Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Managing the adrenaline rush

Of the thirty to forty golf tournaments played each year on the PGA Tour, the four majors -- Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA -- are what the great players set their sights on.  Jordan Spieth, the new world No. 1, was recently asked why he likes golf so much, and what drives him to play so well when he gets to the last stretch of a major tournament.

His response:

"Your blood starts running; you get nervous; you get the adrenaline," Spieth said. "For golf, when that comes up, that exhilarating factor, you have to learn to control that for an extended period of time."

If someone asks me why I am a musician, I would give a different answer. But if someone asked me why I conduct, my response would be much the same.

Note how Spieth took the adrenaline factor a step further, saying "you have to control that for an extended period of time." This is not unlike conducting an epic work by Beethoven, Strauss or Mahler. To make the golf analogy more apt -- since a tournament is played over the course of a long weekend -- it might be more like conducting Wagner's Rheingold, Walkure, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung over the course of several days.

One of the hardest things for a golfer to do is to control one's emotions when you're not swinging a club.  This is a time when one must stay true to the task at hand, one shot at a time. As soon as you start thinking about your position on the scoreboard, you're in trouble.  (Not unlike in a concerto, while a soloist is in the middle of an extended solo cadenza, and the conductor may be prone to daydream.)

How often do we hear an athlete say, "We just need to stay aggressive."  Fine for football, soccer, baseball, basketball and other team sports . . . but what about golf? If a tournament contender approaches the 72nd hole needing a birdie to win, the objective is clear.  But if you go to the tee with a clear lead, and a bogey or worse will win it, playing it safe is best. (Jean Van de Velde's play in the 1999 British Open is a cautionary tale.)

But what if a player needs a par to win?  Is it best to be aggressive, or defensive?  In the 2006 U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson needed a par on the final hole to win; a bogey would have put him in an 18-hole playoff the next day.  He played aggressively, making a double bogey to finish in second place. Of his half dozen near misses at the U.S. Open (the only major that still eludes him), this was his greatest disappointment.

At the U.S. Open earlier this year, Dustin Johnson approached the par-5 18th hole needing an eagle to win, a birdie to tie. After two astonishing shots under the greatest pressure imaginable, he was only 12 feet away from the hole.  At worst, a playoff appeared certain. He had left himself a ticklish downhill putt, so the necessary aggression of his shots from tee to green would need to be tempered somewhat . . . or would it?

To win, Johnson had to strike the putt firmly enough to get it to the hole -- not a problem for a downhill putt.  But he also had to make sure that if he missed the putt, he would not want to run the ball past the hole more than two or three feet, at the most. As it turned out, the eagle putt (to win) went six feet past, and the birdie putt (to tie) also went by the hole. This, after two superhuman shots over a distance of more than five football fields, to within 12 feet of the hole.  It would be another major victory for Jordan Spieth, but the golfing world ached for Dustin Johnson.

I can remember a tournament when Peter Jacobson was on the 72nd hole, in the middle of the fairway, in great shape to make a good approach to the green and two putts to win. Just before he struck his six iron over the green into a pond, television commentator Johnny Miller warned the audience that Jacobsen might not be taking his adrenaline into account.

Was adrenaline a factor in Tom Watson's bid for a sixth (6th!) British Open title in 2009?  I don't think so. He had won at the highest level many times before, and thus knows what must be done at every critical juncture. Needing a par at the last hole to win, he had already hit a perfect drive off the tee, leaving hims something between an 8 or 9 iron to the green. What to do?  He went with the longer club, the 8-iron, which landed on the front part of the green, bouncing and rolling over the back edge, from where he would fail to get up and down for par, putting him into a four hole playoff, which he lost to Stewart Cink. He later said that if he'd had one do-over, "I'd probably hit the 8-iron easier."

If adrenaline was not an issue, perhaps his age was.  At 59, Watson would have been the oldest major tournament winner ever, by 11 years.  Six other golfers in their 50s (including Davis Love III, who was victorious at Wyndham only two days ago) have won lesser tournaments, but no one has won a major.  Julius Boros won the 1968 PGA at the age of 48, and many remember Nicklaus's amazing win at Augusta in 1986, at the age of 46.  Kenny Perry nearly won the Masters just months before his 49th birthday.

Golf and conducting have in common the potential to stay in peak form well into the latter stages of one's career. For most athletes and dancers, the mid-30s is a time of significant falloff.  Leopold Stokowski conducted well into his 90s, and there are number of conductors today doing great work well into their 80s, including Christoph von Dohnanyi and Bernard Haitink.

So, how does a conductor manage his/her adrenaline, particular at the end of a long and physically demanding work?

For the final pages of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, much of one's energy is focused on controlling the different tempi.  But this work ends in a blaze of glory: what about works that end quietly, such as Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, or Mahler's 9th, whose final minutes require not just the conductor's control over the ensemble, but that of the entire audience, which must remain quiet and still for several minutes.  For my performance of this masterwork with the Hartford Symphony, I was luckier than Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.

Far more than managing the adrenaline rush, my principal concerns are avoiding fatigue and injury.  I am now in my 50s, but my energy levels are higher and more sustained on the podium than they were ten or twenty years ago, in large part due to playing basketball 3 to 4 times a week.  I used to have problems with my rotator cuff, but no more, thanks to regular strength training.

There is one thing which gives me great delight:  the bigger the stakes are, the more fun it is. Just before a big gala concert with Yo Yo Ma, rightly considered a rock star in our world, many of the orchestral players were walking around backstage on eggshells, asking me questions they would not normally throw at me.

All I could think was . . . . bring it on.