This was originally an exchange, quite some time ago, between Breadking, Myelinsheath, Vince Gully, and myself, about Pacquiao’s alleged or suspected decline. And then I hijacked it into a discussion of music, specifically classical, because I was a performing classical guitarist for many years. I should mention that I was in full-contact karate, way back in the pre-MMA days, so I have some experience in getting beaten up in fighting as well as, well, getting beaten up in music.
There isn’t much funny about the following.
It begins after Myelinsheath notes that Pacquiao, even in a compromised state, is still better than most other boxers.
"Even in a declined state, he’s still a significantly better fighter than almost anybody else in the world. While he has lost some of the speed, power, and accuracy that made him legendary, he still possesses more of each of those than do 90% of the fighters in his weight class."
In reply, I gave an analogy. Much of this is from my replies.
When I was a performing classical guitarist, I got to the point where I could play anything in the repertoire, and played pieces by Britten, Berkeley, Takamitsu, and others. But, although I had that potential ability, I couldn’t do it unless I prepared; if I didn’t, I’d fall flat on my face in performance. It wasn’t the ability, per se, but rather the preparation, that mattered. Otherwise, those pieces were sheer hell.
My son-in-law, a pianist, and his girlfriend, a cellist, face the same situation: They have the ability to play anything in their respective repertoires, and anything written for joint piano and cello. But, that doesn’t mean they can sit down in front of a piece of music, sight unseen, and perform it. Performance still takes months and months of preparation.
I think of master boxers that way. They may have a potential, and even skill mastery, that most don’t have and never will have. But if they don’t spend training camps doing nothing but preparing for that piece they will be playing, they’ll still crap out, the same as with preparing for a music program. Musicians who have mastered their instrument still can’t play whatever is in front of them until they’ve mastered the tricks that the piece of music poses. Just like fighters.
It’s certainly true that a musician’s shelf life is much, much longer than that of a boxer, for obvious reasons, so your point is well-taken. I would just mention that, in classical music, neuro-muscular coordination deteriorates over time, which is frustrating. Also, for some (such as myself), the physical energy needed for the requisite practice just flags over time; by the time I was in my mid-50s, facing the 5 or 6 hours daily of practice had become harder and harder. I knew a professional guitarist, who was a very good friend of mine and with whom I had played, who hadn’t learned a new piece of music in at least 20 years, because he just couldn’t do it anymore.
I think it’s pretty likely that Pacquiao may be experiencing diminishing returns on his conditioning and workouts, as you said.
Certainly, being a classical musician facing a performance is nothing like facing the brutality of a fight. Still, it can be an ego-bruising event, giving a performance program, when things don’t go well, and this starts to happen more and more for some people with that deterioration I mentioned.
In the case of my friend, he decided to stick with pieces he had known and played for many years. They were well-known and familiar to him, and so carried minimal risk (and were pleasant and tuneful), but it was like a boxer fighting the same 5 or 6 opponents for 30 years. And things could and did still go wrong.
For myself, I couldn’t stand practicing pieces I had already performed, in order to maintain them for future performances, even though I loved many of them. I may have some sort of musical ADHD, but I had to find new things, especially since "classical guitar" is still associated with Segovia, who was a fairly bad musician, and played pretty bad transcriptions of pieces not intended for guitar; yet, he’s the only name most people associate with the guitar. Yet, the repertoire for the guitar has grown enormously in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, and this was my particular interest. But, maintaining a basic, foundational technique, and then devoting the requisite hours to working up an entire program of completely new music (much of it very complex), just got harder and harder with age.
And those rare moments when everything goes right get rarer and rarer, if they ever even happen. In fact, they never do. Like in boxing. You play in public performance at perhaps 60% of your actual ability. I imagine that boxers know that they’ll fight at some smaller percentage of their actual ability, as measured in camp, when they end up in the ring, under all those lights, after all that waiting
In music, your chosen pieces are simultaneously your lovers and your sworn opponents who will never, ever give you even an inch of leeway.
So, this is how I have been a fighter, now retired, even beyond my full-contact karate days.
I’ve thought further about this. Music and boxing are both about shapes in space.
With boxing, that’s pretty obvious, I think, because it occurs in space, which we can all see. Move here, move there, throw this, throw that, feint here or there; these all happen in visual space. But, what about music?
Well, music occurs in space as well. It occurs in a "space" in the same way thought does, in that it has structure, and develops over time, and occupies space and time. Here is a great example, a visual representation of J. S. Bach’s "Little Fugue" in Gmin, BWV 578. The structure in space, as well as time and beauty, is obvious:
Please listen to and watch this. It's important.
The structure in a piece of music parallels its physical structure in space, as your hands try to shape it on a physical object like a keyboard or fingerboard (in the case of stringed instruments like the guitar, violin, cello, and so on). All the while, your hands are trying to sculpt a physical space while your mind is trying to create a musical structure from a written score in print, and also trying to create that audible structure that is the music itself. And then, there’s the emotional content, which is an additional layer of structure.
Thought, reason, logic, as I mentioned are like this also. You may not need to form a logical argument with your hands, but you still need to read it, interpret it, invest it with meaning, and then perform it in words.
And like an opponent in a fight, reason and logic can defeat you. So can a piece of music, And I guarantee you, if you play long enough, and challenge yourself long enough in music, you will find an opponent that will defeat you. And someday, your mind and reason will fail as well.
Fortunately, I will always have SPAM(™).