NHL hockey is back.
NHL hockey is back, my friends.
Let me repeat that.
NHL. Hockey. Is. Back.
Granted, it’s back from what was an absolutely absurd lockout which insulted the sport and its fans (if you want to learn about the lockout from people who really understand it, the Wikipedia article does an expectedly-great job of outlining the core issues). Granted, I’ve been complaining to anyone who would listen for the last three months that I’ll never watch another NHL game again; that I as a fan can’t be treated like this; that from here on it’s only the college and junior offerings (of which there are MANY in Michigan) that will receive my money and my fandom.
But I’m only human. Like a recently-dumped partner still on the leash, I’m back to following stats, watching highlight reels and predicting this year’s Stanley Cup winner (hint: not my San Jose Sharks). NHL hockey officially has its greedy little hooks in me again.
Yes, I am head-over-heels in love with the sport on ice, it’s true. But the reasons for my sheep-like flocking back to the NHL are more complex, and they have a lot to do with my reasons for being a composer.
As any sports fan knows, the ritual, the camaraderie, and the unabashed jingoism for your chosen team are tough vices to give up. Once a daily routine includes a glance at a fantasy roster – once even a small bit of one’s identity includes “_______ fan” as a descriptor – the line between the sport and the team begins to thin. I am a hockey fan, but much of my joy in hockey stems from donning my black-and-teal Sharks jersey, obsessing over starting lineups (Why am I getting so worked up over Scott Gomez?) and cheering for the Sharks to win the Cup and for the Anaheim Ducks to lose and be set on fire. Those things are part of hockey for me.
A while back, I recorded a podcast under the direction of my extremely-talented colleague, Garrett Schumann, for his series for Washington Public Radio, We Are Not Beethoven. Over the course of the two-part conversation (check out part 1 here, part 2 here), we set out to determine how being a sports fan affects a composer, and what lessons are to be learned about composition from sports. It was an enlightening conversation, drawing countless parallels between the fine art of making up music and those fine arts of play-calling, Monday morning quarterbacking, and sabermetrics. We talked about unpredictability, heroes and game-changers, and all sorts of well-documented elements of the athletic experience that make it the fabric of everyday life that it is.
But there’s one thing we didn’t talk about: passion. Not for the sport, but the team. The kind of die-hard love for the colors and the logo that make sports unique. Passion that makes it slightly unsafe to be a Red Sox fan in New York on gameday; that makes the HP Pavillion the loudest space in the world after Marleau scores in overtime; that convinces people to paint their faces and bodies in Orange and Black, Maize and Blue, Green and Yellow. Very few things in life demand or produce this kind of zeal. Why sports?
Fundamentally, I think, because of the same thing that makes live music so special: the shared experience. When 37,400 Red Sox fans file into Fenway Park, most of them know very few of their compatriots. Under any other circumstances, they may disagree about politics, or money, or choice of wardrobe. Some of them may not get along outside the stadium, some may even come to blows given the chance. But in that stadium, they’re Red Sox fans. They’re all draped in colors celebrating the history, the heritage, the team; and for that three-hour ballgame, they’re friends. Just like Manchester City fans on their gameday, or Oakland Raiders fans on theirs.
Just like me, sitting here in my black-and-teal jersey hours before the Sharks’ season opener against the Calgary flames. I’m connected to a body of people whom I don’t know and probably will never meet. Most of them don’t know me, and they’ll never hear my music or experience any of the things I care about or believe in. Chances are some of them, were they to know what I do for a living, would tell me to grow up. But none of that matters today. The electricity in the air, shared by thousands of Sharks fans around the country or world, lets me know that right now, just by putting on this jersey and watching these athletes, I’m part of a big (if slightly dysfunctional) family.
This feeling – this passion – is the lifeblood of every symphony, every chamber group, every ensemble in the nation. A performance of Beethoven, or Basie, or Simon, for an audience of any size, is hoping to offer them a catharsis or evocation that brings them together, if even for a moment. When we musicians send our listeners back out into the world after a performance, we want them going with the knowledge that they were a part of something special; that for just an hour or two, a group with lives and beliefs that may never intersect again came together to share a unique, inimitable experience.
This power to unite through shared experience is the central power of music. It is my goal as a composer. And nobody does it better than our friends in athletics. For musicians who are paying attention, maybe there are lessons about reaching an audience to be learned from those that bleed for the home team. Maybe when we think about marketing the arts, finding new listeners and concert-music devotees, we should look to the psychology of team loyalty for cues.
Here’s what I know for sure: being a sports fan, and a dedicated franchise zealot, changes the way that I think about our music. So yes, I’m back to the NHL, and looking forward to learning more lessons about unlikely communities and the power of experience along the way.
And the Anaheim Ducks suck. Seriously, they’re really, really terrible.