This is an article that I wrote for a class in grad school, and was later published in The Horn Call
XXXV, No. 1 (October 2004): 107. I like golf a lot, but I only play a couple times a year. I see a lot of parallels between golf and horn-playing: two very difficult pursuits. Please comment and tell me what you think!
Every musician understands that no matter what degree of perfection and consistency has been achieved in the practice room, the actual performance of a piece of music is full of certain unpredictable, uncontrollable elements that can render the final effect anywhere from exquisite to abysmal. These include external variables such as the audience, the environment (temperature, lighting, noise), or the time of day, and internal variables including anxiety, fatigue, and mental distractions. There are also other, more intangible factors, which we horn players often describe in terms of “the lip,” as in “my lip feels great tonight,” or “my lip just doesn’t feel right.” Nevertheless, these intangibles can have a significant impact on the performance.
Golf is much the same way. Just as different musical performances can vary in their effectiveness, playing a hole on the golf course can result in a birdie, par, or bogey (or worse!). For the readers who are not “golf-literate,” a par is achieved by reaching the hole in the expected number of strokes, a birdie is one stroke less than par (3 strokes on a par 4 hole), and a bogey is one stroke more than par (5 strokes on a par 4 hole). Keep in mind that the lower the score, the better. The premise of this article is to examine the similarities between playing a piece of music and playing a hole on the golf course, envisioning a “perfect” performance as a hole-in-one.
For the purposes of this article, a “perfect” performance will be defined as one that fulfills the performer’s expectations as an ideal execution of the piece of music. It is necessary to specify the performer’s expectations as the ones being met because evaluating a musical performance is much more subjective than evaluating someone’s performance on the golf course. Every witness to a hole-in-one would easily agree that a golfer’s ball went into the hole on his first stroke and that it is impossible to achieve a better score on that hole. However, even after hearing a musical performance in which not a single note was missed (I know, rare indeed!), every member of the audience may have a different idea of what constitutes a perfect performance of that piece of music, due to different tastes and preferences regarding tempo, dynamics, articulations, tone colors, etc.
Before the golfer ever schedules a tee-time, and before the musician books the concert hall, there is a great deal of preparation that takes place. Whether on the driving range or in the practice room, the approach and methods are very much the same. The focus is on the fundamentals: the building blocks that make good horn playing, or a good golf game. The horn player will practice long tones, scales, arpeggios, articulations, lip trills, flexibility exercises, high notes, low notes, loud playing and soft playing. The golfer will practice hitting a variety of shots with a driver, a 3-wood, the long irons, and the short irons, as well as chipping and putting. In short, both the musician and the golfer will practice all aspects of their respective endeavors in a generalized way, in order to transfer those skills later to a more specific setting: a particular piece of music, or a particular hole on the golf course.
Different holes on the golf course are labeled a par 3, 4, or 5, depending on their length and difficulty. In the same way, the performer has a concept of the relative difficulty of different pieces of music. For example, Mozart’s Concerto No. 1, K. 412, might be considered a “par 3,” the Saint-Säens Morceau de Concert would be a “par 4,” and Richard Strauss’ Second Horn Concerto would certainly be a “par 5.” On the stage or on the tee, a hole-in-one is much more likely on a par 3, and would seemingly require super-human abilities on a par 4 or 5.
An important thing to remember in both golf and music is that there is more than one way to achieve equivalent results. Even if you hit your first shot into the trees it is still possible to save par, which would be comparable to a satisfactory, but not exceptional, performance. Indeed, two golfers could both get holes-in-one on the same hole, but could have approached it in very different ways, even with different clubs. Going even further, it is safe to say that no two golf balls would take the exact same path to the hole.
Whether performing a piece of music, or playing a hole on the golf course, there are going to be hazards along the way. There is a lot to be said for practicing how to get out of trouble once you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation. The golfer who always picks his ball up and tosses it out of the sand trap while practicing is not going to be well prepared if he finds himself in the sand during a tournament. It is very important to practice complete run-throughs, without stopping, to learn how to deal with mistakes as they come. These dress rehearsals, along with visualizing the audience and the actual performing conditions, will result in a much better prepared golfer or musician.
Despite careful preparation, there are times when everyone will make mistakes, partly due to those intangibles mentioned earlier. For the golfer, this means sending your ball into the sand, or the deep grass, or worse yet to be lost forever in the woods, or the lake! For the horn player, this may mean botching the “big lick,” miscounting the rests, having a memory lapse, or finding yourself so far off-track in a passage that you are unable to recover. In these extreme cases, the best thing to do is to take a deep breath, drop your ball in the fairway, and play your best for the remainder of the hole. It is important to be able to put your mistakes behind you, and not let them interfere with the rest of the performance. Otherwise, thinking about those mistakes while trying to continue playing will only serve as a distraction, creating a snowball effect that could turn into an avalanche.
In summary, I recommend that every horn player find some time on occasional weekends to play golf. The two pursuits share countless similarities, probably because they are both so difficult to master. Analogies between playing golf and playing the horn, such as those discussed here, could fill a small book, and advances made in one can lead to a greater understanding of the other. When that little white ball frustrates and exasperates you (which it will), just remember how much time you’ve put into the horn to achieve a level of comfort and skill. But be advised, too much time golfing and not enough time playing the horn will certainly not help the latter!
In both golf and music, a hole-in-one is elusive, yet attainable. However, if this level of performance has been achieved once, it can sustain our spirits through several “bogey” outings.