How Cross-Country Training Makes Austin Lewellen '16 a Better Bassist

September 18, 2014
Daniel Hautzinger
Austin Lewellen collaborated with the bluegrass band Punch Brothers during his 2013-14 year at Oberlin. Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

Sometimes accidents have beneficial consequences. Austin Lewellen ’16, who majors in double bass performance in the conservatory, sprained his ankle just three hours before his first lesson of the year.

The injury came about while Lewellen was training for his role away from music: as a runner on the cross-country team. Because of the ankle, he had to sit down while playing in his lesson with his teacher, Scott Dixon. “All my teacher said was, ‘You play louder while sitting.’ And now I only play orchestral music while sitting.”

That discovery is only the least obvious of the benefits that have resulted from Lewellen’s life as both a musician and athlete. “I’ve been finding that the mental game of racing has helped me deal with performance anxiety," he says. "You have to focus on the big picture, otherwise you won’t run a good race. But you also have to pay attention to the technical details, otherwise you will injure yourself or run slowly. And the same thing goes for music.”

Running and performing also share similar practice techniques, so that learning to practice efficiently in one causes improvement in the other. For instance, cross-country workouts involve a lot of interval training. Recently, Lewellen has been trying to apply the same concept to the bass: working on small sections or aspects of performance in short, concentrated bursts.

Ray Appenheimer, head coach of the cross-country team, agrees that Lewellen’s dual pursuits have had a favorable effect. “As his commitments in the conservatory have grown over the last three years, so has Austin's maturity and ability to handle it all,” Appenheimer says.

“The fact that he balances it all so well is testimony to his capacity and confidence as an artist and athlete.”

Lewellen ran cross country throughout high school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and originally hoped to earn a college scholarship for it. But although Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, Lewellen visited Oberlin in his senior year and loved the team. “They’re just awesome people,” he says.

That helped him decide to take on two considerable commitments.

When asked how he balances athletics and music, Lewellen laughingly responds: “coffee.”

But coffee alone doesn’t solve everything; he carefully organizes his day so that there’s time to practice bass in the morning and run later in the day.

“It’s hard to have the mental and physical energy to practice bass after a hard workout,” he says. While attending a music festival in Canada over the summer, he ran at six in the morning—the only free time he could find.

“Austin loves being so busy,” Appenheimer insists. “He loves the challenge of taking on so much and striving to do it all to the best of his ability.”

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