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Rock Climbing x Marching Percussion - Key Takeaways from "Free Solo"

In the year 2019, the movie Free Solo won best documentary feature. It follows the lifestyle and training of professional rock climber, Alex Honnold, as he sets a goal to climb El Capitan without rope or harnesses. In this blog, we will review our three key takeaways from Alex’s journey, which guided him to successfully climb nearly 3,000 feet without falling to his death.


  1. The Process

Alex’s free solo ascent of El Capitan on June 3rd, 2017, was not successful solely due to will and grit. He planned meticulously for years how to complete the route. He trained muscle control, difficult movements, and overall endurance. This is very similar to top percussion solo and ensemble performances in the marching band activity. Oftentimes viewers will say a group was “on tonight”, which may be partially true, but can also dismiss the months of effort to develop the drumming habits to successfully play a part or march a set the same way, every time, without error. In order to build consistency as an individual performer or ensemble, one must rehearse diligently and map out the events to be successful. Nobody makes a drumline spot by chance; behind every success story is persistence, planning, and execution.

  1. Composure

Alex Honnold shared on Joe Rogan’s podcast that one of the keys to remaining calm during his performance was ranking all moves on a scale of 1 - 10. After this initial risk assessment, he developed a goal to convert every move to a score of 5 or 6. This required creating a greater sense of urgency and attention for simple moves to go to a higher score (from a 2 to a 5), and master the technique for the hardest moves to reduce their complexity down to a lower score (from a 9 to a 6). For example, viewing simple moves as a score of a 3 can result in recklessness and lead to a costly fall. For a difficult move that began as a 10, he developed the strength and technique to mitigate the risk to a lower number, which prevents overthinking or tension during execution. This approach resulted in a composed mindset and even consistency during his successful ascent. 

There are clear parallels with this mindset when incorporated in the marching percussion activity. Let’s use Santa Clara Vanguard as an example, who has won four straight drum titles from 2016 - 2019. There are multiple factors that have led this triumph, but let’s focus on their consistent clarity on all their passages of music. They maintain high attention to detail and approach on simpler phrases, as well as maintain smooth flow and relaxation on their more difficult phrases. The result is confidence streamlined through consistency. They can maintain poise and composure through their entire musical performance while enjoying high clarity and top execution.

  1. Performing for your audience

There was one unique difference with free soloing El Capitan compared to a majority of Alex’s previous climbs. During his ascent, he had a full film crew surrounding him for a large portion of his journey. To make things more difficult, a majority of the crew were fellow climbers and friends. In my experience, I personally found it easier to perform in front of an empty room or a room full of strangers, versus performing in front of friends and colleagues. The pressure increases when you feel the need to be successful in front of people you care about. To reduce this anxiety, Alex increased the rigor of his training, which converted to extreme confidence and controlled auto-pilot. He also allowed the film crew to record his training sessions, so completing the ascent around other humans wasn’t a foreign feeling.

The takeaway here is learning to be comfortable performing in front of others, including close colleagues. The best way to work on developing this comfort isn’t just by mastering your craft, but also by increasing the volume of repetitions performed in front of friends and teachers. If this cannot be completed in a physical environment, then you can mimic this in live virtual drumming sessions, virtual lessons, or by submitting an Percussion IQ Assessment.

These scenarios will require you to ease your nerves and practice performing well under increased pressure. This experience will not only help your performances in your drumline, but also help you prepare for performing to the best of your abilities when auditioning for your favorite groups. 

We hope this review will help you continue to increase your proficiency and approach behind your instrument. Stay calculated. Maintain discipline. Enjoy the process. Lastly, stay hungry and stay humble. 

Author: Matt Regua

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