Art Is Sport – Sport Is… Art?

I had never felt any fascination with the sports-like aspect of the performing arts. I had always taken a great distance to participation in piano competitions, not completely believing in the credibility of the final results. I had considered competition to be superfluous and harmful to the very process of maturing and building an interpretation; disruptive to the slow tasting and celebration of the riches of harmony, to communing with art in the way that one communes with nature. After all, no one will tell an apple to ripen faster – artificial intervention in natural processes almost always brings with it negative effects.

In our time, however, we live in a system based on competition; universal access to the riches of culture has caused a popularization of artistic education and, consequently, its devaluation. Presently, many discussions are being started about whether there is any sense in the existence of an artistic education system based on the building of examination illusions, on the terror of competitions, of a cult of hours-long work meant to lead to supposed success… after finishing music secondary school and gaining admission to conservatory, the young graduate comes face to face with a brutal reality; realizes the illusory character of the soap-opera world of competition, of competitions for ‘the most mature interpretation of the Chopin phrase’; and finally becomes one of many ‘products’ of this type on a market that is not able to absorb the oversupply of talented artists. Realizing this fact can be a painful blow with whose emotional consequences each artist remains alone.

The (primary and secondary) artistic education system in Poland has its strengths and weaknesses. In comparison with the German system (or, more precisely, the… lack thereof, since for the most part, Germans learn music privately or at music schools representing the level of a Polish house of culture; the situation is similar with the, in my view, none-too-coherent system of public and private music schools in France: from associations for the training of amateurs to city, regional and state conservatories… to which it borders on the miraculous to gain admission); in comparison with that, the well-organized Polish system does not look too bad, although – as everywhere – pathologies do happen: the main weaknesses of the Polish education system are indeed such things as the enormous emphasis on sports-like competition, the cult of perfect technical performance and the separation of theory from practice (for example, harmony is introduced only around age 16, at a stage when the pupil has already long ago performed over a dozen of J. S. Bach’s preludes and fugues, all the while not knowing the concept of ‘modulation’ and not bringing it to life in any practical way, because training in improvisation is a rarity at music schools). So it is no wonder that few pupils draw from their musical education any of the real pleasure that is an indispensable condition for truly fruitful education. Praiseworthy exceptions prove the rule; I believe that there still exist such teachers who devote all of their knowledge and experience to the deepening and sharing of knowledge, to the discovery of their pupils’ true potential – not to blindly profiling them in a direction that will divest them of a sense of self-esteem and -confidence, acting in the name of supposedly ‘raising the level’, but in reality giving vent to their personal frustrations.

At a certain stage, for many artists, the instrumental competition seems to be a last resort to keep themselves on the market and live off the skills that they have been perfecting since childhood. From that moment onward, music performance becomes an unpleasant necessity; and the achievement of professional success, a condition for survival and achievement of financial stability. Thus, competitions can be a true nightmare for those who have become used to that one competitive aspect of engaging in the performing arts, to that gladiatorial arena which is basically intended to promote the performance itself, with less and less space in it for the artists themselves and their individuality, for this same endeavor becomes a product on the market fighting for the attention of average viewers, permitting them to watch yet another sports show. Comfortably sitting in front of the computer or television screen, the viewer is given the most sophisticated, luxurious, select product, the best of the best, for before our eyes appears an outstanding musician – one who has been subjected to endless series of eliminations, quarter-finals, semi-finals… thus, we come to the pessimistic, painfully real conclusion that today’s artists of the classical stage are also (or even chiefly) sportspeople…

Performance anxiety has always been a taboo subject among classical musicians, an invisible force, a specter whose existence is notoriously questioned, negated and pushed down into the unconscious, without appreciating the key role that is played in a stage situation by emotional tension… it is precisely the skill of taming one’s inner demons that is decisive in the performance process. ‘The professional pianist should possess suitable psychological predispositions to the performance of his/her profession,’ I read in an academic journal. ‘Psychological predispositions’ – what is this mysterious expression? An ability with which you are born, or one that can be perfected, just as one perfects one’s pianistic technique?

Could it be that fear of criticism by the artistic community prevent open discussion concerning the subject of musicians’ ‘psychological predispositions’ to work in their profession? We have been living for years with myths of geniuses, of natural talents who, thanks to their natural stage abilities and extroverted personality characteristics, have been able to meet the demands of their own internal pressure and of the audience’s growing expectations. However, what about musicians who more frequently fall victim to their own internal critic, with constantly-analyzing perfectionists for whom completely focusing on the action being performed and controlling their mind represents a greater challenge? ‘Sensitivity’ and ‘psychological resistance’ – are these definitions mutually exclusive? The ‘competition musician type’ – that is, the one who is resistant to the extreme, sports-like conditions in which the music is presented – has gained an ambivalent reputation. The type who is automated at the technical level, characterized by a perhaps not-too-abundant imagination, but perfect, impressive craftsmanship that we can certainly appreciate without delving too much into the emotional side, but rather into the more measurable, tangible value of such a performance. Ever since the achievements of phonography forever changed our way of listening to classical music, turning concert appearances into flawless, painfully-polished performances devoid of spontaneity, it has been difficult to turn back from this path, for musicians all over the world compete with each other in technical perfection; the race to win the hearts of the audience at the most prestigious concert halls has become the dream of millions of musicians who are left with no choice – either they achieve a ‘recording-quality’, i.e. flawless level of technical performance, or they are condemned to professional oblivion.

