It is no secret that I am a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs. I have been watching them play baseball since the mid-1980s, which means I have experience the roller coaster ride of the “Lovable Losers.” I have seen players come and go, heard Harry Carey talk about hats and beer, and watched the debacle that was the 2003 NLCS.
Unless you are a sports fan that has been living under a rock, you know that Jake Arrieta is the unbelievable pitcher on the Cubs current roster. His stats over the last two seasons have been stellar, including over 50+ innings of shutout baseball while pitching at Wrigley Field (which came to an end on 4/28), two no-hitters in his last 11 regular season starts, and an earned run average of 0.85 (for those that do not know, average ERA for baseball is 3.96). However, Arrieta has not always been this successful. Before coming to the Cubs via trade in 2013, Jake was demoted to the Minor Leagues by the Baltimore Orioles. He had great opening day starts for the Orioles in 2011 and 2012, but not much success after that. In 2012, his win/loss record was 3-9, with an ERA of 6.13.
What does this have to do with music? Many musicians, especially those in college, know all too well the struggles of working hard and not seeing the success we would hope. We spend hours in the practice room and in ensembles working on our craft, but progress can be slow. Sometimes, we find quick success but then hit a wall and progress comes to a halt. Jake Arrieta was the Mountain West Conference Pitcher of the Year in 2012, with 14 wins and a 2.35 ERA. The talent was there, but success did not come immediately in professional baseball. The talent has been there, even when the execution was not.
What we can take from Jake’s situation is his attitude and his work ethic and preparation. (Check out this feature on ESPN.com)
There is no “one-size fits all” practice routine
Jake Arrieta’s daily workout is not your typical baseball player routine. In order to isolate and work the muscles required to execute pitching mechanics, Jake has incorporated Pilates. In order to help Jake, the Cubs purchased Pilates equipment and put it in their training facilities. While Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant may be lifting weights, Jake is putting his body through positions that encourage balance and strength.
For musicians, we can take this idea and use it for our own daily routines. Our teachers may encourage us to practice certain exercises, but there may be ones that suit our abilities better. Instead of playing scales in a short range or in the same rhythm each and every time, I use to practice them full range of my instrument in quarter notes, eighths, eighth-note triplets, and sixteenths. I found that this repetition work great for evenness in technique. Also, I structured my practice into a timed routine so that I did not get bogged down on one exercise or composition in which I was working. And, finally, I added in time away from the instrument withing my routine. This included vocally matching pitch to a piano, breathing exercises, or just closing my eyes for a few minutes to relax.
Stretching is important
Music is a physical activity, just like baseball and other sports. However, never have I been in a lesson or ensemble (other than marching band) that required me to stretch my muscles. Sure, many educators will do breathing exercises and have students twist or stretch their torso, but what about arms, neck, shoulders, and fingers? All of these muscular areas are vital to strong performance in music and, therefore, should be stretched and conditioned each day. Arm circles, stretching triceps, and hand tension/relaxation exercises will go a long way in performance improvement.
The right exercise equipment matters
Just like Jake uses Pilates equipment for his exercises, the right tools are necessary for us to improve as musicians. Always practice with a metronome, as it never lies about how you are performing rhythmically. I also encourage using a pitch sounding source and not a tuner in practice. When we are performing, we do not have time to stop and check Concert F on our instrument and are forced to listen to others around us. Practicing with a sounding source will help train your ears and brain to make the needed adjustments and also educate you on how you perform in various keys. A popular resource is Tonal Energy, which is available on smartphones in the app store. This application can isolate single pitches, cluster of notes in various octaves, generate sounds for each instrument, and can serve as a metronome. Plus, it is portable and easily plugs into a speaker system.
Struggles will come, no matter what
Fact: struggles will find you. It does not matter if you work hard or not, if you have all the talent in the world, or if you have been successful in the past. Arrieta was a very successful pitcher in college, but when he made it to the majors, he struggled tremendously. So much so that the team traded him to the Cubs (who were the worst team in MLB in 2013). He keep working, training, and trying……..
And in 2015, he won the Cy Young Award for the National League (that is the award for best pitcher).