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Chancellor’s Letter: In the Zone

December 17, 2018
by Chancellor Carol T. Christ

When I heard that the theme for this edition of California magazine was play, my thoughts turned to music and sports. Both are forms of self-expression, closely linked in ways that are at once intuitive and surprising. We have many campus programs in each—another way we seek to embrace the fullest possible range of human endeavors and do justice to the essential meaning of “University.”

As it happens, music is an art form I engage in and love. I try to set aside time every day to play the viola. It puts me in a meditative space, and, like sports, it is a form of play that demands discipline and induces humility: I know I can always get better. Then there is the performative aspect of both kinds of play; they are art forms in time, in which you create in the moment, even as it takes shape around you.

Music develops many of the same, valuable aspects of character as athletics—the ability to be a constant learner and a daring improviser, leadership, team work. I love playing chamber music in particular because how we play as a group depends on how we listen and interact as individuals. If I play as though mine is the only important part of the piece, as though I am the only player on the stage, it all falls apart. The players on our wonderful women’s softball team know that as deeply and profoundly as the members of any philharmonic orchestra.

Homo Ludens is the name of a book published in 1938 by the Dutch historian and cultural theorist, John Huizinga. The title refers to a Latin word with no direct English equivalent, as it refers, at once, to sport, play, school, and practice. Huzinga believed that play is a fundamental element of culture, society, and the human condition. He wrote that, “making music bears at the outset all the formal characteristics of play proper: the activity begins and ends within strict limits of time and place, is repeatable, consists essentially in order, rhythm, alternation, transports audience and performers alike out of ‘ordinary’ life into a sphere of gladness and serenity, which makes even sad music a lofty pleasure. In other words, it ‘enchants’ and ‘enraptures’ them.”

That perfectly captures what modern researchers refer to as “flow,” or what sports aficionados refer to as “being in the zone.” It is a mental state where one is fully and joyfully submerged, focused, and involved in an activity, resulting in a loss of sense of space and time. I find it fascinating that those who study this phenomenon find in both music and sports the stimulus for this elevated state: Both are self-rewarding, and both require clear standards of achievement, the skills necessary for peak performance.

No wonder then that so many athletes listen to music before a game or during their work-outs. Studies show it can extend endurance, improve performance, aid mental preparation, and hasten their immersion into the state of flow they seek.

If there are many aspects and elements that bring these forms of play together, they each have immense power, in turn, to bring us together. Last September I had the great fortune to attend two exceptional music events presented by Cal Performances, one featuring cello virtuoso, Yo-Yo Ma, the other jazz giant Wynton Marsalis. Both performers talked about this national moment of bitterness and social division, and both proceeded to show, through their play, music’s power to unite, to create a powerful communal experience. Many fans find in sports a similarly powerful experience of community.

It seems as though we have a growing tendency to dichotomize the world around us. Political differences are a matter of black and white. Gone are the nuanced shades of grey. The sciences versus the humanities. Academics and athletics. Cal and Stanford. (How could one ignore “The Play” in a piece about play?) As the list lengthens, we too easily lose sight of what we share in common, of the ties that bind us together and, yes, help us play well together.

While I would broaden Plato’s gender reference in the following quote, few have said it better: “Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest.”

Whether in an orchestra or on a team, play on you Bears!

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