Perceived Effort

This spring, I have been running by Perceived Effort.  My sports watch died last fall, and I haven’t gotten around to a new one.  Also, from our new house, I have a general idea of the distances of my various routes, but I haven’t GPSed them precisely, so most mornings I go out to run ABOUT three or four miles, and I look at my tiny wristwatch with no second hand or even minute subdivisions on the face and note the approximate beginning and end times of my run.  On my “speedwork” days I just run fast for a while and slow for a while, measuring time by the number of breaths I take and pace by how hard it feels.  I figure if it feels hard it’s probably fast, and if it feels REALLY hard it’s probably really fast.  In this way I do a variety of different kinds of workouts, and while I’m not going to be an Olympian any time soon, I have been keeping myself more-or-less in shape and working on my speed and endurance in a good-enough-for-now way. 

But Perceived Effort is not actually good enough.  My body can lie.  I can perceive that I’m working my tail off, and it’s just because it’s hot out or I drank too much wine last night – not because I am really moving fast or hitting the numbers I might have planned to hit if I was making plans.   I give in and take walk breaks because I feel like it – do I call that an easy run, or a hard one?  It feels hard – that’s why I’m walking – but I think maybe I’m just taking it easy because I’m not really in great shape and walking is more comfortable.  I could use some hard numbers to make my training go.

Perceived Effort is also not a useful way to work on the oboe.  I ask my students for more sound and they push harder.  Their faces get all red and they puff for air after half a page.  I ask for less and they contort themselves physically and bite the reed shut and squeak the notes out through the tiniest possible orifice.  I ask them to play faster and their hands get tense like claws and clutch the instrument as if it is trying to run away.  The phrasing and shape that the audience hears should not directly reflect how hard they are working at the oboe, but it clearly does.

There is a way to lay your musical plan over a foundation of a relaxed, calm body and good air support that gives shape to the line without actually wearing you out personally.  I’ve written about this before.  It comes back to taking a metaphorical step back from the instrument.  Finding a little bit of critical distance so you can actually hear the sound you are putting out there.  Not getting too worked up right at the reed/air interface, but producing and controlling the sound from somewhere both deeper and smarter.  Focussing the sound and the air before you even involve the oboe, and then listening to the result and making your intentions audible.

When I am practicing I frequently record myself.  Sometimes, within my body, I perceive that I am making an intense phrase, but in reality I’m just moving my oboe around a lot.  My goal then is to calm my physical activity so that I can hear the result I intend, not feel the amount of effort that I think might give me the result I intend.   It can be tricky to find that level of remove, that kind of detachment – and sometimes it feels unsatisfyjng, as if I am not allowed to really be in the music as I am making it.  I think that is a trap we can all fall into – we want to get excited when the music gets exciting, but that can lead to sloppy, inaccurate playing and missed attacks.   Being able to deliver the phrase I hear in my head, clearly and audibly, is what I am always working on, and what I try to teach my students.

This morning I ran the Sunburst 10K – which was already a big compromise over the half-marathon I was planning to do before I perceived how soon June 2 was and that I hadn’t been doing the distances I needed.  I could have finished it, I’m sure, but decided that discretion was the better part of valor and that I would rather run uninjured for the rest of the summer than 13.1 miles today.  As it was I had a hard run. I wasn’t all that well-prepared.  But it was a blast and now I actually do feel motivated to do some real workouts.  Maybe I’ll even pick up a new watch.

I’m sure that real runners scoff at my Perceived Effort runs, just as I call out my students on their oboistic overintensity and try to control it in my own playing.  But this season – with the time and energy I had – I did about all I could manage.  Maybe it is all right to be intensely analytical and focused about just one major project at a time.   Maybe I perceived rightly that I needed to take it easy.  Maybe by fall I’ll have a new half-marathon PR in me.  I’ll keep you posted.

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