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Five Things You Can Learn from a (Good) Musician

by   |   November 9, 2012
Justin Timberlake

By Dan Ross

GolfWRX Contributor

NOTE: This article might be more helpful if you have a little bit of experience in music, but is written to my best ability to be accessible to a range of readers. 

Believe it or not, music and golf have much more in common than you might think.

Maybe that is why you see so many well-known musicians play golf in the celebrity events: Alice Cooper, Kenny G, Justin Timberlake, and Adrian Young (of No Doubt) to name a few.  What’s more, the gentlemen I named are pretty good! Cooper is a 5-handicap, Kenny G is a +0.6, Timberlake is a 6, and Young is a 1. Pretty good stuff in the celebrity category!

On the opposite side, many great golfers are drawn to music, including Trevor Immelman and John Daly. You could also add Nick Watney’s interest in rap music to the mix as well as Bubba Watson, Ricky Fowler, Ben Crane, and Hunter Mahan’s performances as the “Golf Boys” to the discussion as well. Hey, they might not all be playing instruments in the traditional manner, but music can be defined a lot of different ways these days. It just goes to show that there is a lot of overlapping content between music and golf, and I think it is be worthwhile to look at some of the things golfers might take from music to become better… at golf! So here are a few, in no particular order.

1. You have to PRACTICE how to practice!

Show me a great musician, and I will show you an expert in the art of “practice.” Show me a great golfer, and I am less confident I will see someone who has learned the ins and outs of practice. I think there is something about golf that lets people get by on an ability to assimilate actions and concepts quickly that doesn’t happen quite to the same extent in music. While “natural ability” can take you quite far in golf, it only goes so far in music. Of course, there are always exceptions and overlap, but this is my opinion based on more than 20 years of playing music and golf. Your opinion may differ.

I ask you: have you ever had a great first golf lesson with a pro where everything seems to be working better, but the lesson just ends with… “now, go practice?” The problem is, you get to the range, hit some shots and everything falls apart. You toil away for an hour or so before giving up, thinking, “Well, I will just keep going with it tomorrow…,” and the same thing happens again when you return.

The likely reason for this is that you don’t know how to structure your practice sessions and haven’t been given enough checkpoints/failsafe measures to get back on track when the meltdown shows up.  In other words, you likely don’t know how to self-correct. For musicians it is easy – if you hear the wrong note, you used the wrong fingering or rhythm. It is harder for aspiring golfers because there are ways to “cheat” ball flights and getting access to high-speed cameras is a little harder.

With this in mind, every instructor owes it to his/her students to include instruction in how to structure their time alone at the range. Instructors in both golf and music often make the assumption that students know exactly what to do on their own. That is why we now have research that suggests that “homework” is almost totally ineffective with younger learners; they are the least prepared to work independently. If we move that thought to golf instruction, many of us don’t have the contextual information needed to self-correct.

The key to successful practice sessions is the ability to recognize mistakes in the process that create roadblocks to progress and correct them independently. It is the difference between solving a swing issue on the spot, or practicing a swing fault for a week or more until your next lesson. Which would you want?

A good instructor can mitigate the effects of this “crash and burn” phenomenon by detailing the structure of an effective practice session, and giving the student the necessary knowledge to self-assess and redirect. While this writing is not intended to be prescriptive in terms of lesson curriculum design (every lesson should be differentiated according to the needs of the student, so one single approach would never suffice), a component of any good lesson should include a breakdown of steps during individual practice from start to finish, as well as a short list of corrective measures to be used by the student when they are on their own practicing. 

2. Take “note” of the signature elements of your playing style.

Okay…what does this mean? Every good musician has a noticeable playing style (which includes sound, touch, phrasing, articulation, etc.). So does every good golfer. For example, if Jimi Hendrix (were he still alive) picked up any old guitar (vs his trademark Fender Stratocaster), you would be able to tell that it was Jimi Hendrix playing it, even if you couldn’t see him. It makes the point that the music Hendrix produced came from within him, and was a natural extension of his personality and soul. I submit that the same thing can be viewed in golf.

