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The turning point for my practicing happened on the driving range when I was 20. I tell the story here.

Nathan Cole

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Published: May 26, 2015 at 12:48 AM [UTC]

This article originally appeared on my website, natesviolin.com.

In the summer of 1998, I was twenty and had just finished my second year at Curtis. I had never felt an all-consuming passion for the violin, but that summer I was particularly ambivalent. I knew that I wanted to keep playing and performing, but the constant comparison to my peers was wearing on me. Back in Kentucky, my progress on the violin had been between me, my teacher and my parents. At conservatory, it seemed to me that I was surrounded by people who had opinions on the subject. Some fare best in music when they weather storms early on, and others when they’re allowed to bloom first. I have no doubt, looking back, that I am the second type. But at the time all I knew was that I was wilting in Philadelphia.

I played a mental game with myself: I’m willing to do whatever work is necessary to reach the next level. I just need to know in advance that it’s going to get me there. Unfortunately this only works if your teacher tells you, “You will practice in this exact fashion for four hours a day or you will get out of my sight!” My teachers for my first two years were Felix Galimir and Pam Frank, and while Mr. Galimir certainly had exacting standards, he had no interest in how I reached them, only that I did, and quickly. Pam encouraged experimentation and freedom, and I enjoyed that immensely. All the same, I should have occasionally asked, “Thanks, but just how do you practice to play the way you do?” Now I was looking at two new teachers when the school year started, Ida Kavafian and Jaime Laredo. I figured that I had the summer to change my outlook, to become a stronger player, to come back truly knowing where I was going on the violin.

June had not been a promising start so far. Mid-month I found myself sitting in my grandparents’ heavily-air-conditioned living room in Naples, Florida. I felt twelve years old, sitting in that very living room on some long-forgotten vacation, with my best practicing years ahead of me. If only I had taken advantage of them! The unopened violin case mocked me from its place at the foot of the bed: No use trying to make up for lost time now. I disagreed, and made the vow of the procrastinator: The journey starts tomorrow. I disliked being in Naples. The pool had ceased to fill me with wonder several years ago, and I hadn’t enjoyed tennis or golf (parts two and three in the three-part Florida retirement plan) in years. What have I been doing?, I asked myself. Just playing the violin, apparently, without much to show for it.

My grandfather, father I were going out to play golf the next morning at the Royal Palm, my grandparents’ country club. And even though I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the game, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a morning. The club was beautiful, especially in the morning, all golden dew and rolling green carpets framed by the requisite palm trees. And I secretly got a kick out of the club employees, how they were required to know our names. Well, my grandpa’s name anyway. How could you forget “Mr. Zinsmaster”? I got to feel rich for a morning, as a guest of “Mr. Z”. And I had once loved the game. My dad started me when I was eight, and it was a new sensation playing a grown-up game with grown-ups. At that age, I was already a better violinist than some adults, but I still felt like a child who might one day play music for a living. Golf was different. Just by holding a club and teeing up a ball, I was one of the guys. There had been childlike tears and near-tears along the way. And during those blurry teenage years, some rounds were more silent than they would be today between my dad and me. But I had come out the other side of adolescence, and so had my violin playing. Golf got left behind.

Since my parents were professional musicians, both flutists, I always sensed their respect for what I was trying to achieve with the violin. My grandparents’ admiration struck me as correspondingly hollow, which I knew wasn’t fair to them. How were they supposed to react when they heard their grandson play the violin? But still, I noticed that when I had an “off” day, they loved it just as much as if I were truly “on”. The hard work that I was doing didn’t seem to matter to them at all! I had a hunch that they believed I was “gifted”, that my playing was neither my responsibility nor my accomplishment. That thought gave me a queasy feeling, since I increasingly wondered about it myself. I knew that without work I wouldn’t improve, but what if my work didn’t lead to improvement? Which would be to blame, my work or my very nature?

Come to think of it, golf would be a welcome diversion from this unproductive cycle. And again my father’s words came to me. He had always told me that the more golf you played, the more intense the frustrations of the game became. The violin must work the same way, I chuckled to myself. At least I didn’t need to worry about becoming overly frustrated at golf; I hadn’t swung a club in more than a year! No doubt tomorrow would be a mixed bag: a few good shots, loads of bad ones, and some in between. I mused that there was just as much chance for me to play well as to play badly the next day. In fact, I could have a great day on the course, even without having practiced! Golf was a curious game in that way. And how wonderful would it be to show my grandparents, my grandpa especially, and just for one day, that I was a good golfer?

