in each field.

    I’m in Erin’s camp regarding the comparative.

  3. Christine Lovejoy #

    I agree. None of us is one dimensional. For me, the connection between my pursuits is a quest for grace and order. I apply this equally to my passions for computer science, cycling, baking, literature, cinema, and music. Their is peace and beauty to be found in any pursuit. The pursuit, the striving, the process is intoxicating. I can’t wait to get out for a ride later today.

  4. You left out that you are obviously a terrific writer, Erin! Have you logged 10,000 hours there yet?


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