16 November 2014

Basketball, Bodies, and The Meritocracy

If you play enough pick up basketball in enough different regions of this country, you will see and hear quite a few remarkable things, and perhaps contribute a few yourself. But you will also see a lot of the same thing: people whose bodies simply won't permit them high-level athleticism or purely physical advantages over opponents who nonetheless have developed some very strong fundamental skills. Individualized fundamental skills, if the oxymoronic overtones of that turn of phrase can be massaged just a bit. (I want to argue that they can, and must.) Most striking to me these days as someone who received a great body for basketball but whose limited natural athleticism is only becoming more limited with advancing age is to watch and play against people who were dealt the opposite hand. On Friday a much shorter co-worker joked to me about investigating all manner of PEDs and black-magic stuff so he could get taller and be able to dunk. When I told him I'd been dunked on a few times by people his height he was incredulous; I was telling the truth, though.

There are even quite a few people out there who have neither the size nor the athleticism but who nonetheless, whether through sheer force of will or some other intangible, undeniably "got game," at least as far as the average pick-up game goes. And this is to say that they have, probably unwittingly, scrapped the "fundamentals" and instead "just played" until it felt right. In music, meanwhile, I fear that even though "success" truly is a much more subjective notion than it is in basketball, too often it is treated in the opposite fashion. We tend to look around at everyone who has two eyes, two ears, two arms, and two legs and think to ourselves that if they want to work hard enough at it, they too can master the very specific gauntlet of fundamentals that a given musical tradition demands of any and all adherents. It is far easier to see someone's arms and legs flailing about on the basketball court than it is to see through the cup of a trumpet mouthpiece to those two tiny strips of flesh resting against it, or further yet to the precise position of the jaw, teeth, tongue, and throat. As any trumpet student knows, though, there's a whole lot going on up inside that airway, and there are a whole lot of people (I was one of them) who for whatever reason just don't have physical rapport with the instrument as it is traditionally conceived, even in spite of substantial general musical aptitude. We make unrealistic expectations in this way, and we do it at yet greater expense here than in athletics, since "winning" at art may or may not have anything to do with traditional technique and everything to do with becoming yourself. With that last turn of phrase, we are apt to think of what's on the inside; but what's on the outside has a lot to do with it too, more probably than we've given adequate thought to in most musico-pedagocial traditions.

No comments: