My major extracurricular activities in high school and college were band and orchestra. I was a fast, but gangly, receiver and would have been seriously broken when hit by the football players at my large Texas high school. (Think Friday Night Lights.) I had good friends on the golf team at that same school, but regular drubbings from them made it clear the golf team was not in the cards.
My family had a strong musical heritage. That’s my grandfather in the picture, decked out for his violin performances in the early 1900’s. My father had played oboe, my mother had played alto clarinet, and it was assumed that I would play something too. I was up for it, and ended up playing bassoon.
I never got as good as I should have (golf, sandlot football, and daydreaming about girls demanded a lot of time that might have otherwise gone to practice) but I got to where I didn’t have to think much about what my body was doing as I played. I read the music or imagined the melody and translated it into sounds without thinking.
It became automatic, like any well learned physical skill should. In fact, too much thinking would ruin the music, as it got too mechanical and lost the flow. It would sound and feel clunky, even if the notes were right.
When it all felt right the sounds came out of the bassoon without any sense of the instrument being in between me and the music. It was like I thought the sounds, they somehow appeared, and I got lost in them.
It’s occurred to me that my golf swing is a lot like my bassoon playing used to be. With a lot of play and practice my swing becomes an overlearned physical skill. Too much thinking about my swing can wreck it. Too many swing thoughts, too much monitoring of muscle movements, and my swing becomes stiff and clunky. I may hit the right positions, but there’s no flow. The club feels unwieldy, and when I hit the ball I feel a noticeable bump.
But when I’m playing well I don’t think about how to execute, I just execute. I’ll plan the shot, just like I’d plan how to play, but when I swing it’s thoughtless. I don’t feel the club between my intentions and the ball. I just move my body and the ball goes. There’s no bump as I contact the ball. I’m immersed in the round, the feel of the course, the music of the game.
Jack Nicklaus said that he’s played a lot of good rounds to Jamaica Farewell, and that it’s hard to play poorly to Raindrops Keep Falling On my Head. I generally play well when the right song is stuck in my mind, but I’ve never been very good at sticking the right song in there.
Maybe I’ve been approaching it from the wrong direction. Maybe it’s not just hearing the music. Making the music may be more important.