If you happened to see only a blacked out silhouette of Ben Hogan’s swing, would you be able to recognize it as being his, without first being told? I think I could; the various motions and rhythm are distinctive. I could do the same with Phil Mickelson, or David Duval, or any of the great players I have studied over time. We can go even further; those of you who are instructors might even be able to recognize your (more advanced) students just from seeing the ball flight. One might hit it higher or lower, have a more piercing trajectory, a flat apex or hit “risers.” Some of us who have studied tour player swings up close might be able to tell them apart standing at a range solely by ball flight even if we aren’t watching the player. It might be more difficult perhaps, but it certainly is not impossible. These qualities are “signature” elements displayed by any one particular player that are expressions of that person’s personality.

Here is why identifying the personal qualities of your swing is important: The best players don’t fight their tendencies: they work with them. These idiosyncrasies are the means to a consistent swing – BECAUSE they are the natural extensions of their personality. This is why major swing changes take so much time: any substantial adjustment involves not only changing the swing, but also changing the mental approach. A whole new paradigm must be formed, and the mind must then grow to accept the change as “normal.”

For example, let’s take the example of David Duval. Mr. Duval is a major champion and former No. 1 player in the world. His swing is far from what many might consider “perfect,” however. Duval has a very strong grip, and appears to take the club away shut, kept the club shut at the top, and also looks away from the ball through impact. It is likely that Duval found these “signature” elements of his swing comfortable and repeatable and learned to work with them rather than replace them. To keep from hitting a big pull or hook, Duval has a lot of body rotation to mitigate some of the effects of the club being shut through most of the swing, for example.

If I were to ask you to imagine what a low cut looks like in your mind’s eye, can you describe the shape? Can you describe the backdrop of the hole you are playing the shot on? Can you imagine what impact feels like on such a shot? Can you imagine what the ball feels like at impact? All of the great players (music AND golf) can visualize all the individual idiosyncrasies of their playing styles, because they have learned to accept them. The best instructors recognize these elements in their students and work as much as possible to keep them and build swings around them. They are the signature elements that are genuine expressions of our core selves in golf, and are the potential building blocks to an effective (not necessarily picture-perfect) swing.

Click here for more in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

3. Tempo…(with a twist!)

Many of us can recall reading that Sam Snead preferred to swing along to an imagined “waltz” that he heard in his head when his swing didn’t feel right. This segment follows from the same concept, but takes it a step further; something of an intermediate approach to tempo for golfers. In order to grasp it, you are going to have to use some visualization; lucky thing you are all golfers!

If you want to move further in your interpretation of rhythm/tempo in golf, you have to learn to subdivide. Think of fractions: A whole can be divided into two halves (2/2), three thirds (3/3) or four fourths (4/4), right? Well, depending on your natural rhythm, each of these divisions should line up with a point in your swing, the swing representing the “whole.” Are you with me so far?

In addition to Snead, there is a nice video out there on YouTube with Nick Faldo describing this basic idea using the syllables of Ernie Els’s name. If you watch it, you can see the basic breakdown:

“Er” – takeaway

“nie” – top of swing

            “Els” – impact

Musicians would count this rhythm as simply, “ONE…AND…TWO.” Or,

“ONE (Er)…AND(nie)…TWO(Els).”

To feel it, try swinging a club while saying, “ER-NIE-ELS,” matching your swing positions to those listed above, and then swing a few more times replacing “ER-NIE-ELS,” with, “ONE-AND-TWO.” Just make sure you are now swinging with the same natural flow as you would if you said “Ernie Els” in casual conversation; just at a speed that accommodates your golf swing.

So, is music class in grade school is coming back to you now? This is an example of subdividing a beat, or breaking it into simple fractions to make it easier to align with positions in your swing. Learning how to subdivide your swing (or, more accurately, subdivide the natural rhythm of your swing), helps you stay more consistent in your execution, and firmly establishes a base-line “norm” in how you swing the club.

But wait! You can divide things down further and/or more explicitly. Remember the Sam Snead example? That was a case of breaking things into triplet meter, which is the characteristic of a waltz. You know, like “Some Day My Prince Will Come?” If you know this song, you will know the flowing feel is attributed to this meter.