My grandfather was a reserved man who had raised four children and enjoyed a long executive career at Parker Pens. His pleasures were tennis, golf and humor, wherever it could be found. In fact, the more unexpected the timing, the better. Certain hymns, prayers and blessings had become legendary around the Zinsmaster household due to his alterations. Exchanging “breast” for “blessed” was a particular favorite.

But golf was generally a serious subject for my grandpa, and not because he was a great player or because he laid money on the game. I had come to believe that it was because, to him, golf represented the sum of a man’s character. A man who could master the game had mastered himself, and he was a man to be respected. Again, it came back to gifts. Character was never given, only earned. Therefore, success at golf must hold more meaning than success in other endeavors. These thoughts came to me in quick succession, confirming for me why his appreciation for my music had always seemed to be less than genuine. This, too, was unfair to him. But it did increase my desire to shine for just one day on the golf course.

At such times, I heard my dad’s voice: You can’t expect to be good at something you don’t practice. But if golf was more a test of character than a collection of precise movements (as I imagined violin playing to be) then why couldn’t I transform my game overnight? With a different outlook, my natural athletic ability would come to the fore. Strength of body and mind would come together wonderfully. And if this didn’t happen? Then perhaps my weaknesses in golf pointed to weakness of character overall. And that would explain why I seemed to have reached my limits on the violin! As I sat alone in the thickly carpeted living room, sport and music intertwined uneasily. I faced the blank television screen and the floor-to-ceiling walnut bookshelves that surrounded it. I might as well have been in a dentist’s chair, a lead vest weighing me down.

My eye ran over the books facing me. I registered the titles as I had for the preceding ten years of trips to Naples. They had become a wallpaper of Civil War and World War histories, cookbooks and treatises on tennis and golf. The golf books were usually not instructional, but peppered with anecdotes about strokes, shafts and the like. I forced myself to really read the titles as if for the first time, and one jumped out at me because of the bold font on the spine: The Inner Game of Golf.

The Inner Game of Golf 70s cover

I pulled The Inner Game of Golf, by W. Timothy Gallwey, off the shelf and sank back into the oversized leather chair, which had over the last hour conformed to my body. As I read the introduction, I came to understand that this was one of a series of books on the Inner Game. What was this Inner Game, and how was W. Timothy Gallwey a master of it? Apparently the first Inner Game book had been about tennis, because he had been a first-rate junior tennis player. Next came skiing, at which he was also an expert. But this book would be about a sport at which he was a complete amateur. Not exactly a beginner, but no better than I was. He aimed to break 80, something I had never done, within a year. He would allow himself very little practice and only one round of golf per week. Most of his work would be Inner Game work, whatever that might be.

I became fascinated when I read: “Sometimes I felt the pressure of possible failure, but I comforted myself with the knowledge that if I really played the Inner Game I would inevitably learn more than golf. Thus I could not really lose. Results would inevitably follow learning.” I thought to myself that if only playing the violin could be like that, all would be well! But Mr. Gallwey probably didn’t realize the level of precision needed to play the violin at the highest level.

To my surprise, the very next paragraph was about a round of golf he had played with a surgeon! Certainly there was a profession that had little margin for error. But Gallwey observed, “Seeing him stand tensely over four-foot putts, I reflected that if he held his scalpel with as much apprehension and self-doubt as his putter, I’d never want to be on his operating table.” I knew that I was just as tense for short putts, and when I was honest with myself, some delicate tasks on the violin as well. But what I really wanted to do was to hit the ball long and straight off the tee! I eagerly devoured the next few chapters and began to see what the Inner Game was all about.

As Gallwey laid out the different types of mental obstacles inherent in the game of golf, I nodded in recognition at the same ones in violin playing. He saw five main types: “the lure of the game to the ego, the precision it requires, the competitive pressures on the golfer, the unique pace of the game, and the obsession with the mechanics of the swing.” With the exception of the pace of the game (in golf you always choose your own pace, which is a blessing and a curse) each of these difficulties mapped itself onto the instrument.

