Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Golf and Music: Applying the way I played golf to the way I play music

It's been a couple years since I've held a club, but I grew up playing and working at a rural public golf course. I always had a fairly unconventional approach to the game. For one thing, I questioned the concept of “par”. Some courses the pros play on that are par 70 during the tournament actually contain two par fives that are being called par fours that week to make them “harder”. If I was designing a golf course, I wouldn’t assign par to any of the holes. I would just let them be whatever the person playing them thought they were. For example, a 250 yard hole could either be considered an easy par four or a difficult par three. It’s the same hole either way, so why define it by assigning par?

I also never took any formal lessons. My dad always played and I started fairly young. I just went out and played by feel and didn't worry about the technicalities. Not that I was all that great, but I feel like I played in a very pure manner. I wasn't that competitive and didn't really enjoy playing in tournaments. I just liked playing for the sake of playing. I would go out and walk with an ultra-light carry bag, carrying only 6 clubs instead of the normal 14: a 3-wood, hybrid, 6-iron, 9-iron, sand wedge and putter. That’s all you really need. You just eyeball it and make whatever club you have in your hands work as best as possible for the shot required. Some of the best times I had playing were when the course was deserted after a rain storm or tournament, when you could make up your own holes by playing them backwards or to the green of another nearby hole.

What does this have to do with music? Well, a couple things. As I mentioned above, I never really took golf lessons and rarely if ever read any instructional materials. I just played without thinking about it that way. Compare that to music where I've taken lessons and purchased dozens of instructional books and tunebooks. Not that that's bad, but why can't I just play music in a non-intellectual manner completely by feel? Why does it have to be defined as a jig or waltz; hornpipe or reel? Can't you just play it the way you want it to sound?

Golf is an ancient game. It’s easy to forget that with golf carts, super-size drivers, satellite range finders, dress codes, and monstrous homes lining the fairways. Likewise, traditional music is an ancient form of music. Unlike golf, however, there's a preservationist streak running through traditional music with players using vintage instruments and mimicking the style of source musicians from generations earlier. With golf, it's always about the latest technology. I wonder if there are traditional golf subcultures out there that use vintage clubs and other equipment?

I scoff at golfers who use range finders or satellite GPS to find out how far away they are, instead of just judging it naturally. Who cares if you're off by a little bit here or there? But with music I rely on an electric tuner to tell me if I’m in tune or not. Because of this dependency I don’t know how to tune by ear. I would like to change that by adopting the more casual method of judging whether or not I'm in tune - with myself or others - by ear. This would really help at traditional Irish sessions where no one seems to use a tuner.

Golf is a very popular game with lots of amateur participation. The level that your average duffer plays at is miles away from the touring players on TV. But that doesn't stop them from playing and enjoying it. With music I think people fall short from pursuing it as a legitimate hobby because they know they can't sound like their musical heroes. So I say play music for the same reason you would be playing golf...for the sheer fun of it and don't worry too much if you can't play like Jerry, same a as a golfer who can't play like Jack doesn't let that stop him.

I always preferred playing to practice. That applies to music too. But one thing I did with golf was to invent little games to make practice more interesting. Like on a putting green I'd have mini competitions between two different brands of golf balls, seeing which one could have the lowest score. This lead to many hours on the practice green as a youth. If I could come up with a similar musical concept involving scales, exercises, ornamentations, technique, ear training - the stuff I need to work on more - then that might make me want to practice these things more.

With golf I respected the etiquette and rules of the game, within reason. When it comes to music, I’d like to think that I share that same respect for etiquette and (unspoken) rules when it comes to music sessions. In this way golf and music are similar. Finally, with golf I didn’t always enjoy playing with complete beginners, AKA duffers. With music I have more empathy for beginners, being that I am pretty much one myself. At least it's rare that I encounter anyone that I perceive as having more novice musical skills than my own. I feel like I'm the most beginner person in most situations. So that's one thing I can take from music back to golf should I ever decide to play again.

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