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Just Words

Practice Makes Progress

Infinite Jest, Tennis and Improvised Music

by Brad Cheeseman

In Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace explores many subjects and themes at incredible depth. Throughout its 1079 pages, Wallace examines (among many other things) the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous, gives an incredibly accurate portrayal of depression, and talks about tennis. There’s a lot of tennis. And a lot to digest regarding process, training and craft. Despite not coming from an athletic background, I found myself drawn to these tennis chapters, as they mirror many aspects of my own development as a jazz musician.

Although protagonist Hal Incandenza’s tennis playing is described early in the novel as “balletic,” tennis is decidedly not a choreographed dance with a complex series of steps which the players must recreate. Instead, it is an improvised and shared performance — a dialogue between players in the language of their craft. In jazz, improvisation is not used as an excuse for the musicians to show off their chops or to outplay each other (which, when it is treated as such, quickly becomes tedious) but instead it is a vehicle for the musicians to collectively explore and interpret the music at hand and, while individual players may be featured for solos, each musician is equally important to the overall performance. As Enfield Tennis Academy (hereby referred to as ETA) instructor Gerhardt Schtitt explains, “the competing boy on the net’s other side: he is not the foe: he is more the partner in the dance. He is the … occasion for meeting the self. As you are his occasion.”

The shared responsibility of this kind of improvisation relies on an understanding of the language so deep that the performers can react to any prompt, inform what happens next, or execute the right idea at the right time. One of my college instructors repurposed a Dizzy Gillespie quote to explain this: “if you can hear it, you can have it.” That is, if you can understand and interpret an idea, then you can respond and/or perform appropriately. The training and practice required for this is not particularly sexy, nor is the way that tennis is discussed in Infinite Jest. The players train for the sport with a rigorous, calculated and repetitive regime and they talk about it in equally mechanical terms. This part of the training is just a beginning though, and good art (or tennis) doesn’t stem from simply speaking the language of one’s craft (we certainly don’t read David Foster Wallace for his understanding of grammar). In an improvised performance, there are a nearly endless amount of possible actions and reactions at any given moment but mastery allows the performers to make the “right” one.

The road to mastery is one half doing the requisite heavy lifting, while the other half is a sort of self-transcendence…

The endless hours spent practicing, running mechanical exercises, examining and re-examining technique, developing an expansive language (whether it be physical actions or musical ideas), and learning how to creatively use that language are all steps towards achieving this kind of mastery. However, there are performance plateaus that inevitably occur along the way. According to one ETA student, the key to moving past each plateau is “a whole lot of frustrating mindless repetitive practice and patience and hanging in there.” They then go on to describe three types of people who falter when faced with the sudden lack of improvement at these plateaus: there’s the Despairing type, who lacks the required perseverance and zen-like patience and abandons ship at the first sign of problems; the Obsessive type, who tries to aggressively force their way to the next level (often injuring themselves or missing key elements in the process); and the Complacent type, who gets comfortable at their plateau and builds their “whole game around compensating for [their] weaknesses.”

The thesis here is that the road to mastery is one half doing the requisite heavy lifting (whether it be dawn drills or spending quality time with a metronome), while the other half is a sort of self-transcendence — overcoming the disappointment and frustration of each new plateau, eliminating the need to be “the best” (or, for the novel’s players, getting to “the Show”) and giving yourself over to the process. One of the major challenges that musicians are faced with is moving beyond the instrument itself and not letting it get in the way of the performance. The tennis chapters in Infinite Jest speak to this and are a reminder that these goals are trying but are also attainable through persistence, patience and perspective. To quote Schtitt again, “you compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through the limits: transcend: improve: win.”

Brad Cheeseman is a musician/composer in Toronto.

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Writers, artists, and thinkers celebrating David Foster Wallace. A publication from A24 and the upcoming film THE END OF THE TOUR.

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