Aside from the issue of pace, there was another important difference between golf and the violin. Gallwey noted, “Golf is one of the few sports in which a novice can, on occasion, perform like a champion.” How true that was! I myself had sunk putts the length of the green. I had hit a couple of 300-yard drives in my golfing career. I had holed shots out of the sand. If I imagined the violinistic equivalents to these feats, they might resemble the big moments and tricky corners of the concertos that I loved: scales in octaves, blistering fast passagework, juicy slides on the G string. I would expect only an expert violinist to be able to pull those moments off; they couldn’t be achieved by luck, not even once. No wonder my ego was lured by the relatively easy thrills of golf! Achievement on violin seemed to follow a set course, made up of hard work and countless repetition. I couldn’t expect great results until I put in the time. But on the golf course? I knew that those 300-yard drives were in there somewhere, waiting to be unleashed once I had the right mantra. But I also knew that for every perfect drive, there were five wayward drives lurking. Was it simply a choice that I needed to make? Suddenly my father’s words, you can’t expect to be good at something you don’t practice, sounded old-fashioned. Gallwey seemed to be saying the opposite: that it was only my mental blocks that were standing in the way of great golf!

Looking back at this astonishing realization, I know now that these mental blocks, these demons (all personified by Gallwey as Self 1, as opposed to the purely observant and intuitive mind, Self 2) don’t just go away by themselves. The Inner Game must be practiced as diligently as the Outer Game. But in that sticky leather chair, with the chance to test these new ideas just a day away, I resolved: Tomorrow I will swing the golf club, free from Self 1 forever! I felt as though some unseen force, a giant hand perhaps, was supporting me and allowing me to float above the chair.

I honed in on just one technique that Gallwey presented, without worrying about how or why it might work. It was the first technique described in the book, and it had apparently helped him take 10 strokes off his average, allowing him to break 90 for the first time in his life. Although I had broken 90 a few times before, it was a rare occasion. The technique was called back-hit-stop, adapted from a technique he had developed for tennis called bounce-hit. With this technique, I was to stand over the golf ball as I would for a normal shot. But once I began my backswing, I was to notice the exact moment when my swing reached its furthest point back. At that instant I was to say, “back”, or as another option, the syllable “da”. Then, during my downswing, I was to notice the instant when the club made contact with the ball. Another “da”. Finally, at the end of my swing, when my motion stopped, one last “da”. The three “da”s would then form a rhythm, a tempo. Apparently the exact tempo didn’t matter. But all depended on the precision with which I matched up the “da”s with the critical moments. It didn’t sound too difficult. Since it didn’t matter how I was swinging, only how closely I matched up my voice to three points in the swing, then what did I have to lose? I knew that I had the focus to be precise with those “da”s.

I usually enjoyed sleeping in on those quiet Florida mornings, waking to the cicadas, but I could barely sleep past sunup as I went over the back-hit-stop technique again, rehearsing in my mind how I would put it in practice on the driving range before our round. Knowing that I hadn’t hit golf balls in a while, my grandfather would make sure to leave time for about 50 practice shots on the range at the country club. I imagined that it would take me those 50 shots to get the hang of the technique.

The three of us whisked silently in two golf carts toward the range. When we turned the final corner, my heart raced as I saw the neat pyramids of balls laid out at 10-yard intervals. I hadn’t told my dad or grandpa my Inner Game plans for the morning, and I suddenly wondered what they would think if they noticed my strange behavior on the range! What they would think if they saw me miss the ball completely, for example? What if entering the realm of the Inner Game sent me down a black hole and left my swing worse off than before? This was the very reason I had always shied away from analyzing the mechanics of violin playing.

But I comforted myself by remembering that while I had a great deal to lose if my skills as a violinist went in the tank, my golf swing mattered not one bit. Golf would be an ideal laboratory for my first Inner Game experience. I put the first ball on the tee and took my grandpa’s 3-wood out of the bag.

I decided on a few practice swings to get the hang of the timing. Gallwey had encouraged me to find a rhythm to the three “da”s that appealed to me. I found that within a few swings, I enjoyed the accelerating syllables. The rhythm enhanced the way I imagined my swing: smooth, powerful, athletic. Now addressing the ball, I felt lighter than air. Excitement mixed with uncertainty, and again I felt the unseen hand lifting me. Strangely, I still felt connected to the ground.

The club seemed to reach back on its own, and I almost missed the first checkpoint with my voice! As soon as I reacted, the club was already racing toward the ball and I met it with another “da”. As I finished my turn, I wasn’t sure if I had completed the third syllable, but I saw the ball rising gently toward the far end of the range, straight in front of me. It had almost disappeared before touching down near a faraway yellow flag. The 250-yard marker!

I paused to savor my first truly calm golf swing in years. The result was certainly all I could have hoped for, even though I warned myself not to be concerned with results yet. In fact, I had been to the range countless times before, and on some of those occasions my first swing had been the best of the day. I knew not to put much stock in that perfect ball (the lure to the ego)! I teed up another.

