The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra was well into its forceful, menacing rendition of The Requiem when I thought of New York Jets training camp, in progress just a few miles from Lincoln Center. Not because of conductor Louis Langree’s physical exertions—slashing the air with his arms, balling his fists, pointing and exhorting the musicians and chorus, sort of a Peyton Manning of maestros. Rather, I was reminded of what Langree had told me in a discussion of classical music in a football setting nine years earlier.
At the time, Jets head coach Eric Mangini had embarked on a brief—and arguably unsuccessful—experiment in which he piped the most culturally refined symphonic sounds into the heads of his gridiron behemoths during study portions of camp. Mangini was inspired by the so-called “Mozart Effect,” which suggests that listening to the 18th-Century master’s work makes a person smarter.
Langree, as director of the Mostly Mozart Festival since 2002, was an obvious man to query on the topic. In a phone interview, he confessed that he had “no idea” whether Mozart’s music stimulated learning, though he said he had “heard there were some studies on farms” in which “they put the cows in stables and at night put on different music. Michael Jackson. Beethoven. Duke Ellington. And when they played Mozart, the cows gave the biggest amount of milk.”
Langree, a Frenchman, admitted limited knowledge of American football. “I’ve heard of the Jets. I don’t know how many players there are on a team,” he said.
But he suggested that to promote more concentration by Jets players, or any workers, he might play Mozart’s last movement of the Jupiter Symphony (Symphony No. 41), which he described as “a vision like the time of enlightenment.” More to the point, and this is what struck me during the recent concert, he said he might attempt to provoke players’ aggression with “excerpts from The Requiem. This is music panic, almost. Truly hell, or fear of hell. The end of the world.”
Ominous. Rousing. Smash-mouth music. Hit-em-again, hit-em-again. Harder. Harder.
It should be noted that Eric Mangini, like Mozart, was a fellow who found unusual success at an early age in the field of his endeavor and, like Mozart (who was composing music at 5 years old), was labeled a “genius” by many critics for a willingness to break the molds of his profession. In 2006, Mangini not only was the youngest head coach in the National Football League, at 35, but also was named his conference’s coach of the year when the Jets won 10 of 16 games.
It was in August of 2007, however, that he attempted the Mozart project—a true rejiggering of the football DNA—and the team wound up going 4-12. In 2008, after an 8-3 start, the Jets lost four of their last five games and Mangini was fired.
Nevertheless, just exposed to the Mostly Mozart production, I am inclined to ascribe to a Leo Tolstoy observation that “music is the shorthand of emotion” and is therefore ideally suited to assertive sports activity. At last year’s U.S. Open tennis championships, by the way, there was a harpist performing just outside the player entrance.
Likewise, at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis, a woman named Diane Evans, a member of the Indianapolis Symphony, played a harp in the foyer of the hall that was housing the Games’ weightlifting competition. All manner of grunting and groaning was going on inside the building, while Evans argued that harps and symphony halls “are perfectly appropriate” in the athletic setting. She had taken in the Pan Am baseball competition, and decided that the pitcher warming up was “just slow pieces followed by faster pieces.” She asked, “Do you know what an etude is?”
I had to look it up. It is a musical composition for the development of a specific point of technique. Strikingly similar, one could argue, to a drill that helps offensive linemen refine their footwork to improve blocking ability. Or a workout that hones a pass receiver’s routes.
So: Virtuosity in different forms. Mostly.