Balance, belief and follow-through: what musicians can learn from Roger Federer

Guest post by Jennifer Mackerras

Even as news broke of Andy Murray’s imminent departure from men’s tennis, another article in the Guardian caught my eye: a piece on Roger Federer[1]. Though not a massive tennis fan, I’ve come to admire Federer and frequently use him as an example of stunningly graceful movement in my Alexander Technique classes. But what can we as musicians learn from Federer? What can we take from his approach to tennis and apply to our own endeavours?

Balance and efficiency of movement

Journalists have been remarking on the beauty of Federer’s play since early in his career – David Foster Wallace’s seminal article on Federer ‘as Religious Experience’ was written in 2006 and still feels current. Here is Wallace on Federer:

Federer’s forehand is a great liquid whip, his backhand a one-hander that he can drive flat, load with topspin, or slice — the slice with such snap that the ball turns shapes in the air and skids on the grass to maybe ankle height. His serve has world-class pace and a degree of placement and variety no one else comes close to… His anticipation and court sense are otherworldly, and his footwork is the best in the game … All this is true, and yet none of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching this man play. Of witnessing, firsthand, the beauty and genius of his game.”[2]

What do I as an Alexander Technique teacher like about watching Federer? If you look at photos of him, or watch him play on TV, he never seems off balance. There is an efficiency of movement – he doesn’t use more energy than necessary, and he rarely seems to place muscular effort into anything that would detract from his shot. Even at extreme levels of exertion one never feels that his energies are being misdirected or overdone. This is Federer himself on his style of play:

maybe it’s also the way I play tennis, smoother than the other guys. It maybe looks that way [but] I work extremely hard in the matches as well. It just doesn’t come across so much.”[3]

I think this is directly transferrable to music. As we play, we could make it a guiding principle to make our physical movements suitable to the task at hand – neither too much, nor poorly directed. I’m not suggesting that we try to limit our movement or our energies; rather that, like Federer, if the situation demands exertion and exuberance, that we fulfil those demands in the service of our musical goals. I would love to feel at the end of a recital that I had carried out what was necessary to make the music speak, and no extra!

Rhythm, routine, and fun

Federer has an unchanging routine to determine when he changes his racquets during the match, and a little ritual set up with the ball boys and girls when the new one is unwrapped. He is known to be meticulous about taking off his jacket before the match and putting it over the back of his chair, smoothing away any creases. These things may give us aesthetic pleasure as spectators, but why might he do them? One answer might be, ‘control of environment’. By having a set plan over when he changes racquet (and how it is done) he doesn’t need to think about it, leaving him more mental space (working memory) to devote to thinking about the game.

But he also likes to allow himself moments of creativity and fun. Journalist Tim Lewis:

it was Mats Wilander, the seven-time grand slam winner from Sweden, who noted that to really understand Roger Federer you have to watch him between the points. Wilander especially enjoys how Federer returns a ball to the ball boys after a missed first serve or the end of the rally. It’s never a simple, utilitarian interaction: instead, he’ll curate a viciously kinking drop shot that bounces into their hands or a razored slice that makes a satisfying thwock into the canvas behind the court.” [4]

The idea of creating routines and patterns of behaviour is a sensible one, as it can help free up the mind before performing and may also have a beneficial effect against stage fright. It does this by removing the necessity of the performer having to use vital mental energy deciding how to prepare themselves, their instrument and music for the performance; it also reduces the risk of forgetting something, thereby lowering the general ‘irritability’ of the performer’s systems.

I also like, though, the inclusion of creativity and fun within Federer’s routine structure. Perhaps some playfulness over warming up, or while tuning between movements/pieces may help to keep a sense of freshness and presence? I’ll leave it up to you to work out how adding some creativity might work for you!