How to free a mind that is worried about a flawless performance level? Is it perfection we seek? Is the mystical merging, in the act of creation, of the person with the action being performed discernible by the listener? What is the moral effect of music on the human temperament? Is perfect performance not painfully frustrating and fruitless? After all, it is the personal tone on the canvases of Monet that we appreciate the most; the singular, understanding warmth as the engaged couple look at each other in Rembrandt’s painting; the morbid insatiability of the demonic tarantella from Chopin’s third sonata; the hellish ecstasy driving one to the brink of madness in the cadenza from the first movement of Prokofiev’s second piano concerto… it is from imperfection, from an eternal striving for satiation and lack of fullness that beauty has been born. In following the recipe of the performance canon and egocentric perfection, will we be in a position to draw near to the harmony, to become one with the work, experiencing its cleansing power? With all certainty, perfection of technique will not suffice…

‘If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same’: it is beneath this inscription that Björn Borg and John McEnroe – two sportsmen competing for the highest trophy at the greatest tennis tournament in the world – meet with heads bowed, enclosed in their own minds, just before going out on the tennis court, almost not noticing each other. Seeing the film Borg vs. McEnroe, which tells the story of these two sports stars, the culminating point of which is the 1980 Wimbledon final, awakened in me for the first time a fascination with the element of sports competition, which I had previously identified with a hostile, none-too-favorable part of human nature.

The four-time Wimbledon champion Björn Borg, silent, ‘cold’, self-contained, and the hellishly gifted, exuberant John McEnroe, not averse to explosions of rage and unsportsmanlike behavior on court, faced each other in a match that would be decisive for them, in a battle for the highest trophy, which for both was of landmark significance. A fifth career victory for Borg would inscribe his name in the pages of history; McEnroe’s first victory and conquest of the cult leader had for years been the American’s greatest dream.

For Björn, who has up until now taken everything with stoic calm, the pressure of the media, of fans, of big companies investing in and earning enormous sums on the athletes becomes impossible to bear. His battle with himself, his anxiety of mind and constant doubts take away from the fluidity and precision of his playing; in horrible psychological condition, he barely manages to slip into the final. The sportsman says, ‘I feel like all of my previous efforts have led to this one match.’ We thus observe a moment of crisis in his career, which up until this point has comprised a stream of victories and life successes.

For newcomer John as well, the game is a battle for everything, for both players are driven not only by love for the sport, but also by fear of failure, of making a mistake; for John as well, it is a fight for a feeling of sense to his life, since for both protagonists, life is sport – they give it their all every day. Before the final round, both the level-headed Björn and the explosive John undergo tortures of psychological pressure impossible to compare with anything else. ‘You don’t understand what the fuck it takes to play tennis. You know, I go out there and give everything for this game. Everything. Everything in me gets left out on that fucking court. And none of you understand it, because none of you do it,’ shouts John at sensation-seeking journalists during a press conference. ‘There are no easy games. But people seem to think so. Get in there. You’re a star, Björn. You’ll beat him. Easy,’ says Björn ironically, pushing away his loved ones who are with difficulty trying to maintain their own psychological balance.

Björn builds his temple of peace on an endless list of rituals: testing the proper tension of his racket, training sessions for years on the same court, wearing the same clothes, renting the same hotels, rooms, cars, always sitting in the same chair – all of these efforts turn out in the end to be insufficient in the face of the pressure of the final match – above all, Björn is afraid of powerlessness and lack of control, loneliness and helplessness in a battle with a situation that cannot be brought under control, a game that slips out of his hands.

Both protagonists are changed forever by the last, decisive match – balancing riskily on the border between victory and defeat, awaiting their rival’s mistake and momentary weakness, they found out much more about themselves than ever before – together, they experience the magic of the moment, they force their way through the narrow slit of their own adrenaline-frozen psyche – they go through the magic portal where it is no longer important whether they win or lose – both half-consciously begin to realize that it is just the process that counts, just hitting the ball with their racket, which they bring to the level of art, and which they could touch only by finding a worthy opponent; the sport gave them one of the most beautiful values: the art of conquering one’s own weakness, of regaining control over one’s life, of strength of character, of going beyond one’s own egoistic tendencies. So the most dangerous rival turns out to be not the opponent themselves, but the twists and turns of one’s own mind.

