Saturday, May 13, 2006

Play that Funky Music

This is going to be rather right-brained, but it's a slow news weekend...

I was out running the other day and to make the miles go faster I was pondering last month's discussion on chemistry, with the added wrinkle of considering what role the coach has to play in the process. With the up-front admission that I'm going to do full credit to neither discipline, I came up with this analogy:

Some folks think of basketball like a symphony. The conductor picks out the music and provides constant direction. Everything is tight and scripted. The pieces fit together just so. The musicians have a certain amount of interpretive freedom in the sense that they can emphasize certain notes or phrases, but no matter how long or short, soft or loud, or with what style you play it, a quarter note better be a quarter note and it better be on pitch, because it has to blend with what the rest of the orchestra is doing or the piece falls apart. Soloists arise upon occasion. You may build a piece or two, or a even whole concert, around their talents. But even their notes are printed on the page. They make take a grace note or two, but the overall course is still clear and predictable. The aim is to reach a consistent level of excellence in every piece. As that goal is met, aberrant tendencies will fall by the wayside and performances will reach a level of uniform precision. I suspect a lot of college basketball programs run in this heavily scripted, coach-intensive vein.

Other people see baskeball more like improvisational jazz. The goal is to find excellent musicians, get them out there on the stage, and let them jam. Tom Heuerman and Diane Olson quote improvisational jazz musician Doug Little, who describes his art as:

...a description of the dynamics of a living system. The song form provides an inner simplicity from which an unlimited variety of music can emerge. The spontaneous improvisations of each musician are unique and unpredictable but each iteration stays within the boundaries of the song form which provides a portrait of the stability and hidden structure in the chaos. Constant choices by each musician influences the others and produce the rich diversity and creativity in the performance...What I play will inspire the drummer to play something. The drummer might inspire me to play something. The musicians listen to one another and make spontaneous decisions. The possibilities are endless. It is always within the form and it is always interconnected with each person but it is never the same.

In this construct the coach provides the "song form", e.g. "We're going with a running game." Maybe there are a few sets drawn up. But for the most part, it's up to the players to make the on-court music come alive. Plays aren't heavily scripted, and often not even called. What the players see, they do, and they react to each other on the court as opportunities develop. The argument here is that the best team performance only happens when the talent of each player is maximized and given the chance to shine through relatively unfettered. This seems to be the model that many pro players are begging for.

I would argue that many of the best teams function like the amalgam of the two known as the old-school, seventies-style funk band. You remember those groups? They would get, like, thirty different people on the stage, each with their own instrument--horns, drums, keyboards, guitars, you name it. And you always half wondered how they were going to pull it off. But then they'd start playing and that music would just knock you off your feet. They were all playing from the same score and there was a reasonably consistent output on each piece, each night, but there was also plenty of room for solo work and there would be new little surprises each concert. The key was that every instrument was featured in its own way. The drummers, for instance, didn't get nearly as many solos as other players, but their job was to keep the beat and you could really see their contributions in every piece. In fact without them the whole band would fall apart. (I kind of think of guys like Joel and Theo in that role.) The horns might play the same riff over and over and only get sixteen measures of solo work in a couple songs, but they add the spice that complements the star instruments and really make the sound fly. The lead singer is up front, but unlike a modern pop/rock group, his contributions don't stand out as more significant than any of the other sections. The leader/conductor still has plenty to do in this model--picking out/composing the music, rehearsing the group, making sure the overall sound is what it's supposed to be--but when you get on stage it's all about the musicians depending on each other, each contributing everything they can within the limits of the framework set by the composition, their instrument, and their talent.

The funk model is more difficult than the symphony, because it puts a lot of reliance on individual talent. A lot of middle school or high school bands can do a reasonable impression of Mozart if they're rehearsed hard enough. Very few amateurs of any kind can pull off credible funk. Then again, it requires more discipline than improv jazz because you have to account for the score, the other instruments, and demonstrable, repetitive reliability.

The catch is, whatever style you employ, you need the musicians to fit. Trying to four-beat guys who want to play jazz is going to get you nowhere. Telling symphony musicians to "just play", while technically possible, is going to diminish their effectiveness and leave the final product short. And some folks just don't have the patience to deal with the rigors of funk nor the maturity and confidence to handle its freedom. And probably most of us don't have the ears to pick out our part among 36 different players on stage.

Great basketball, like great music, requires both talent and discipline together with the ability to find one's role in the greater scheme of things and prosper in it. Maybe the reason we see so few great teams is the same reason we don't see many funk bands...because that particular combination of abilities seems to be rare in a world that emphasizes instant success for the self over creating magical art (of whatever stripe). I'd certainly argue that, in the absence of the qualities that engender greatness, most teams default to the coach-oriented symphony model or the player-run jazz theme, despite their shortcomings.

What is the vision of our coach? How about the players? Are we a few bass players short of a full combo? Probably. But I also think part of our problem is a clash between stylistic differences. Or, put another way, it looks like Darius might be bringing a saxophone to Nate's symphony. How this works out, and what kind of music we end of playing, will be interesting to see.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm so much in tune with most everything you write Dave, but a line in your recent article regarding Blazer broadcasters is concerning.

In fear of Steve Jones returning to the TV crew, please, please be careful not to make him out as some sort of a Portland game analyst hero. During his time here - and now on national TV - he has always beens more interested in analyzing his broadcast partners than the game itself. He, it seems, always has to be the basketball authority and his condescending attidue and continuous discrediting of 'all' his sidekicks over the years is an apparent means to that end.

I did backflips when I heard he was leaving the Blazers and I'd hate to open any kind of a crack that could potentially allow him back. Mike Rice is certainly not perfect but a huge improvement over Jones. Despite this seasons many losses, I was finally able to watch and enjoy, without frustration, my beloved Trail Blazers in action.

I should add however that I heavily endorse your recommendation to hand the analyst reins to Mychael Thompson.

Donovan Lee M.

7:01 AM  

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