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Musicians Are Not Athletes

March 5, 2015

It’s time that we stop saying “Musicians are Athletes.”  It’s one of those phrases that has been repeated so many times that it is now accepted as fact.  There’s only one problem.  It’s just not true.

I’m a sports fan.  Those of you who know me also know that’s a bit of an understatement.  I have respect for the amount of work it takes to become a world class athlete.  Although there are comparisons that can be made in how athletes and musicians practice, saying “Musicians are Athletes” is just as silly as saying “Athletes are Musicians.”  I understand the correlation: Both musicians and athletes spend years honing the skills, both physical and mental, which are needed for their respective careers.

Now let’s look at the execution of these careers.  Athletes are preparing for competition.  The job is to, either as an individual or team, win by doing their job in a quantifiable way better than someone else (score more points, faster, etc.).  Musicians are preparing for concerts.  The job is to perform music for an audience.  (I’m intentionally ignoring music competitions the same way I’m ignoring sports showcases…they exist, but music isn’t quantifiable the same way as sports, and sports showcases take away the competition, one of the key components, from professional sports.)

The reason for bringing this up is not to take away from either group.  It is important that musicians think of themselves accurately.  Although we may share many superficial qualities with athletes, we do not belong under that heading.  We are artists, and should think of ourselves as such.  All of our training, practice, and rehearsals are so that we can step out on stage and create art.

Another significant problem I have in considering musicians athletes is the separation athletics employ.  Most sports are divided along gender lines, and size and shape play an important part.  I’ve witnessed some ridiculous discussions regarding perceived advantages of gender and size, especially as it pertains to trumpet playing.  These discussions have typically relied upon the worst kind of evidence: anecdotal.  Please don’t tell me that you believe a gap in your teeth is the secret to playing high because you saw Jon Faddis.  Or that a beard is necessary to play jazz because you saw Bobby Shew.  Or that military service is the secret to a great orchestral career because Mr. Herseth was in the Navy and Mr. Smith was in the Salvation Army.

As trumpet players, we work together regardless of gender, shape, and size because those things don’t matter when creating music.

The last point of discussion is a doozy.  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard some variation of, “playing trumpet is an athletic event.”  Please stop saying this.  Let’s start with air.  Take a look at the throat of your mouthpiece.  No matter what anyone tells you, there is only so much air that will go through there at one time (and it’s not as much as you might think).  Yes, you do have to hold the trumpet up while you play.  But if that’s a measure of athleticism, then playing bass trombone is a lot more of an athletic event than trumpet (you have to hold it up and move one arm back and forth!).  Then there’s the strength involved.  Usually this is referred to as chops, which generally means the ability to play for a long time, very loud, very high, or some combination of those three.  The root of this might be the corners of your lips, which do need to be able to stay in place while blowing air through the mouthpiece and holding the horn against your face.  But here’s a big secret:

It’s not all about strength.

It’s about coordination.

I’ll certainly discuss more about coordination, in detail, in the future.  But for now, please realize that the overlap in the way musicians and athletes prepare doesn’t make musicians athletes any more than it makes athletes musicians.

Now that we are thinking of ourselves as artists (and our chances of a concussion have decreased significantly), practice and rehearse with the idea of creating art each time you step in front of an audience.

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9 comments

  1. agree


    • Every audition is a competition between people just as well-trained and well-practiced as I am, if not more so. Maybe trumpet is not a sport, but it is just as competitive.


  2. I agree on some points, Professor, but I think I interpret the correlation between athleticism and musicianship differently than you do here. Yes, playing football and playing trumpet are two different activities. Duh. But, at least in my view, the philosophy of practice is really quite similar.

    The physical aspects of playing a musical instrument (namely, the trumpet) are indeed, as you say, primarily matters of coordination. Many trumpet players have an unfortunate misconception of “strength = good trumpet playing” or perhaps even scarier, “strength = good HIGH trumpet playing” (when I type that, I can’t help but picture Bill Chase taking his weights on tour) but we know this is not the proper approach.

    Having said that, while “strength training” and similar concepts are not the most correct way to approach trumpet playing, they are ALSO not the most correct way to approach athletic activities. When I threw discus in high school, the throwing team was mostly made up of football players trying to stay active in the offseason, with a few folks like myself, who were genuinely interested in the sport, mixed in. The biggest and burliest of the football players on our team certainly had a ton of strength, and they could haul the discus pretty damn far. But they usually tripped when they spun around and the discus never properly glided parallel to the ground when they threw it. The throwers who studied the proper techniques, however, executed beautiful and graceful discus throws. Despite typically being lanky and skinny, these athletes consistently threw farther than the football players.

    By the way, yes: strength training did play a part in the practice routine for discus throwers, but “strength training” is also a part of practicing the trumpet. In my experience, the ratio of “strength” practice vs. mental/technical practice is roughly the same in both cases.