On paper, the way that rhythm breaks down is:

“ONE…E…AND…TWO”

or

“ONE(1)…E(e)…AND(+)…TWO(2).”

If you want to hear what this sounds like, we need to associate it with a spoken phrase. Try saying, “Three…hun…dred…YARDS.” Those of you with little or no musical training might likely start to sense the difference between the “Ernie Els” example and the “three-hun-dred-yards” example. Just to be clear, the breakdown for this example would be:

“ONE(three)…E(hun)…AND(dred)…TWO(yards)”

Just as before, start by saying the phrase while you swing.

The added syllable can be used by those golfers who tend to have a longer “windup” in the backswing and an aggressive transition down to impact, to better align the positions of their swing in tempo. When I think of a player who might conceptually represent this type of triplet rhythm, Fred Couples comes to mind, in addition to Sam Snead.

In the case of Couples, the breakdown might look like:

ONE – takeaway

E – halfway back

AND – the Freddie “pause-at-the-top”

TWO – impact

Anecdotally speaking, I find many of the “sweet” swingers of the golf club fall into the “triplet swing” category. Something about the spacing of their swings tends to line up with the triplet meter, even if they don’t always consistently arrive at specific points.

You might be getting bored a little right now, but hang in there for the last example, as it addresses Ben Hogan, and his meter. The last rhythmical breakdown I want to share is the 16th note rhythm. On paper, it reads like this:

“ONE(1)…E(e)…AND(+)…A(a)…TWO(2)” or simply, “1e+a 2.”

It can be expressed verbally by saying “Hit it in the CUP.”

ONE – Hit

E – it

AND – in

A – the

TWO – cup!

When I watch Ben Hogan’s swing, the 16th note rhythm comes to mind, and the corresponding positions line up extremely well. I might say this doesn’t surprise me one bit, as Mr. Hogan was very deliberate in his approach to the golf swing with the different parts clearly defined. The breakdown of his swing might look like:

ONE – takeaway/7:30 position

E – halfway/9:00 position

AND – top/10:30 position

A – top/lower body transition down

TWO – impact

If you substitute the spoken phrase for the numerical count, you would get:

HIT – takeaway/7:30 position

IT – halfway/9:00 position

IN – top/10:30 position

THE – top/lower body transition down

CUP – impact

(The point of reference would be 1950’s/60’s era Hogan, for all you Hoganites.)

To recap, I know this might be a little cerebral for some of you, but the process can go even further; outlining almost any point in any swing in an expressible rhythm (albeit more complex) that may be somewhat unique to a single player. For you mathematicians, you will also recognize that this concept can allow the swing rhythm to be expressed numerically as well.

What the average player can take from this is that by subdividing your inner rhythm/tempo, you can add a layer of consistency to your swing, and groove a better feel in the process. How do you decide which of these rhythmical structures is best for you? You have probably already done it. Simply ask: “Who is my favorite golfer?” What many don’t realize is that we naturally gravitate towards swings that align with our personal “inner pace.” Your favorite players might likely represent the tempo you want to achieve in your own swing. Without getting technical, simply analyze that player in terms of the subdivisions I have outlined here (halves, triplets, and sixteenths), and apply the concept in reverse to your own swing. Chances are excellent it will line up. Creepy, huh?

4. Improvisation

In music, improvisation usually refers to the process of creating something from nothing, or at least creating a new work from existing/related material. It is the basis for nearly all styles of modern music – blues, jazz, rock, rap, etc. The concept of improvisation also appears in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and addresses topics like adaptation, and extrapolation. Improvisation is a higher-functioning quality in almost every endeavor; because being an effective “improviser” means that you have reached a high level of competence/performance in that content area. For our purposes, the content area is golf.

