what CrossFit taught me about music (from 4.18.2015)

I’ve been playing the flute for thirty years now (passed that milestone this past January), and have been at it professionally for about half that. In that same 15 or so years, I have engaged in various athletic pursuits. I’ve been a marathoner, a yogi, a triathlete, and a CrossFitter. Each of these pursuits has taught me lessons I’ve then transferred to music. For the moment, I’m taking a look at the most recent addition to my athletic arsenal; CrossFit.

For those of you who don’t know what CrossFit is, I direct you to the official webpage, should you choose to pursue it a little more deeply. The things I do in CrossFit include power lifting, Olympic Lifting, rowing, running, gymnastics, mobility work, and a thousand different movements, with and without weights, that help improve my accuracy, agility, balance, coordination, endurance, flexibility, power, speed, stamina, strength…the components of true fitness, according to CrossFit founder, Greg Glassman.

It’s as hard as I want to make it, incredibly rewarding, and really fun! The place I go for my workouts (the box) is like a playground for grown-ups! Bars, ropes, rings, weights, medicine balls, dumbbells, kettle bells, wall balls, jump ropes…I could stay all day (though I’d regret it the next day). 

Many of the workouts (WODs or “Workout Of the Day”) are brutally challenging. I get to a point where I’m pushing myself so hard, I can’t think beyond the thing I’m doing in that moment. One recent workout consisted of five rounds of the following: 22 kettle bell swings, 22 box jumps, 400 meter run, 22 burpees, and 22 wall balls. You don’t have to get the terminology to appreciate that it was really, REALLY hard. Somewhere in the middle of it, I’d stopped worrying about what round I was on or how much longer I had to go. My thought process had boiled down to something like, “burpee…burpee…burpee…burpee……wall ball…wall ball…”  

Now, what on Earth does this have to do with music? I recently prepared for my first orchestral audition in about a decade. While preparing the list, I'd find my mind running ahead. I'd start thinking about that hard passage coming up that I always bomb, or how the next excerpt on the list has always been kind of a weak one for me, or how the one after that is really going to challenge my breath control...you get the idea. After that long workout, I decided to adopt the "burpee...burpee...burpee..." mindset, wherein I focused on where I was. Because, like in that ridiculous workout, if I thought about EVERYTHING I had to do, I’d be paralyzed. I just took it one piece at a time, one measure at a time. Suddenly, tackling that rep list wasn’t really that daunting. I even have the word, "burpee" written in one of my excerpts now!

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a CrossFit competition. I was on a Master’s (40+) team with my buddy Hank. During the week before the comp, our coach said something that kept coming back to me. We asked him for advice on what to work on during that week. He said, “The hay is already in the barn.” Meaning that a little extra heavy lifting that week is not going to make you stronger. Doing more running in that last week is not going to make you faster. Rowing for hours every day leading up to the comp is not going to give you more endurance. You’ve done the work. Now, eat, rest, do a few fun, “easy” workouts.  

Today was my audition. For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about what my coach said, but in reference to the work I’d done for the audition. The main message was that it was done. Two more days of hammering my excerpts was not going to make my audition better. Instead, I had LONG warm-up sessions, lots of tone exercises and technical exercises, and just one run-through of my excerpts each session. 

This morning before my audition, I just kept reminding myself that the hay was in the barn. Was it hard not to run through my excerpts? Of course!! Especially when all I could hear from the warm-up rooms around me were other flutists noodling through Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Ravel. Instead, I had a long warm-up, did some deep breathing, and opened up my sound. 

I’d love to give you a Hollywood ending and say that I won, but no. I did, however, play a really good audition! I just didn’t happen to be what they were looking for. 

That all brings me to the final thing CrossFit has taught me about music: the competition.

There is a competitive aspect to CrossFit, of course. Mostly, I’m just competing against myself. I have a book in which I record my workouts, my weights, my times, my rep counts, and so on, and just try to be better/faster/stronger than the last time. 

The elite athletes in CrossFit go to the Games, which are held annually and are like the CrossFit Olympics. One of those elite athletes is named Dan Bailey. He has made it to the Games four times and has finished in the top ten every time he has gone! But, he’s never been on the podium. He had the following to say about that: 

"As a competitor, you always get tunnel vision on the top spot on the podium. But in 15, 20 years, when somebody comes up and shakes your hand and says, 'I got into CrossFit because of you. I've lost 100 lbs. It's changed my life. It's changed my friends.' It's like wow! What's really the bigger picture here? What kind of impact you can have just by being out in the community doing your best. You don't know who you're inspiring and whose life you're changing."

As musicians, I think we get a little tunnel vision about whatever it is that we view as our podium. For some, that’s the orchestral job, for others, it’s the university gig, or the recording contract, or the tour, or a particular festival. What we forget so often is that we are having an effect on people every day, for good or ill. You never know what thing you might say in a lesson that will stick with your young student for the rest of their lives! You never know what performance might open someone’s ears to something new, or take someone out of themselves for just a few moments. It’s that musical daily grind that we take for granted, because it isn’t the ultimate gig or the best venue or the top ensemble, that is having a more profound effect on the people around us than we might think. 

So stop living for the podium! Live for that daily grind! Live for the old man who comes up after the performance to shake your hand and say you remind him of his wife, who used to play flute. Live for the student you run into after a decade who quotes something you said merely in passing in a sectional. Live for the bassoonist who thanks you for something he heard second-hand from a flutist you worked with. 

Never stop striving for that podium, whatever it is for you. But don’t lose sight of the beauty, wisdom, and inspiration that the daily grind has to offer.