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Players in sports and music have much in common

Musicians and athletes share everything from performance anxiety to injuries, rigorous training to celebrity.

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Ryan Anderson (44) shoots the ball over Darryl Butterfield (35) during a men’s Nebraska basketball game vs. Missouri at the Bob Devaney Sports Center in February. (File photo)

Ryan Anderson threw his hands up above his head after banking in a half-court three-point shot, then jogged over to get his picture taken at the Nebraska basketball team’s media day.

A few hours later, those hands were flying over a piano keyboard as Anderson worked at his other love — music.

“It’s very similar, very similar,” Anderson said of basketball and music. “There’s a lot of time and practice put into it. When you love it so much, you don’t even know how much time you put into it. To a very strong extent, music is a universal language. It touches people in ways basketball can’t touch them. Or maybe it touches them in the same way — it’s all about what you love.”

The 6-foot-4 junior guard from Seattle is a talented musician who is putting the finishing touches on his first album. He’s also the living embodiment of a class on music and sports taught each summer by University of Nebraska-Lincoln music professor Robert Woody.

“That class is basically what I’m living,” Anderson said. “It was good to hear the statistics and the rules and the reasons why things are the way they are. I’ve been fortunate to have this talent in music. Sometimes you reach a point where you know you’re good. Then you have to keep pushing to expand your talent. It’s the same thing in basketball.”

Woody, a sports fan who teaches music psychology, developed the class when his research pushed him into the realm of sports psychology. Musicians and athletes share everything from performance anxiety to injuries, rigorous training to celebrity.

That’s true whether the musicians and athletes are students or professionals.

“Music just kind of parallels sport,” said Trent Summar, a Nashville-based country rocker who gave up baseball for music. “In the few times I’ve been around pretty famous sports guys, all they want to talk about is music. My manager and I are always talking about the relationship of music and sports. I usually call what I do ‘farm rock.’ But I’ve got another name for it. There’s smashmouth football. I call what I do smashmouth music.”

Other parallels between music and sports are obvious, if slightly disguised by nomenclature. For example, those who provide instruction and guidance in these forms are known by different names.

“In music, we tend to call them teachers,” Woody said. “In sports, they call them coaches. They tend to have the same function.”

Woody’s class helped drive home the commonality between music and athletics for Matt Slauson, a longtime trumpet player who plays guard for the Nebraska football team.

“Everyone sets the musical kids over here and the athletes over there,” Slauson said. “They’re really one and the same. One works with these (pumping his arm muscles), one works with this (pointing at his head). And if you’re in the marching band, you have to do both. I can’t imagine doing that.”

Slauson’s contention that athletes and musicians are the same is confirmed by writer Frank Wilson, who in his 1986 book “Tone Deaf and All Thumbs?” argues that musicians are “small muscle athletes” while football and basketball players and the like are “large muscle athletes.”

In the class this summer, Slauson was particularly taken by the psychology of performance and the anxiety that accompanies it — for both musicians and athletes. He emphasized that he believes musicians have a tougher task standing up before a few hundred people and playing than he does facing defensive linemen in front of 84,000 people in Memorial Stadium.

“If you’re playing the solo and mess up, everybody will know,” he said. “I’m out there with 10 other guys and there are 100 or whatever the number is on the team. If I mess up a little, nobody will notice.”

Woody says that Slauson’s take on performance is natural — that you tend to respect and, to some measure, hold in awe, what you have not done or cannot do. But, he said, there’s some truth in Slauson’s point — “In a team situation, you can hide a little.”

For Anderson, years of performing music have helped eliminate nervousness and the jitters on the basketball court.

“It’s just like I’m playing in the backyard now,” he said. “Music helped me with that. Music, if you slip once, it’s obvious. It’s the same thing out here. They go hand in hand.”

Music, Summar said, is just as much a team sport as football, basketball or baseball.

“You’ve got to have a bunch of guys on stage with you who know what you’re doing and what you’re going to do,” he said. “For me, music is as athletic as you want to make it. I tell people one of our shows is like running a two-hour marathon while you’re drinking and people are blowing smoke in your face. Take that on.”

