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Sondheim's Sound Advice

Stephen Sondheim Photo: Ethan Levitas

In the world of American musical theatre, fewer people are better known than Stephen Sondheim. Recently HBO aired a one-hour and twenty minute documentary about this iconic composer and lyricist centered around six of his musical creations.

Now you might be thinking, why is someone in the world of sports performance writing about musical theatre, and what ever would it have to do with training athletes to become their best?

Before I address this interrogative statement that is undoubtedly going through your mind, it should be noted that I have always embraced the concept of being a “renaissance man,” and that there are opportunities to learn from many different disciplines other than the one we work/practice in.

That being said, I feel that there were a number of lessons to be extracted from the experiences Stephen Sondheim encountered throughout his life’s journey which are quite applicable to the world of sports performance.

Sondheim gives Oscar Hammerstein II credit for teaching him everything he knows. Sondheim grew up in the Hammerstein’s home, and Oscar, head of the household, was an accomplished playwright, producer, lyricist, and composer. In one instance during the documentary, Sondheim recalls writing a show for school at the age of 15. Eager to present it to Oscar for his feedback, Sondheim asked him to judge it as he would a professional show…Hammerstein’s response “in that case it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read”. Oscar did however make it very clear to the noticeably upset, fifteen-year-old, that if he wanted to ask for professional standards, then he was going to treat him as a professional. Hammerstein went on to dissect Sondheim’s work stating that “It’s not that it’s untalented; I think you’re talented, but I’ll tell you where it’s wrong.” Sondheim then recalls Oscar going through his show word by word telling him where it could be improved.

During this defining moment of his life, Sondheim picked up three principles from his mentor:

  • “A song should be like a play; it should have a beginning, middle and end.”

  • “It (song) should have an idea; state the idea, and then build the idea, develop it and then finish it.”

  • “At the end you should be in a different place then where you began.”

Those principles resonated with him in such a profound way that he can recite them as if he just learned them yesterday rather than decades ago. Principles that would ultimately guide him to the numerous successes he would have throughout his long and illustrious career.

Additionally, Sondheim recalls with vivid detail “I learned more about writing in that afternoon than the rest of my life.” Hammerstein impressed upon more advice, but this time it was the importance of not writing like he (Hammerstein) writes. Rather young Stephen should seek his own way of writing music and lyrics. Sondheim recalled Oscar saying to him “If you write what you feel, it will come out true. If you write what I feel, it will come out false. Write for yourself, and if you do, you’ll be 90% ahead of everyone else.”

Sondheim states that the entire learning process is to take what your mentor gives and then further it “…the point is to further things and make more.”

I feel that the advice on writing Tony award winning music and lyrics can be used to write gold medal performance programs.

  • A training program should be like a play (or a song); it should have a beginning, middle and end. Progress the athlete through the entire span of the program written.

  • A program should be written based on an idea of what it should entail. It should begin with a specific goal in mind, plan backwards and execute forwards. Focus on the priority (goal) of the each phase, and then move on to the next priority. State each priority, build upon it, develop it, and then finish before moving on to the next phase.

  • At the end of the program, the athlete should be in a different place, a better place. They should be moving toward the end goal or idea stated in the beginning and be ready for the next phase, competition, song or play.

Another lesson this industry can learn from this documentary is the value of feedback, or what some would refer to as constructive criticism. If you seek the advice of a professional for feedback, do not become upset if you don’t get the feedback you’re looking for. Expect your work to be judged as a professional and you to be treated as one. It’s also important to remember that if you receive some undesirable feedback, it doesn’t mean that you’re not talented. It just means that you have some additional work to further refine your craft.

Additionally, write “your own” programs. Lean upon and use the principles given to you by your mentors (whoever they are), but then write as yourself. If you try to write programs to the likes of Boyle, Kenn, Poliquin, Simmons, Verstegen, etc., they will come out false. If you write what your feel, then it will come out true. Write programs as yourself, and if you do, you’ll be 90% ahead of everyone else.

And lastly, take what your mentors have given you and then further it…the point is to further things…or as Leonardo Da Vinci said, “Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master”.

More to come…

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