The Symbiosis of Technique and Stamina

The title of the post is a bit of a strange one and you may be wondering where I’m going with it. The relationship between technique and stamina has come to the forefront of my mind lately as I’ve tried to take up a few new activities. It turns out these new activities have parallels with learning musical instruments.

Some backstory.

In my own mind, I’m a bit slack. I have to drag myself to go do things that are outside my routine. Strangely (because I feel like a massive contradiction) I somehow manage to do quite a few things; currently it’s programming (day job), working on a side project (entrepreneurial ambitions), regular social dancing (have to go where the girls are), just started doing some indoor rock climbing with guys at work (getting outside the comfort zone), did some camping and snorkling over the break (socialising that doesn’t involve dancing), ride the Triumph everywhere (because motorcycles are awesome), enter trail running events (because… mmmm, not sure why). Somehow, I manage to do these things.

But I’m not a swimmer. I can swim but there’s a huge different between wanting to go swimming and just doing swimming. After doing more and more running events I’ve come to want to do events that involve a water component and, truth me told, I don’t think I could make the 400-600 metres across the mouth of the Okura River at Karepiro Bay for this year’s North Shore Coastal Challenge. The last thing I want is someone to have to rescue me.

So I’ve joined the gym close to work and have started using their pool with the goal of being being better at swimming.

Holy crap! It’s exhausting. This is the sport that my students wake up at ridiculous hours to train for and then complain that they’re soooo tired once they get to their evening music lesson. Students, that by fate of genetics, will never grow up to have the physique of an olympic swimmer but in their early teens are all of equal physique and so competition is still an even playing field (so to speak).

So I’ve been diligently going to the pool during lunchtime and struggling out 500m, 200m of which I use a kick board (yeah, that’s not much so don’t laugh). I joke with the life guards about how abysmal I am and they give me reassurances that it will get easier.

I got into a conversation with one of the guys at work and he was trying to explain the optimal free-style technique; something to do with the arms creating an s-like motion in the water, but I tried to explain to him that technique isn’t going to get me very far if I can’t even control my breathing.

Then, strangely, the same conversation came up during indoor rock climbing. Although I’m reasonably strong, I’m technically lacking. Actually, I’m strong but not ‘rock climbing strong’ meaning for all the muscles I have, they’re completely useless for the purposes of rock climbing. It’s all in the feet, forearms and fingers and here I am with shoulder muscles and runner’s legs. Yeah, that only takes you so far. Have you tried riding a motorcycle home with burning forearms? Even though the guys would explain to me good technique, I came to realise that one can’t execute technique if one can’t get their arms and legs to sustain technically correct positions and manoeuvres. That became obvious when ‘just put your foot there’ required that extra 2cm my legs couldn’t reach, or that ‘just grab that boulder’ would have my hand and fingers give out. Then there was some training apparatus that was like a pull-up climbing ladder for your fingers. I can do pull-ups, but when it’s finger and not full hands… nah, no way. Not that day.

There’s between being able to do something and being able to do it for a prolonged period of time. It’s a little like my clarinet playing; technically proficient but I can’t last as long as I used to while at university.

Swimming is a great example because, like wind playing, it can result in panic-breathing. I can swim that first 35m fine (yeah, that’s isn’t very far) and get 4-6 decent strokes in before requiring a breath but then the pressure of the water pushing at the lungs and probably all sorts of other fatigue start to affect me. By the last 15m I’m taking only 2 strokes per breath and probably have the grace of rhinoceros. Likewise, a wind player can get so exhausted mid way through a piece that they start taking little tiny breaths and look like they’re about to hyperventilate. They then get so distracted but this that mistakes in other areas creep in. Then there’s general embouchure strength. Students start off great and the tone is good but they’ll then tire and to compensate, tuck in their bottom lip too far resulting in the reed getting squished which in turn compromises the tone.

The solution? There is none, except time and practise and of course, knowing at least what a good technique is in the first place. You just have to try and sustain good technique as long as you can and patiently (over weeks and months) wait for the body to build up the strength required to sustain the technique. It’s the realisation that there’s a point where you just have to stop and take a break or else the technique succumbs. Trying to incorrectly alter good technique to compensate for lack of strength runs the risk of the body memorising bad form and that’s no good. The embouchure is a classic example because students often revert to their ‘default’ position even when they do have the stamina.

Sure, during a performance you just have to survive to the end but it’s worth knowing the risk of struggling through (during practice) when form and technique starts to become compromised. It’s the realisation that some things just can’t be rushed; the body is a complex biological machine that requires fine tuning to allow you to do your new hobbies.

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