Having a job on the faculty at a Big 10 school is great in many ways, one of which is the unparalleled athletic facilities. As soon as the academic year began, I joined the gym, resolving to get in shape by swimming. Swimming is a great sport for wind players – it encourages great breathing habits, which is crucial for those who blow air for a living. The breathing is done in a horizontal position, which (in my opinion at least) is the best way to learn to breathe well.

For those of you who are interested in a little experiment, try standing up and taking the richest breath you can. Let it out. Now, take a bow, and stay down, just letting go of everything. Take the richest breath you can in that position. You will feel a much greater expansion, a much fuller experience of breathing, and, to speak plain English, a better breath. My own theory about this is that we use our abdominal muscles to hold us upright as well as to breathe. As long as we are standing up, there is a slight tightness in those muscles which limits free breathing. When you bow down, you release those muscles. Now, this may be a total fantasy on my part, and I am having an anatomist speak with my horn students about breathing this coming semester, so there may be a follow-up blog, but whatever the mechanism, you get the point.

I have always been a poor swimmer, in contrast to my brother, who swam a mile when he was something like 12 years old. I am decent at the breast stroke, but have always been a flailer (or an avoider) at the crawl. This year was going to be my chance to learn it, to develop a spectacular triangular-shaped torso, to lose lots of pounds, and to do a triathlon.

So I got in the pool. It was really big. Not big like a giant water park – big as in long. Specifically, 50 meters, which is a long way to swim. In my first swim, back in September, I went a length of the pool doing the breast stroke, and swam back doing the “crawl” (the quotes indicate that this was my version of the crawl, which was not a pretty sight). I made it about half way back before I was breathing like a maniac, and finished up breast stroking it back. That whole swim then stayed with breast stroke.

Like many happy tales, this one has a middle section with progress. After a few swims, I was able to go a length of the pool swimming the crawl. A colleague’s wife offered me some tips, I got a little better, and so on. By the beginning of Kwanzaa vacation, I was swimming 8 lengths of crawl alternating with 8 lengths of breast stroke, which isn’t bad considering we’re talking about a 50 meter pool. But I needed the interspersed breast stroke because I was breathing so hard after each length of crawl I though I was going to explode. This, by the way, was not the kind of breathing I was aiming to practice in my swimming.

We spent a week in San Francisco during our break, and one evening I put my son to bed while my wife was out, and decided it was the perfect time to watch some videos about better swimming. There was a series of lectures by a guy named Terry Laughlin on a method he developed called Total Immersion which had me glued to the computer. He basically described my type of flailing, and gave the solution, using simple concepts and lots of video examples. What I particularly liked about his ideas were that he challenged the orthodoxy at every turn. I won’t get into particulars, but the whole thing made sense.

The co-director of Total Immersion is a guy named Shinji Takeuchi, and there was a link to a video of him swimming in a pool. If you want to watch it (I recommend it, and it is short), here it is (I also recommend turning off the sound on your computer…). It was one of the most amazing sports videos I had ever seen – effortless motion. The guy cuts through the water like butter. So, I ordered the self-coaching videos and eagerly await them. Meanwhile, we are back home, and I had a swim today. Tried to apply what I had learned. Swam 20 minutes straight, crawl the whole way, and was barely breathing hard.

I enjoy thinking about how we learn, and have blogged already about it. I am fascinated that a few videos and a few lectures online were enough to cause such improvement in my swimming without my spending one second in the pool. It goes to confirm that we learn physical activities by modeling: we develop a concept of what we need to do, and then we do it. It’s all about image and metaphor, and about visualization and imagination. Interestingly, after my night of Total Immersion computer immersion, I called my brother, a professional cellist, to tell him about it. “Are you interested in this for the swimming, or for horn teaching?” he asked immediately. Indeed, O perceptive one. I reckon there is a lot of thinking ahead of me as I sort through Total Horn Immersion. Meanwhile, I can’t wait to get back in the pool.

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