Thursday, November 22, 2012

Getting Psyched: Football (and Music)

Charles Siebert has published an interesting essay in the New York Times Magazine: The Hard Life of an N.F.L. Long Shot (November 21, 2012). It’s about his nephew, Pat Schiller, a college line backer trying to make the pros. Here’s a passage that points at the heart of one of my central topics, behavioral mode:
“I enjoy hitting,” Pat told me as we pulled into the lot of the ProForce training facility in an industrial park on Batavia’s flat, barren outskirts. “Especially when you stop someone short on third or fourth down and you look up and the crowd’s going nuts and you’re like: ‘I did that. Me. You’re welcome.’ That’s cool. People always ask me, ‘Do you change when you get on the field?’ Before a game starts, I have my routine, I listen to my music and I walk out and look up at the crowd and I . . . I’m getting goose bumps right now talking about it. It’s crazy. My body is filled with emotions I can’t even describe. I come out of my body, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to kill somebody.’ I become this lunatic. And even when I start to come back down after the first few plays, I’m still a different person. You know, a savage. But when I first come out, it’s like a drug, I’m literally trembling, almost crying. I have so much emotion.”
Notice that he has a routine, a little ritual if you will. He doesn’t just flip a switch and Shazaam! he’s in game mode. He’s got to do certain things to psych himself. The ritual includes music. Of course.

Earlier in the article we learned:
Driving his gray pickup back home in Geneva [Illinois] during a break a few weeks after the close of minicamp, Pat popped in a CD. He wanted to me hear the motivational music he listens to before games or personal workout sessions like the one we were driving to that July morning at the ProForce training facility in Batavia, the adjacent town. He still had another couple of weeks off before the start of padded, preseason camp at the end of July. But on the verge of his first and perhaps only crack at the N.F.L., he had no intention of relaxing. He reached over and ramped up the volume, his pickup trembling now as soaring chords and tribal chants swirled above the same slow, propulsive backbeat.

“O.K., don’t laugh,” he said. “But when I’m listening to this, I imagine myself running through a primeval forest somewhere with just a loincloth on and a huge hunting knife in my mouth. I’m really looking to kill something.”
I suppose we’d call that creative visualization or something. I’d call it myth. He’s manipulating those brain centers that aren’t subject to conscious control, to will, the so-called lizard brain. But you can play some music, get in tune with it, and tell them a story. They’ll make the lizard leap.

In terms of my current pluralist project, every day walking around mode is one Realm of Being while performance mode, for an athlete or a musician (as we'll see in a minute), is a different Realm. Note, however, that merely performing music, or playing football, or tennis, or running the 100-yard dash, doesn't necessarily put you in another Realm. Lots of times when we playing music or a sport we do so from the every day walk-around Realm, we never really psych ourselves into the Other Realm. It's the psych that makes the Realm.

Compare those remarks with these by musicians. Here’s Vladimir Horowitz, the classical pianist:
The moment that I feel that cutaway – the moment I am in uniform – it's like a horse before the races. You start to perspire. You feel already in you some electricity to do something. (Helen Epstein, Music Talks, Conversations with Musicians, 1987, p. 10).
Earl “Fatha” Hines, jazz pianist:
I'm like a race horse. I've been taught by the old masters – put everything out of your mind except what you have to do. I've been through every sort of disturbance before I go on the stand, but I never get so upset that it makes the audience uneasy. . . . I always use the assistance of the Man Upstairs before I go on. I ask for that and it gives me courage and strength and personality. It causes me to blank everything else out, and the mood comes right down on me no matter how I feel. (Whitney Balliett, American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz, 1986, p. 87).
And here we have Priscilla Presley’s remarks on her husband’s Las Vegas debut on July 31, 1969:
It was the energy, the energy that surrounded the stage, and the charisma that he [conveyed]—I don’t think that I’ve ever felt that in any entertainer since. I mean, yes, other entertainers have a charisma, but Elvis exuded a maleness about him, a proudness that you only see in an animal. On the stage he’d have this look, you know prowling back and forth, pacing like a tiger, and you look and you say, “My God, is this the person that I —?” It was difficult to attach who he was to this person onstage. It was incredible. (Peter Guralnick, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley, 1999, p. 351)
Elvis becomes a tiger at game time, Schiller becomes a knife wielding savage in a loin cloth. Same difference. both have to manipulate the lizard brain in order to perform. It’s the lizard the provides the grace and speed, the power. The human’s just along for the ride.

In his last preseason game in his pro tryout Schiller “played the better part of the second half”
“I was dead,” he told me later. “Played something like 60 reps. My sweat was sweating. I went into that game thinking, This is the last time you’re ever going to put on a helmet. I did everything like I did in college. Wore my face paint. Got into a zone. Didn’t give a damn what anybody thought or said. I was out there just flying around. I was a savage. Whether I got cut or not was out of my hands, but I never felt more at peace. I had no regrets.”
But he didn’t make the cut.


  1. certain texts, those with a strong style and set of repetitive patterns, texts that radiate word-music: elicit, potentially, the a similar kind of shift in one's general comporment, a state of mind, let's say, not unlike the one W Basinski's endlessly looping music calls forth
    dancing can do that too, especially in its extreme forms like the ec-static whirls of the dervish
    passionate love-making also "requires" a morphing of one's state of mind, otherwise it feels mechanical,
    and I do wonder whether pregnancy might not involve a Realm of its own too...

    1. Never having been pregnant, I don't know. But I would think that, yes, giving birth might well involve its own Realm, depending on this and that.

    2. I guess the function of march-songs and political rallies might in effect be to engineer a Realm that overwhelms the status quo, so to speak... one cannot help but think of Germany in the 30s, for example... (I may be overstretching a bit your idea of Realms but it makes me think of things in a different way)

    3. While I've defined "Realm" in a certain way, just how the notion is applied to the world is open to negotiation. Whether this or that phenomenon belongs to a specific Realm of its own is not at all obvious. But I do think you're right about military and patriotic music. There's a Realm there, probably a Realm of National Identification or Patriotism, something like that. In general, music is a very potent way to creating and maintaining Realms.

    4. during the communist era here in Hungary there was an abundance of songs (labour, militant, pioneer, social-, dead-marches, etc.) which were very melodious and simple and easy to learn.. probably a rather a(e)ffective medium.. and later, when my father was in his youth, Western music (rock 'n roll, psychedelic rock, beat music, etc. - i am not that knowledgeable about the history of this but) it meant so much more for them than what commercial music means for people these days.. it had an aura or a spirit of liberation about it, many songs (I remember Hendrix, Rolling Stones, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd) were even translated into Hungarian so they knew the lyrics... Even today, they (my father and his friends) get very nostalgic when they get together and listen to these pieces of music.. which brings to mind the realm of nostalgia... ;)

    5. Actually, rock and roll had a similar effect in America, and it attracted a lot of opposition, as did jazz three or four decades before it. As for your father an his buddies, there's this notion kicking around that people get "imprinted" on the music of their and never really move beyond it.