‘The mystique of rock climbing is climbing; you get to the top of a rock glad it’s over but really wish it would go on forever. The justification of climbing is climbing, like the justification of poetry is writing; you don’t conquer anything except things in yourself…. The act of writing justifies poetry. Climbing is the same: recognizing that you are a flow. The purpose of the flow is to keep on flowing, not looking for a peak or utopia but staying in the flow. It is not a moving up but a continuous flowing; you move up to keep the flow going. There is no possible reason for climbing except the climbing itself; it is a self-communication.’

The self expands through acts of self forgetfulness.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

A Bit of Practice

‘I would like it all to just end already’; ‘I don’t care and anyway no doubt I won’t make it to the final round’; ‘I am ill-suited to this profession’; ‘The competition is fixed anyway’ – the closer the event that is exerting pressure, the more one’s inner dialogue gains in intensity. How to repel paralyzing fear that stiffens the body, divests it of naturalness, evokes panic and a general feeling of disintegration? Is the only way out to deceive oneself: anger, withdrawal, fear and, in the worst case, resignation? These are hastily thrown-together prostheses, suitable for one-time use to help survive the most difficult onstage moments; however, their short expiration date ends with the achievement of one’s goal or with the failure that, by regularly clipping one’s wings, leads inevitably to quitting one’s profession. Is it possible to build within ourselves a feeling of true strength that will protect us from the ceaseless pressure of criticism? ‘Going out onstage is as risky as going out on the roof,’ comments vocalist Adam Nowak. Being subject to constant audience judgment is part of the artist’s profession; the skill of taking criticism, building inner resistance, can protect one from the biggest storms by helping to build solid foundations for a feeling of the value of the work being done.

The slogan ‘Don’t get so stressed out!’ – oft-said but not very useful in high-tension situations – would evoke a negative reaction from any of us. At that time, we feel an unpleasant embarrassment that our stress is discernible and we have no means of solving the problem. However, there does exist an entire array of methods worked out by specialists to increase the effectiveness of focusing on the action being performed, in order to support action taken while affected by the highest emotional tension. Among artists, enormous popularity is enjoyed by mindfulness, which is drawn from Buddhist practice and focuses mental energy on inner processes, by a type of meditation combined with visualizations that increase sensitivity to processes occurring in the body and aid in the wise disposition of accumulated psychic energy. For focus demands an enormous expenditure of energy – it is a state of alert inner activity, readiness to receive and interpret all incoming stimuli. Scanning one’s body in search of accumulated tensions that block naturalness of motion and conscious relaxation of key areas in the performance process, regular visualizations of onstage situations – these are only a few of the techniques that aid in increasing control over oneself under the highest pressure.

‘All that rage. The fear. The panic… you might be feeling. Load it into every stroke. Think about just one point. Just one point at a time,’ Björn Borg’s trainer tells him. This is essentially one of the sports techniques that increase effectiveness of action – accumulation of energy into one point. Selection of one point in space toward which we unload all of our previously-accumulated energy is an extraordinarily effective form of focus – for what happens most often is that as a result of the long waiting time before the performance, the accumulated energy is released spontaneously in an unwanted direction – manifesting itself in excessive mobility, inner panic, not striking the keys we had planned to…

Conscious disposition of well-focused mental energy while simultaneously maintaining naturalness of the body is a peculiar kind of control tool – for it is hardest to retain control with a feeling of complete freedom…

Such a state can be achieved only by being fully present in the performance process, forgetting about ‘self’ – that is, about all manner of prejudices, doubts and opinions concerning oneself…

A very useful method that helps to shut off a noisy analytical mind during a performance and restore full concentration on the action being performed, after a momentary loss of focus, is to say catchwords associated with the fragment currently being performed; the most helpful, in my view, are ‘precision’, ‘calm’, ‘freedom’ – this is also a method used by sportspeople; focusing internally on the words, the mind catches their energy and all manner of associations with them: words have the power to awaken the imagination, turning off unnecessary analysis that is a hindrance in an onstage situation.

The obvious and most basic thing, the daily bread of sportspeople (rather a rarely-discussed subject in the case of musicians), is an appropriate amount of sleep and exercise, diet and movement – maintaining the body in good condition before an important musical event is key for the feeling of comfort during an important performance.

Of extraordinary importance is the regularity of these practices. The mind should be exercised as the muscles are; an unused muscle atrophies, and lack of practice on one’s instrument leads to loss of technique. Regular observation of passing negative thoughts, realization of their harmful character and positive inner dialogue not only increase effectiveness, but also increase quality of life, the feeling of joy and pleasure from the creative work being performed. It is thus no wonder that the achievement of this exceptional state – full of intense feelings, cleansing, the magic of connection between body and mind, the threshold of heaven – is something to which artists, sportspeople, scientists, people from all manner of creative professions devote their entire life.