KIDS, SPORTS, AND MUSIC : The Glee Generation

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bbI think I shocked a parent recently when I told her that I thought it was a shame her son wasn’t interested in participating in sports; you see, she had expressed to me that the Boychoir was a great place for her son, since he didn’t really have any desire to play on a team. And she’s right; arts organizations are generally pretty good at taking all comers.

But it begs the larger question: why is it so often ‘us’ versus ‘them’ with athletics and the arts?

If you’ve been following the new hit TV show Glee, you know this is exactly the issue that the characters on the show are struggling with: football and cheerleading “versus” singing with the glee club. What they’ve done well on the show is to set up the daily crisis of identifying with this or that group that every teenager undergoes. However, the writers have allowed Mr Schuester to miss one crucial point: athletes often make the best musicians.

It is a mistake to think of music as a ‘me’ discipline, but it is one that young musicians often make. Even the most highly paid soloists (think Lang Lang, or for that matter, any pop star-of-the-moment) have to be team players when performing, and there’s no doubt that they wouldn’t have made it as far as they have if they weren’t.

What team sports have to teach is exactly that: the understanding of putting a group’s needs before one’s own, and the ability to coordinate mentally and physically with a dozen or more other people who are directed towards the same goal.

Furthermore, athletics teach students to coordinate physically and to drill very specific skill sets; while the word ‘talent’ is often thrown around in both the arts and athletics, no one doubts that LeBron James threw an awful lot of free throws to get where he is today. So did Plàcido Domingo and Renée Fleming.

When I was a high school teacher, the school where I taught boasted a national championship wrestling team something like twenty-five years running. Did I recruit the wrestlers to sing? You betcha. And I gotta tell you – they were some of the hardest-working singers I’ve ever worked with, amateur, professional, or otherwise. Having sat on a bus all night returning from a match (usually in Ohio), they were present at our 8:00 am rehearsals, more than once with a broken rib or similar gut-wrenching injury, and rarely uttering a complaint.

It’s easy to forget that music is as much a physical activity as an intellectual one. Yet it’s exactly in the juxtaposition of these two where the real value of music lies. So often we think about music, academics, and sports as three separate categories:

Intellectual: math, language, traditional ‘school’
Artistic: creative, emotive, individual-oriented
Athletic: physical, disciplined, team-oriented

I would urge you, however, to use a different image:


Of course, all three disciplines have much in common. When approached in balanced quantities, each complements the other. The artistic is where the academic meets the athletic, where intellectual and physical discipline are married, and where physical coordination, reasoning and logic, language skills, and teamwork meet in the production of an artistic product which often is the result of another’s creativity.

It follows therefore that without balance from both sides, a musician will likely achieve less than his potential, and this is why I urge participation in sports. As for the academic side, well, one only needs to hear the Harvard Glee Club to know that plain old brains is an equal partner in the equation!