    The physical aspects of both trumpet playing and just about any sport you can name are practiced with the same mindset: repetition. We repeat and adjust as needed until all of the bad habits are gone. Then we repeat a billion times more to solidify the appropriate technique and allow it to become an instinct so we can focus our conscious minds on the performance. For a trumpet player, this means interpreting music and using our ears to adjust to blend appropriately with other musicians. For a basketball player, this means interpreting plays and reacting visually to the positions of his teammates and opponents.

    You are right in saying there is a difference between the two in execution, one execution being an artistic performance and the other being a competition. And indeed, perhaps the biggest difference between the two paradigms is the very fact that many sports involve an opponent who is actively applying his/her skills against you (and vice versa). But while the events are different and the audience takeaway is radically different, the experience of the individual subject is quite similar in both paradigms: application of physical skills honed through practice supplemented by instantaneous mental evaluation and subsequent physical reaction.

    We even study performances in similar ways by listening or watching recordings of our own performances as well as the performances of our idols and predecessors. Musicians and athletes both do this in order to improve our abilities.

    I guess most of what I’ve described has to do with the correlations in how we practice, which you brushed off in two sentences at the beginning of your post. Considering the vast majority of the time we spend with the trumpet is in the practice room rather than in a performance, I’m not sure it’s wise to dismiss those correlations so flippantly.

    I’m not trying to say you are wrong; in fact I agree with many of the conclusions you’ve drawn here. I simply want to offer an alternate viewpoint less dismissive of the “trumpet players are athletes” aphorism.


  3. Great post Joey. I would only add that few professional athletes get better after age 30. Almost all serious musicians improve significantly after 30, and 40, and 50….and in many important respects as long as they continue to play expressive music. Clark Terry, Joe Wilder, Gerald Wilson…..


  4. Likewise, trumpet players are not trumpet designers. Your blog reminded me of another prominent myth…that trumpet players believe they understand trumpet design just because they can play well. Just like music and sports, musicians are rarely acoustic engineers. Yet day after day, many trumpet players insist they know the magical formula for a great playing trumpet based on limited experience, knowledge and logic. Then they tell their students, friends and peers what they should play to achieve success as a brass musician. This is almost always misinformation that only slows down the process of learning.

    Musicians are not professional athletes in most cases, but some are in fact very accomplished at sports. And likewise, some professional athletes are very accomplished musicians. Several of my clients fall into these categories. And similarly, most musicians are not physicists, yet I know dozens who are and none of them claim to understand brass instrument design.

    So let’s stop fooling ourselves by thinking we have it all figured out and allow our friends, colleagues and students to explore new options, innovations and solutions for themselves. True learning is the result of gaining information from all sources including experience and wisdom is the application of that information and experience.


    • Absolutely. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some instrument designers. I realize my job is to give feedback on perceived feel and playability when asked, not specs. I know how to play trumpet. I do not know how to design or make one.


  5. Good post! You are correct, we need to stop teaching that playing the trumpet is an athletic event, it is not. It is very physical but you will not get a full cardio work out by playing the Hummel.

    Two things,

    1. We need to define performance better. It is a word that is used in both worlds to accomplish similar, but different goals. We both are performing to execute an ability at our highest potential. Why we are performing, that is where the difference is.

    2. Another place where the two overlap is the competition mentality. Some of the kids I teach are always competing. College auditions, chair placement, chair challenges, solo and ensemble, scholarship auditions, etc. These are all competitions. Where we fail as teachers is when we forget to teach the musicianship part of music and turn every playing opportunity into a competition .

    Again, great post! A call to repentance for all teachers. Cheers!


  6. I had several musician friends encourage me to focus on my vocals instead of my trumpet (especially for an album) because I am not Wynton, or John Fadis or Maynard Ferguson. It’s true, I’m not. But I also don’t see music as a competition. Music to me is creating great art, and if you can do that with the skill set that you have, and people enjoy your art, that is the point. I don’t believe anyone should avoid creating art because of those reasons. Yes, the music scene can be competitive, but if you can create something that’s special and unique and others value, then you’ve done your job.


  7. Respectfully,
    Not all athletics are sport. One needs not enter into competition or be competitive to be an athlete. Some athletes perform athletic feats for no reason other than the challenge of it, or to entertain others. Rock climbers, Circus performers, skateboarders and snowboarders, free-runners (parkour)… were and are athletes even before competitions arose to turn their activities into sport.

    Professional Wrestles are athletes. Professional Wrestling is not a sport. Golf is a sport, I would argue that being a golfer does not make you an athlete.

    That distinction being made, I would actually agree that “Musicians are Athletes” is a false generalization, but I haven’t the time to fully respond to that statement at this time.
    J. Mike Reed Jr.



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