I bought myself a lockdown present back in early April: while tidying up the studio I had found a PlayStation I’d forgotten I owned together with a motor racing game, Gran Turismo. I used to spend hours on it a decade or more ago, so I plugged it in, revved it up and disappeared back down the rabbit hole. I saw on an online forum that the latest version of the game allows you to play online against other human beings as opposed to just racing against the game’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) but that in order to be competitive it was advisable to use a wheel and pedal set rather than the controller supplied with the games console, so on one of the last days before unnecessary journeys were banned I hot-footed it to Argos and bought myself a Logitech G29 wheel and pedals. Back to the studio, and back down the rabbit-hole, but even deeper this time… being thrashed by some 14-year-old from Montana is a very different experience from the dry logic of the AI.
Playing motor-racing simulation games, or “sim racing” as it’s known, has become a deadly serious business: the realism of the experience, with a steering wheel that vibrates as you run over the kerbs and through which you can feel the weight of the car and sense when it is about to lose traction, has reached a level where the top racers are paid to take part in exhibition races, make good livings off YouTube videos, and in the hiatus forced upon motor-sport by the pandemic have regularly competed against – and even beat – professional driving stars including current F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton. Check out SuperGT on YouTube, or the delightfully-named WombleRaceLeader, who dispenses racing wisdom in a Glaswegian accent so dense it must be a source of wonder and puzzlement in equal measures to his subscribers from far-flung corners of the globe.
So what has this got to do with music? Bear with me: I’ll explain.
In the course of putting in the hours needed to acquire enough competence to race with the big boys I kept coming across parallels with my experience as a working musician. For example: in order to perform at high levels you have to practise the physical skills to the point where you can forget about them, or more accurately: transcend the physical and operate in the mental sphere. Just like playing in a musical ensemble, when taking part in a race you need to have acquired enough physical skill to be able to lift your awareness above the physical tasks of wrestling with the car (or instrument) and, having looked at (listened to) what is going on around you, adjust what you are doing to take account of your fellow drivers (players.) The purpose of practise in both disciplines is to make practise unnecessary…
There’s more… once you have learned a new track (piece of music) you begin to perceive it as a whole, not a series of individual corners but as one flowing curve: they flow into one another and you need to get the first in the series right in order to be able to do what follows, just as once you’ve learned the main themes, motifs, and structures of a piece of music you start to perceive the whole piece as one entity and become able to follow (and thus lead your listeners through) the flow of the argument.
Then, when you are performing, there is that phenomenon known as “the zone,” a place all sports persons and performing artists know well: a point of calm and stasis amid the chaos and pandemonium around you, but a point which is always in motion. Robert Pirsig described it as the “leading edge of reality”, the front edge of the locomotive as it hurtles down the track, ever-changing but always the same. Just as in music performance the most certain way to fall off this edge and out of the zone is to think “wow, I’m playing well tonight” or “here comes my big solo; I’d better not screw it up, so-and-so is in the audience tonight”, in sim racing the most certain way to fall off is to think “wow, I’m fast today” or “here comes that difficult hairpin: if I miss my braking point I’ll be in the gravel and lose places in the race.” In both disciplines, when you are truly in the zone, you are not thinking ahead or behind, not dwelling on that wrong note you played 10 seconds ago or thinking about that difficult corner coming after this one, but only in the moment, and when you are truly in the zone you aren’t thinking at all but simply letting yourself be a conduit through which the abstract symbolic logic we call “music” or the complicated and beautiful ballet of weight, grip, inertia and momentum we call “motorsport” make themselves manifest.
In my ongoing quest to understand the mental aspects of performance in the arts arena, I previously thought that sports psychology had nothing to offer, being (as I thought) primarily concerned with competition and striving whereas artistic performance is concerned with collaboration and… whatever the opposite of striving is. My adventures on the virtual race tracks of the world have taught me that there are many things in common between the two worlds, and my experience as a performing musician has enabled me to short-cut and bypass many of the pitfalls as I fumble my way towards the chequered flag.
One of the most surprising revelations has been that, in common with most of the musicians with whom I’ve discussed the mental aspects of performance, on the race-track I am beginning to value process over outcome just as I do in musical performance: I no longer care to the exclusion of all else whether I come first, but take more pleasure in the manner of finishing wherever I finish. And, whisper it who dares but not in front of the punters: the audience is secondary. I’m primarily there to entertain myself: it is a side-product of that that the audience also are entertained and while it may seem counterintuitive it has been my experience and observation that if you, the performer, are enjoying your own performance the audience will also enjoy it.
Anyone who has Gran Turismo Sport on a PS4, I’ll see you on the grid: my PS ID is Jay_dammit.
Anyone who needs a guitarist, I’m desperate to play live. My name is Jay, dammit.