After a long hiatus, Vierra and I hit up the climbing gym last Friday. And again, as many times before, I marveled at the fluidity and apparent ease with which experienced climbers glide across the facades of various inclinations framing the gym. Although I am not an experienced climber, I know enough to appreciate the tremendous discipline which goes into creating a continuous, smooth motion up and across the walls. Climbing, in a way, is like playing Bach: you make the difficult look effortless, the challenging feel natural. But most importantly, you express your expertise through self-control.

Once, a long time ago, my piano teacher taught me something pivotal about playing Bach (I was working on one of his many Inventions at the time). She told me not to vary the speed at which I play. No modulations. No tense slowing-downs before a resolved chord, no cathartic acceleration as the melody leads you ahead and you’ve finally muddled your way through a complicated bit and are ready to play the easier portions. From her simple, insightful advice I have come to believe that artificially varying the tempo which is supposed to be steady in a piece, is cheating.

Yes, it may generate the appropriate emotional response from your audience. But unless you’re following strict orders from The Man himself (ie. the composer), you’re copping out and betraying your own musical immaturity. You think that what is written on the page (the melody, the tempo, the harmony, the dynamics), what the composer intended and clearly showed, will not be enough. Let me clarify that I am not promoting a mechanical, robotic interpretation of a composition. Small musical nuances should and will appear in any quality reading of a musical piece. And of course a waltz by Chopin allows for much more self-expression and emotionality than the said Invention. But I am saying that as a musician grows more mature, he or she becomes more adroit at seeing the entire piece of music, of understanding the whole, complex thought and intent, and of relying more on tone, timbre, pitch and dynamics than on blatant tempo alteration to express that musical thought.

And this is exactly what happens in climbing.

An inexperienced climber does not glide. He hangs, jerks, lunges, pulls, wavers, slips, grabs, hangs, and jerks upward again. This climber is not seeing anything beyond the next handhold or foothold. Their only priority is to grab that great, big ring-shaped hold and rest there. They feel that they’re big and powerful because they can push up so high, reach the top, and do it quickly. But there is no beauty to their climb. It is a stutter, not a dance.

A seasoned climber is enthralling to behold. Their motions are rhythmic and controlled, they are always looking out and planning the next pas. The goal of the climb ceases to be the top, and becomes more a jubilant celebration of the perfect synthesis between intellect and agility. When you reach this level of climbing, you feel whole in a way that you may never have experienced before. You no longer rely on brute strength, but on thoughtful planning, foresight, balance, rhythm, and intelligence.

For instance, beginners tend to wear out their hands quickly because in places where they should be using their leg muscles to push up, they’re using their arms (and fingers, and forearms, and shoulders, and oh – the agony!) to pull up. You know that you’re moving towards intermediate when at the end of a climbing session your legs ache and your upper body is still mostly functional. Or: think about your center of gravity. While it is tempting to stick your rear way out when you’re holding on for dear life, knowledgeable climbers always keep close to the wall – this puts their center of gravity over their legs instead of straining their already agonizing hands, and provides more mobility because now you’re gripping with the side of your foot, and not your tippy-toes.

More thoughts on music here and here.