Follow-through

A friend on Twitter remarked that one of the noticeable elements of Federer’s play is his follow-through – it is graceful and flowing, and very much part of his shot. This is possibly where Federer most neatly exemplifies a key Alexander Technique principle, which I and some of my colleagues label ‘additive thinking’.[5]

FM Alexander wanted us to reason out strategies (routes of travel, or protocols) for each activity we undertake. But so often it becomes easy to look at the elements of the protocol one has designed and view them as a kind of checklist. The tennis checklist, simplified hugely, might read:

  • pull racquet back
  • hit ball
  • follow through

But if one were to use these three steps in practice as a checklist, one would end up with a very jerky and unconnected set of movements – quite the opposite of the easy and ‘holistic’ quality we are trying to attain. What FM Alexander wanted instead, and what Federer does brilliantly, is for the player to think of each thing additively at all moments of the shot. In other words, even as one is preparing for the shot, one is also thinking of the follow-through, and vice versa. This ensures that every element of the protocol is retained in mind as the protocol is followed. And what Federer also does brilliantly is to use the follow-through from one shot as the preparatory conditions for the next shot.

How would this function in music? A pianist, for example, would not think of single notes individually, but rather think about each note and each finger movement as encompassing each note in the phrase. The way each note ends is the preparatory state for the next note (or rest, or silence).

Self-belief

Federer exhibits a solid belief in his own abilities; he believes that he can win. And this belief isn’t only visible while he’s winning. Journalist Tim Lewis notes that this belief stuck with him even in the period where he was losing matches and falling down the rankings:

When he spoke about the brick walls he was coming up against, Federer’s response was stoic, hubristic: he was playing well, he’d tell us, he could beat any player on his day. There was something deluded about his obstinacy, and it made me both desperately want him to change, but also wish that he would stay the same.” [6]

Federer, like other great sportspeople, is prepared to investigate change: he did change his preferred racquet size. But his belief in his training and ability is paramount:

The core difference between Federer and his rivals is his unshakeable belief in his talent, to trust his genius.

“I’ve always believed I can play tennis when I don’t train so much,” he said. “That’s been maybe one thing, the confidence I have in my game, even if I don’t play so much, where I still feel I can come up to a good level. Maybe that takes away some pressure.” “[7]

Because he knows that he has trained intelligently and consistently over decades, Federer is able to rest confidently on the knowledge that he has attained a level of proficiency in the game that will carry him to success. Equally, he knows that if he continues to train intelligently, he will be able to do fewer hours of physical work than many of his competitors, protecting him from injury while still preparing him for tournaments.

I think there’s a lot we can learn from this as musicians. As Noa Kageyama pointed out in his seminal blog post [8], the number of hours one spends in a practice room aren’t the key to success – intelligent practice is a far greater predictive of success. So we all need to do the things we’ve been told are sensible: mental practice, interleaving, slow practice, and so on. If we ‘work smart’, we design our success. We pay attention to the process, and then have faith that it will carry us through, because we have designed it with success in mind. Or as FM Alexander put it:

I must be prepared to carry on with any procedure I had reasoned out as best for my purpose, even though that procedure might feel wrong. In other words, my trust in my reasoning processes to bring me safely to my ends must be a genuine trust…”[8]

Balance, routine, follow-through, belief. Which one will you start working on today?


Jennifer McKerras is a performance coach, musician and fully qualified and registered Alexander Technique teacher

activateyou.com


[1] Kevin Mitchell, ‘Roger Federer: Methuselah of sport still has unshakeable belief in his talent’, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/13/roger-federer-methusalah-of-sport-still-has-unshakeable-belief-in-his-talent, accessed 14 January 2019.

[2] David Foster Wallace, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/20/sports/playmagazine/20federer.html, accessed 15 January 2019.

[3] Roger Federer quoted in Mitchell, op.cit.

[4] Tim Lewis, ‘The Pleasure (And Pain) Of Watching Roger Federer, The Greatest Tennis Player Ever’, https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/a22019668/the-pleasure-and-pain-of-watching-roger-federer-the-greatest-tennis-player-ever/, accessed 15 January 2019.

[5] FM Alexander, The Use of the Self, Orion, London, 2001, pp.41-2.

[6] Lewis, op.cit.

[7] Mitchell, op.cit.

[8] Now Kageyama, ‘How Many Hours a Day Should You Practice?’, https://bulletproofmusician.com/how-many-hours-a-day-should-you-practice/, accessed 16 January 2019.

[9] Alexander, op.cit., p.45.

 

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