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The Magical Process

By Suzan Ballmer | Dec. 04, 2008, 12 a.m. (ET)

During those few moments when I am not absorbed in coaching triathletes, taking care of the needs of my children or training for triathlons, I play violin. Well, I am learning to play. I began five years ago having played piano as a child and having done some chorale work recently.

Anyway, something that I have noticed during practice times is how challenging it is to learn a new skill as an adult. I have experienced my brain taking in information and not processing any of it at that moment.

In fact, it seems that the processing takes a really long time – maybe a day or two or a week. In the meantime, I practice daily so that my neuro-muscular system will adjust and adapt to my new found fingering or bowing or timing. Each day, I approach the process with the hope that this will be the day that I will make some music and not merely shuffle my way through the drills and notes and train wrecks that occur oh too often.
Some days it happens where everything sounds amazing! I could play in a concert! I could play a solo! This feels great! This is why I practice every day so that I can have the experience of a few minutes of making music. This makes it all worth it ... hmmm, this is just like swimming!
Yes, playing the violin is just like swimming.
Different body parts are being asked to move in different directions, at different speeds, simultaneously without the benefit of sight to watch and see how and if it is all working. Close your eyes, pat your head, rub your tummy, swim like a shark, make music like Bach. Relax, balance, distribute your weight correctly, accelerate, relax. And somewhere in all of that movement, BREATHE.

Phew, sometimes the sweat just pours! As a student of violin and triathlon I am often frustrated and elated by the process and as a coach I am always awed and humbled by it.
Yes, indeed, playing violin and swimming are SO similar, SO highly technical and nuanced that mastering either is an unachievable goal. And yet, there is something magical that accompanies the challenges and frustrations faced during the practice. There is a sense of being liberated, being free to make mistakes as part of the learning.

The process opens up possibilities, both mental and physical, that were previously unknown. It increases the ability to focus and to overcome obstacles by finding and engaging a profound level of patience and tenacity. These are some of the gifts that support you when you put yourself out there, on the starting line, when you agree to enter that crazy wavy water instead of walking away. This deep learning that happens with each day of practice, with each moment of focus – will bring to you results and experiences that you can't even imagine and that may have little to do with time or the podium. Enjoy the process, make music, swim! 

Suzan Ballmer is a USAT certified coach.