Waltz of the Shoulder Turn - An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
December 19, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — This is the season of cheer, of devotion and of giving, not to mention football and the Nutcracker. It's also the season when a golfer in the Upper Midwest goes sadly into a forced hibernation, merely dreaming of perfectly struck four-iron approach shots bending gently and deliberately from left to right.

Yet might I suggest that a golfer can do more than dream through a Minnesota winter? He or she can actively train, mentally and choreographically, for the 2012 season. With music.

This may sound unusual, but there exists a kinship between golf and classical music that deserves exploring. For the benefit of golfers, if not musicians.

For one thing, achieving that balance between technical control and the letting go required for virtuosic performance is as true for the great golf swing as for the soloist in a Brahms Concerto. What the violinist knows. the golfer should know.

The great golf writer Bernard Darwin (grandson of Charles) wrote, in 1935, about rhythm in the therapeutic application of music to golf. Essential to good ball-striking, rhythm is also elusive: "It comes and goes and, as we get older and stiffer, it is apt to go forever. . . . There is a traditional cure for its recapture, which consists in swinging the club to a waltz tune."

Bernard Darwin's personal choice is a theme from Lehar's "The Merry Widow," which unfortunately he cannot name. Ah, those benighted times before the Web, when one would actually have to catch the classical host identifying the piece on the radio! But Mr. Darwin suggests anything in languid three-quarter time will do. I tend to lean, especially this time of year, toward the "Waltz of the Flowers" from the Nutcracker.

A waltz-informed golf swing will have a more fluid motion in the backswing, and a more elegant, easy, and powerful transition on to the left side (for right-handers) during the downswing. Forget all these teaching aids advertised on TV. Classical MPR is the Golf Channel for the musically aware player. There you can engage Tchaikovsky or Johann Strauss as your swing coach.

The relation of musical technique and sonorities to your golf swing are of course indirect. But there is also a directly related musical activity hiding in plain sight. When pointed out, it's every bit as startling as finding a hieroglyph on an Egyptian obelisk depicting a man following though with what could either be an agricultural implement or a Hyksos dynasty hybrid club.

I first saw Edo de Waart lead the Minnesota Orchestra in the mid-nineties. I was floored. There, on the podium, the conductor seemed to be warming up for his Sunday morning round with friends. The graceful movements to the right and the left, the particular positions of the left foot and the bracing right knee were unmistakable. That his motions also coaxed from the orchestra a great performance of waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier was a remarkable plus, and another demonstration of the ancient links between music and golf.

The entire performance was thrilling. Maestro de Waart would cue the cellos with a full shoulder turn away from center stage. But by restricting his hip turn he indicated that he hadn't forgotten the reeds in the middle. A crucial move that only an artist will have mastered. This tension loads up immense power, so he could effortlessly and suddenly shift his weight to his left side for a dramatic entrance of massed high strings. It was like Snead in his prime. He had a complete game, and executed everything from booming orchestral tee shots to deft pianissimo pitches over bunkers to lightning fast greens.

I have no idea if de Waart has ever played the game. But it really doesn't matter. If he picked up a club for the first time today, at age 70, he'd be a five-handicapper in a month.

I hope yours is a Merry Christmas, and that Santa brings you a waltz you can dance to all winter and take to the course in April(?).

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