Who are the great improvisers in golf? Tiger Woods, Seve Ballesteros, Phil Mickelson … all of these players come to my mind. In fact, it might be said that the shots they had to improvise were also the shots that we use to define them as players (ie. legend-building). When we tell golf stories, we don’t talk about the time when “Player X” hit the ball in the fairway, hit the green, and made a 12-footer for birdie. Birdie is nice, but not as cool as making eagle from behind a tree on route to a Master’s win, holing a toed putter off the boards, the 200-yard six iron out of sand over water, the lily pad shot, etc. The funny thing also, is that you rarely see any great improviser (in music or golf) ever have a frown on their face before or during the shot. They see improvisation for what it is: a fun opportunity to do something great.

A great solo improvisation in music and a cool golf shot have a lot in common: the fun factor goes up depending on who is watching and the difficulty of the shot.  That means you have to have BOTH confidence and skill/creativity to be a good improviser. No guts, no glory, right? We have all heard that one before. Well, what about those of us who don’t have the skill of a Mickelson or Ballesteros? What do WE do? Not everybody has mastery of their craft or confidence needed to pull off the hard shots.

Well, improvisation (despite what you may have heard) is not a skill that some people “just have” and others don’t. It definitely is a teachable skill. Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker learned how to improvise a jazz solo, and YOU can learn to incorporate improvisation into your golf game at whatever level you feel comfortable with in effective ways. Improvisation in golf is not defined solely by the ability to hit sweeping hooks out of the trees with a wedge in order to win the Masters.

Some basic strategies in golf improvisation (improv 101) might include the following:

1) Use the WHOLE tee box

Do you ever stand outside the box while addressing the ball inside the box? Have you ever moved your tee ball back in the box four or five feet to get at a particular yardage or do you always tee it up at the line? If you have a significant shot shape (slice or hook) do you use the proper side of the tee box to accommodate it? Being creative on the tee box improves your chance of success on the hole by helping keep your shots in play or getting them in a better position.

2) Think “outside the green” on approaches.

Do you always try to land shots on the green? Are you locked into that one approach? Some golfers see “the green” and think the only option is to hit the ball onto that surface. Sometimes it is a good idea to run shots up through the neck of the green or leave a shot in the sand on a par 5. I once played with a gentleman who always hit left of a par 5 green because the approach from that position mitigated the effects of the drastic slope of the landing area. He always had a better look at birdie than I did trying to reach in two.

3) Sometimes, you have to hit your “best” bad shot.

I played in a 4-man scramble just recently (no jokes please) where the best shot unexpectedly came to rest behind a tree, despite looking very good from the tee. Of course everyone else picked up assuming this shot was in play, only to get to the ball, sitting roughly four feet behind a very large pine tree. We were 140 out, and the A, B, and C players were all talking about pitching out. Our “D” player (before we were done discussing anything) walks up to the ball and hits a huge slice around the tree that rolls onto the green to about 15 feet. I don’t know if I was more surprised by the fact that the ball got onto the green or by how TERRIBLE the swing looked. It was textbook “don’t do this in golf,” which he had been doing on and off through the day, but it was just ugly. The thing was, none of the rest of us thought we could do better – so we just picked up the mark and walked to the green.

Another such type of shot is the “chunk and run.” This is a shot deliberately hit fat in order to try to stun the forward progress of the ball. So, there is the precedent if you didn’t believe the merits of my suggestion. Even the pros will hit a “bad” shot, given no other option. It is ugly, but it works.

4) Use the right information

I could sit here and list all the different ways to improvise recovery shots or vary trajectory off the tee, but most of you already know this information. Besides, there are much more knowledgeable people out there to hear it from than yours truly. Instead, let’s boil things down to simplest terms, with something all such shots have in common.

So, here it is: Trackman has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the clubface primarily governs initial direction on all shots. Knowing this one piece of information drastically improves our chances of hitting effective recovery shots if we find ourselves in less than ideal spots. Just like a good jazz musician never solos without knowing the chord changes to a song, YOU need to “phrase” your shots according to the right information.

Musicians create solo improvisations (solos) from a set of chords that go along with the music. These chords contain groups of notes that tell musicians what they can play at any given time and have it sound “right.” A joke that bands play on musicians they don’t like is to give someone the wrong set of chord changes – when that person solos, they sound terrible because they are using the wrong set of chords/notes. Their solo might be brilliant – in the context of the chord changes they were actually using, but in the context of the band, it made them sound like a rank amateur.

