Olympic Instrumentalists

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(A strongwoman supports a pianist—with his piano—circa 1920. The case could be made that they’re both athletes.)


Blowing off the Dust with Larry Melton

Throughout mid-February, I was suitably entertained watching the Winter Olympics. I thoroughly enjoy the amazing feats of skill, endurance, agility and downright courage the athletes display and I’m nearly as exhausted as they are at the end of a competition. Sports in general, however, rarely interest me beyond our international biennial spectacles.

I was never very athletic though I do still hold a 55 year old record in golf for the longest drive ever recorded at my college. That accomplishment would be a far greater source of pride had the ball not landed three fairways over. Powerful, yes but accuracy was not my strong suit. It was like hitting a foul ball out of Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City into Arrowhead Stadium next door…or something like that.

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Nevertheless, I admire great athleticism when I see it though given my aversion to watching most athletic events, I don’t tend to look for feats of great athletes inside sports venues. Let me explain.

My experience listening to live musical performances over the years has been generally at festivals where individual headliners play two or three pieces in a concert or set. I was always impressed by how much physical skill and energy a pianist or instrumentalist has to exert to render a syncopated piece, but I tended to reserve my admiration for the performers technical skill and the emotive quality of their rendition.

However, last fall I was privileged to attend one of Richard Dowling’s “Great Scott” concerts in Columbia, Missouri. I was not only captivated by his great technical skill and the emotion of his playing, but I was nearly overwhelmed by the physical demands of his concert performance. I realized I was not only experiencing the talent of a master artist, but the feat of a premier athlete and I was swept away in awe and appreciation.

A great athlete exhibits physical dexterity trained by endless hours of repetitive practice. Add to this incredible stamina to allow a sustained performance of several continuous minutes or more with very little break. I think of hockey and soccer as requiring the most energy since the players are in constant motion. However, those periods of sustained play only last 20 minutes by comparison. I won’t even try to compare the stamina required for baseball (which seems to me to be two hours of spitting, pacing, and scratching interspersed with about twenty minutes of action in a typical game).

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The practice time of a performing musician equals or far exceeds that of an athlete. In addition, in a concert setting, a musician may be called on to perform almost without pause for upwards of 30 minutes.

I thought back to a concert I attended last fall featuring The Funky Butt Brass Band out of St. Louis. Now the instrumentalists were all exerting enough energy to power a small community, but I focused on the sheer physical strength it took just to lug that large Sousaphone around the stage for ninety minutes. I also remembered how many times had I listened to the St. Louis Ragtimers and failed to see tuba player Don Franz as a weight lifter as well as a ragtime musician.

And speaking of dexterity, most athletic talent is focused on the large muscle groups of the body. However, most musicians focus all of their skill and energy through their fingertips. Watching a ragtime pianist, for example, attacking the keyboard action of a Steinway concert grand piano is focused athleticism at its highest level.

This new realization of mine caused me to pay closer attention to my grandchildren who are accomplished string players (in fact they play nearly every stringed instrument that’s out there). It is one thing to play a piano with its hard, flat keys and quite another to manipulate the gut or steel strings of a violin or guitar. Athletes often point to calluses as evidence of their hard work and skill. If that is a sign of athleticism, look at my grandchildren’s hands!
I am also reminded that human bodies come in all shapes and sizes, yet most syncopated music seems to me to be written for performers with long-fingered hands that can span an octave and a half on a piano keyboard…in other words Eubie Blake.

I was going to make comparison next with the frequency of athletic endeavors compared to a professional musician. However, when I note that many performers play two to three hundred gigs a year, the musician usually overwhelms an athlete’s activity.

We associate athletes with sweaty locker rooms but as any musician knows, a performer’s dressing room after a performance can easily rival a locker room when it comes to olfactory offense. The only difference perhaps is that performance venues tend to have a higher budget for deodorizers.

Finally, athletes often speak of the vital element of mental focus. This should certainly make my case for classifying musicians as athletes. What can be a greater sign of concentration than having memorized 90 minutes of syncopated music? The sheer ability to keep from blending one ragtime trio with another on a program of twenty or more compositions has to require enormous focus!

And so I propose adding instrumental performance to the Summer and Winter Olympics. The fine arts are already more or less represented in figure skating and synchronized swimming why not at least allow piano competitions. If there is concern about the subjectivity of judging such categories, look no further than the subjectivity (and controversy) involved with rating gymnastics! I’m not a musician, but I’m certain some criteria for judging can be devised that evaluates athletic skill just as there are already standards for judging the musical talent elements of performance.

While this is all a bit outrageous I suppose, the next time you are privileged to observe a lengthy instrumental performance or find yourself performing, appreciate the enormous physical skill set that is required as well as the musical talent. Those of us who enjoy good ragtime and jazz are in the midst of athletic greatness.


Larry Melton can be reached at lcmelton67@gmail.com.


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