Bernie Parent, concert soloist

Well, now that I’m out of the closet as a hockey fan, I can start clearing all this out.

Any athlete and any musician have a large number of things in common, as people who use their bodies to perform in front of others in real-time, and whose performance can be judged by objective and immediate standards of success as well as subjective ones.

There are differences of course — in sports, half of the people “on stage” with you are trying to trip you up, whereas in music, the audience is your biggest enemy (let’s face it, either it seems that way, or it is that way). And in sports, one bad game won’t lose you your job, whereas in music, one bad concert just may. It’s understood and tolerated to a small extent in sports that someone “on stage” will lose. There are allowed to be no losers in music. And it’s no better for soloists; in the NHL, a 1.89 goals-against average will get you into the Hall of Fame. The only GAA allowed in classical music is zero.

The similarities between sports and music have already been treated in many ways, but mostly in the rah-rah-head-butt sort of way where people talk about poorly defined or undefined words like “confidence” and “a winning attitude” and other platitudes that are worthless when you are in the practice room. (And the differences between the two activities is substantial: one does not have to learn to check someone into the boards differently in order to communicate a sense of vulnerability and loss.) What I’d like to do is highlight some of the unglamorous, concrete, nuts-and-bolts ways in which the similarities in the two activities can be exploited for mutual benefit.

More alike than you think

In hockey, the goalie is as close as any position comes to being a featured soloist. The defensemen and the line can and do act as units, with each player helping to compensate for the weaknesses of the other players. With the goalie though, he’s pretty much the only person out there in that role. He is the most circumscribed and yet in many ways at the same time, the most crucial person on the team — and when something goes wrong, there’s only one place to point the finger. Let’s look at how the practice and performance habits of one of the game’s greats can translate to music, particularly as a soloist:

If it’s not under your control, don’t waste time on it.
  • That which is in the past is not under your control, i.e. don’t let a bad period turn into a bad game. This is equivalent to Rachel Barton Pine‘s admonishment in her sadly vanished resurrected podcast about preparation for competitions and auditions that if something goes wrong as you are practicing performing, just let it go. It’s in the past. The only thing you need to worry about is what’s under your control: what you’re doing right now, and what’s immediately coming up. Don’t let one mistake in the past bleed forward into the future and infect it as well. If you effed up, put a fence around it and move on.
  • That which is someone else’s job is not under your control, i.e. cut your angles, and stay square to the shooter. Understand what’s within your purview and focus yourself on that.

Freak out in practice, chill out on stage.
Parent was famously intense, stressed, and bad-tempered during practice. He broke sticks in fury, and if any of his teammates scored on him, he’d fire a puck at them:

One day in training camp, as a forward artfully slipped the puck between Bernie’s pads and into the net, the goalie slammed his oversized stick against the goalpost in disgust, snapping it in two with a sharp crackkk.

“Barnyard!” bellowed [then-starting goalie Doug] Favell, doubled over with laughter, “you’re nothing but a damn sorehead!”

During a game, all of that bled away, and he was happy Mr. Hey-I-Just-Stop-The-Puck. A typical story:

In the final minutes of 1974, with the dreams of any hockey lifetime hanging by one goal against Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, Parent called over Simon Nolet.

“From the bench I see Simon give him an annoyed wave and skate away,” Clarke said. “I asked him ‘what did that crazy bleeper say?’ and Simon told me he was bragging about his new golf clubs.”

Visualize yourself making saves in every situation, on and off the ice.
Among musicians, it’s called mental practice. Just because you aren’t near your equipment doesn’t mean you can’t be playing, in your mind.

And because this can often be misunderstood, I want to underline this and explain it a bit. “Visualize” means to see it and more importantly feel it from the inside, not to simply watch yourself from the outside as everyone applauds. This isn’t some healy-feelie rainbows-and-dolphins New Age confidence booster. This is neurological training. If you are currently studying a piece of music that is 6 minutes and 2 seconds long, you want to sit quietly in a chair, or lie down someplace, and look up again 6 minutes and 2 seconds later. You are making your mind do everything it would do, except actually play the instrument. Pay attention to the notes, see them in your head. Think of everything you need to think of — there’s that big chord coming up, okay, there’s that leap, okay, three trills in a row here. Your brain is doing everything it must do during a performance; after all, one plays an instrument with one’s mind. The body just translates what the brain tells it to do, and you want to train your brain to react. That way, you will never be surprised. No matter what direction the puck comes from, you will already have saved it before dozens of times, in your mind.

Being a concert soloist, no matter what your stage may look like, is a 24/7 thing. Even when you aren’t playing, you’re playing.