The equivalent scenario in golf would be this: A golfer hits a shot into the left trees and needs to hook one out right to left to reach the green. That person sets up with a closed face, looking to hit from the inside out and finish low for a hooky runner. He/she takes a few waggles and then swings, even managing to have that Tiger Woods-like finish – standing on one foot, looking intent, sawed-off swing, etc. Ball flight is exactly the desired result. Everything about the swing screams “pro” until you hear the clonk of the ball on the tree because, after all else, that golfer didn’t know how to aim the shot despite knowing how to play it. Like the above example, everything seemed fine in the context of the player, but the end result was undesirable.

If you are going to improvise shots in golf (easy or hard), you have to figure out what is the lowest common denominator before you attempt to get creative. In our case, it is the ball flight laws.

5. Optimism

This last segment is a compare and contrast perspective on the mentality surrounding the development of high-level players in golf and in music. The root observation is purely anecdotal, and is intended as food-for-thought. I will start with a little background.

As you may or may not have guessed, my “normal day job” is being a professional musician and also an educator. I have played drums in various bands you have never heard of, but also with a few you definitely have heard of. My professional performing career is now approaching the twenty-year milestone.  In all that time, however, I have never heard a single great musician ever tell me (or anyone else) that playing at the highest levels of musical accomplishment and exposure is impossible, and that it can only be achieved by a rare (special) few. That said, there was never a single one who ever said it was easy either, OR that one could get all the breaks necessarily to reach that high level, but the overall spirit is one of optimism.

While there are always exceptions, most musicians react to performances from other master-level musicians as open invitations to get improve and to seek out others in a similar situation for mutual benefit. It is like seeing and hearing the goal you are working towards and use it as inspiration to continue improving. If you display good musicianship, it is rare to hear a master tell you, “You don’t have a chance… you shouldn’t even try… or, be happy where you are at.”  (This latter statement refers to relocation to New York or Nashville to pursue a professional career in music). So, why then is the most prevalent comment in golf, “You don’t have a chance?”

Ask many players who carry low handicaps who haven’t reached a professional tour and you will likely hear at some point, “Those guys are just too good.” Further, you often hear “Those players have something special the rest of us don’t have.” While my intent here is not to spark a nature vs. nurture conversation; why is this? Why is there a spirit of defeatism in golf that doesn’t appear nearly to the same extent in music? Why might many instructors write off their student’s chances of performing at the highest level and then teach from that perspective?

If you read background information about professional golfers, you can make many observations: the have all practiced diligently, played extensive competitive golf, have financial support, etc., etc. These are all things that have been noted before ad nauseam. However, it seems to me, one thing that must have been overlooked is that there certainly could not be a single PGA Tour professional that has ever believed he could not make it to the Tour. Further, it is likely that any such person was never surrounded by folks preaching the impossible. Certainly, more sobering perspectives must have been shared at some point, but obviously not enough to dissuade that player from trying.

So, I ask: If professional golfers share a similar perspective to musicians that is framed in optimistic achievement…WHY DON’T YOU?

Click here for more in the “Instruction & Academy” forum. 

About

I am a professional musician, educator and researcher, in addition to being a golf coach for Hampden Academy in Maine. Currently, I am pursuing a Ph.D., in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. My past academic achievements include a Bachelor's degree (in music performance) from the University of Maine, a Master's degree (in jazz performance) from Florida State University, a second Master's degree (in education) from the University of Maine, and K-12 teacher and school administrator certifications in Maine.

My current research interests include overlapping content points between music and golf, as well as studying/comparing/contrasting how people learn in both endeavors.

I have worked in education for 12 years, including public school education and university instruction. I have taught in the Maine public school system, and at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, the University of Maine at Fort Kent, Florida State University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

My main area of musical endeavor is drumset performance with an emphasis in jazz, where I have performed with Chuck Winfield (of Blood Sweat and Tears), Dr. Billy Taylor (of the Kennedy Center), Yusef Lateef (jazz legend), and numerous local and regional groups in the New England area.

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