This time, I knew what rhythm to expect with my voice and I was able, I felt, to get closer to the critical moments of the swing with my syllables. Again as I finished, I saw the ball rise with the same trajectory as the last, falling gently near the yellow flag. I noticed that my eyes were relaxed; I was seeing the ball clearly, but I was not trying to focus on the ball. The sea of green before me grew fresh and bright as the ball came to rest.

A voice interrupted me, my grandpa’s: “I thought you said you hadn’t hit in a while!”

“Well, I’ve forgotten my bad habits so far,” I replied, a standard “humble golfer” line. But could it, this one time, actually be true? And could I remember to keep forgetting?

I set up ball after ball with just one goal: match those syllables with the three moments. Da-da-da, turn and see. Feel the rhythm, da-da-da. There were no swings, in fact, just the rhythm. Emboldened, I tried another technique that I had read in the book, “Hum, hum on the range” (I enjoyed then, and still do, the corny humor necessary for relaxation in this kind of self-teaching). In this game, you hum all through your swing, noticing any changing of the pitch or intensity of the hum. Most people, Gallwey said, would have an increase in tension while approaching the ball and making contact. Others might be so tight throughout their swing that they would find it difficult to hum at all! My practice swings revealed that I was, indeed tightening some muscles during my downswing. The tension affected my neck and vocal cords, as predicted. Instead of “hummmmm”, I was getting “humMMMGHHHHmmmm”! According to Gallwey, I wasn’t to try and smooth out the sound of the humming, only to notice exactly when it started to change. After a few swings, I found that the hum was staying much steadier. I set up a ball.

It took all of my focus to hum and swing while listening for any change. But again, the result was like before: a 3-wood rising majestically and falling 250 yards into the range.

This time it was my dad’s voice: “Are you singing?” As a lefty golfer (yet a righty in “real life”) he was able to face me at the range, a fact that had alternately comforted and unnerved me over the years. Now I had to confess what I was up to.

“It’s Grandpa’s Inner Game book that’s always on the shelf, do you know the one I mean?”

“Oh yes, I’ve looked at it once or twice, but that was years ago. I don’t think he’s read it recently either. It has you singing?”

“Well, humming anyway. Is it loud?”

“No, I can just barely hear it. But whatever it is, keep on doing it. I’ve never seen you hit shots like these, over and over!”

And so it had been spoken aloud: how long could I keep this up? What if the trick wore off? And was it even a trick, or a “tip” like so many others that I had used and discarded? I set up another ball, going back to the three “da”s. Everything still seemed in order, as that ball joined what must have been a neat pile.

“Just beautiful,” I heard from my dad.

“Well, did you save any of those for the course?” asked my grandpa. “We’re up.”

I took one last look toward the end of the range, still seeing golf balls, my shots, tracing their graceful arc toward the palm trees.

Sadly, those were the last peaceful and beautiful shots of the day for me, as Self 1 in all his forms pounded down the door to my subconscious. At the end of 18 holes, I truly knew the height and depth of my golf game, as I never had before. I was halfway convinced that I had deluded myself, that the Inner Game was nothing more than another quick fix, doomed to sit on the scrap heap with the others. It certainly seemed to be dangerous stuff if it could produce such highs and lows. But what highs! To this day I can vividly recall that morning on the range, so intense yet relaxed was my awareness.

I resolved that day to finish The Inner Game of Golf, and to begin applying its techniques to the violin. Although I wouldn’t know for sure until years later, I sensed that my day of golf, the successes and failures together, would be a turning point for my violin playing. I have much more to write about how that came together, with help from many others along the way. But just now I’m savoring that moment when the golf ball slows and seems to stand still at the top of its flight, greeting my perfectly focused gaze.


From Peter Charles
Posted on May 28, 2015 at 12:55 PM
Hi Nathan

Very interesting story! You were lucky to have reached a turning point at age 20.

My experience of this in relation to our suddenly making a breakthrough is that in the early years with a good teacher you are guided reasonably well, and progress is hopefully made.

However, in later years the final truths about the best way to make progress have to be discovered in a more personal way. The sort of things a teacher, no matter how good, will probably never tell you. It's that final close relationship with the instrument, the mind games, and the ability to work out strategies. A sort of war game.

It's more a thinking thing, than a doing thing. Often what we do gets in the way and spoils what we want to do. So the mind has to find lateral ways to think and solve these problems.

Often these problems are of the most simple causes.

Your blog has I hope at least made people think about what they are doing, and how they are trying to do it!

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