Anderson agreed with that view — minus the drinking and smoking — and provided an analogy between a jazz combo and a basketball team:

“You’ve got the drummer and bass player, which is your center and power forward,” he said. “You’ve got your point guard, which is the piano player — he’s calling all the shots. You’ve got the saxophone player, who’s the shooting guard — he’s ad libbing on the side. The small forward is the guy who is slashing and cutting — he’s like the trumpet player.

“You get in tune to the same kind of things. Out here, I can be dribbling the ball and I look at you and you know that means I’m going to throw it up to the rim and you’re going to dunk it. So I’m playing the piano and I look at you and give you a wink or something and we’re at a part of the song and it’s, ‘OK, go ahead and get loose or let’s play this part together.’ You don’t really rehearse that stuff. You’re just in tune.”

There are some important differences between sports and music, however. Here’s how Anderson explained it:

“Basketball is more what you see. You get adrenaline from it, it pumps you up. I love it. There’s an unexplainable love for basketball. But music, it’s different, you know what I mean? It touches you in places that you’ve never been touched, that are deeper. It’s almost spiritual.

“In music, no matter what you can be going through, somebody will play your favorite song and you’ll feel better. It’s similar where if somebody’s down and out they can go watch their favorite team on TV. But to me, music is deeper. It touches the core.”

Anyone who has seen a team getting off a bus can’t have missed the near ubiquitous headphones on each of the players, who listen to music to pass the time and get themselves ready for a game.

Slauson, a country music fan, said he doesn’t get hyped up by audio — at least until the last few seconds before he and the rest of the Huskers hit the field.

“The time I get pumped up is on the tunnel walk,” he said. “When I heard that song (“Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project), I know I’m going to go out there and smack somebody. That feels good.”

Spoken like a true lineman.

Injuries also provide a commonality between music and sports. Every sports team from pee-wee to professional has trainers of some fashion and there are entire medical practices and industries based on treating sports injuries. The same thing is true in music. There’s even an academic journal devoted to medical problems of performing artists.

“Music-making is a very physical thing,” Woody said. “The amount of time certain players of instruments practice is hours and hours. They’re susceptible to physical injury. It may not be a torn MCL, but they’re susceptible to carpel tunnel and those kinds of injuries. It can be career-threatening for a performing artist.”

Injuries can be career-threatening for athletes as well. And when you’re a piano player catching basketballs every day, you’re putting both careers at risk.

“That’s true, that’s very true,” Anderson said. “My dad told me make sure you keep your fingers safe, these are important in playing music. He always told me, ‘You’re playing basketball, your knees are going to go out, you might hold your shoulder. But you’ve got these (fingers) forever.’”

Anderson dislocated a finger last year and has had a fractured thumb since high school. Neither has impacted his piano playing — “The piano stuff is good exercise for my hands,” he said.

Summar broke his shoulder playing football as a kid. After years of tossing around a microphone stand during his wild stage shows, he’s now undergoing treatment for that shoulder at swimmer Tracy Caulkins’ Nashville training facility.

That’s one more connection between sports and music.

That physicality, Woody said, is best seen in dance — the ultimate combination of athletics and music. But that dance doesn’t have to be ballet. It can take place on almost any stage.

“James Brown, he was pretty athletic,” Summar said. “You’ve got to be in shape to be a stage music performer. You’ve got to be ready and trained and then you’ve got to pull it off. Try playing 150, 200 shows a year. Every one of them is like getting ready for a football game.

“And you’ve got to have a winning record in music, otherwise you’re not going to be around very long.”

Anderson will get his shot at learning that lesson in a couple of years — after he finishes his basketball career at Nebraska.

He’s now mixing and mastering his CD, called “My Journey,” that will be released under his stage name of Slym. His music is a mixture of R&B, jazz, the gospel of the church he grew up on and the hip-hop of his generation. There’s no date yet set for releasing the album, in part because Anderson needs to make sure that he is in compliance with NCAA rules concerning outside activities of student athletes before putting out the disc.

But when he’s out of school there will be no regulations to prevent him from making music, even if he continues playing basketball.

“Everybody has goals and aspirations of playing beyond this point, which I do. I want to play in the NBA or overseas,” Anderson said. “But that music — man, I can’t leave it for too long. I’ve been putting it on the back burner since high school.”

Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 473-7244 or


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