Ok, you may be thinking “what does auto racing have to do with playing a stringed instrument?”. Before I started driving Spec Miatas at the Portland International Speedway, I had the vague opinion (as most probably do), that driving a car fast around a track, is mostly a matter of talent, a love of going fast and experience. It is all of those things but what I’ve found out, is that learning to play a musical instrument well, shares many parallels with learning how to drive around a race track as fast as you can.
Here is a quick list of a few of the most common parallels.
1. Technique and hard work are more important than talent.
One of the statements that is often said to me in conversations with people that are not professional musicians is “you must be very talented..”. While I appreciate the compliment, it is somewhat aggravating to hear these words because I know from personal experience as a player and a teacher, that it is mostly hard work and discipline that enables a person to reach a high level of ability with their musical instrument. To hear these words, is to almost negate all of the years of dedication and sacrifice that I’ve put in since I was a child. Most students are unwilling to sacrifice their time or get distracted by other things in their life, to put in the hard work necessary to master an instrument and this is the biggest reason why most people quit before they reach an advanced level. In other words, just about anybody can learn to play a musical instrument at an advanced level, regardless of the natural ability they were born with. As a teacher, I’ve seen this first hand many times throughout the years. A hard working student who does what they are instructed to do and puts time aside time to practice several times per week, will always achieve greater results than the very talented student, who is lazy and undisciplined.
Learning to be a fast auto racer is the same. There are many driving techniques that must be learned to consistently post fast lap times. Many of these techniques are used almost exclusively by the racing community and the only way to get good at them is to practice. I found this out very quickly when I did my first qualification set around the track, in an effort to set my best time for my first race. I drove as fast and hard as I could but I was still a .5 second slower than the other more experienced drivers. The very next week, I went to the track (without my fellow racing buddies) and worked on improving my technique from 9 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. I managed to peel 1.5 seconds off my previous best lap time. I didn’t get more talented. I simply practiced and put my instructors words into use.
2. Each track is unique and must be learned like a new concerto.
Any player who plays a piece of music well, has probably practiced it quite a bit. In fact, more technical repertoire will require more practicing time because every piece is different and will request the performer to master one technique or the other. If you take two advanced players and one is a bit better than the other, the one who practices the piece until they master it, will always play the piece better than the slightly superior player who has just picked up the piece and is trying to play it without sufficiently practicing it.
I’m currently driving my car at the Portland International Raceway. I’ve practiced several hours to learn the track. Every turn of the track has to be negotiated a certain way in order to achieve the best times. Learning a track is much more technical than I had ever imagined before. There are very precise points at which you have to know where the brake zones are, what gear you should be in, the turn in points and the exact apexes of each corner. An excellent driver who is not familiar with these key characteristics of a track, will always be slower than a driver of less skill that has an intimate knowledge of the same track. Every race course in the United States is just as unique as the myriad of pieces that are available to the average musician. The best championship drivers in the country are not only very skilled drivers but they have an intimate knowledge of many tracks around the country; just as a skilled performing musician has a very close knowledge of many concertos and has learned to master them all.
3. As the student progresses, they need to upgrade their instrument.
Before I purchased my first race car, I rented a similar car from a renowned driver in the United States, who had personally fine tuned the suspension in the car, so it was able to negotiate turns as well as it could. The car that I eventually purchased is decent and the suspension is set up reasonably well, but after gaining more experience driving closer to its limit, it has become obvious that the car will at some point prevent me from going as fast as other cars that are set-up better. In other words, the more skilled I get as a driver, the more that the car itself will determine whether I win a race or not. I will eventually have to replace it or get a considerable amount of work done to the suspension and engine if I want to be competitive.
A musical instrument is exactly the same. People call us at Kennedy Violins all the time and ask which violin would be a good fit for them. To some extent, this is a difficult question to answer because we know that if they are fairly new to the violin, they will not need to purchase a particularly expensive violin, however we also know that the less they spend on an instrument, the sooner they are going to need to replace it. Therefore, we always ask the customer what their intended time horizon is. How long do they want to go before they have to upgrade? Is the answer 1 year, 3 years….never? Of course budgeting for a violin is one of the most crucial aspects of the purchase process, but buying a better instrument now, can save you money and hassle in the future. It’s always a good idea to have an idea of how long you want the instrument to last before the students skill starts to surpass the ability of the instrument and it holds them back.
To all of the aspiring students out there, there is a central idea that encapsulates the sum of my thoughts in this post. It doesn’t matter what kind of skill you want to master, whether it’s a musical instrument or anything else. The only way to get where you want to go, is dedication and proper practice. The good news, is that the more your skill improves, the more rewards you will reap from your hard work. Your passion to become better will evolve into one of the great loves of your life that will accompany and enrich your life’s journey forever. Happy practicing!