I doubt if there’s anyone who would deny that life is hard, at least sometimes. Yet these same individuals will also doubtlessly admit that on some hours, on some days, things flow with ease. One of my voice teachers, one of the true greats, used to say: “If it ain’t easy, it ain’t right!” Yet as every opera singer knows, as every “Life Artist” knows, the effort involved in mastery is often blindingly difficult. So here we are, faced with a dichotomy.
“Life is hard.” – “Life is easy.”
“Life is suffering.” – “Life is joy.”
As a voice teacher, THE most important thing to impart to students is the fact that it’s sometimes one AND sometimes the other! As a coach, in business, art or personal life, THE most important thing to impart to clients is the inner flexibility to anticipate and respond to this contrariety.
Both beliefs and their corresponding values have their advantages and their disadvantages. ‘Life is hard’ prepares the body and mind for concentrated work and the effortful expansion of habitual boundaries. Yet a bit too much of this belief, especially for the singer, induces by suggestion too much helping tension and effortful muscularity. ‘Life is easy’ evokes balance, flow and joyful self-expression. At the same time, it can discourage growth, by the tendency to take the ‘easy’ way out.
This makes me think of S. Freud’s definition of neurosis: ‘an intolerance for ambiguity’. This means inner flexibility and the ability to shift with the punches is a sort of anti-neurosis program. To paraphrase Nietsche: “What doesn’t kill us, makes us flexible!”
On a long walk recently, I noticed a hawk in a field. They never seem to look quite as elegant walking in the dirt as they do flying in the air. I got too close for comfort, startled him and with great effort, he took flight. He was one of those hawks with a large wing span and ‘sport-studio’ legs. And he really used them for that take-off; a powerful leap and strong, muscular flaps. I was close enough to see the effort involved. I was close enough to hear it as well. Hard to tell if the noises on take-off were air currents or hefty, hawkish grunting. Not at all hard to imagine that hawk making noises like a weight lifter going for that last lift…..hawk version, of course. I was so fascinated by the effort that I watched for a while. He flew his way to the center of the field, rising higher and higher with those robust wing strokes, grunting all the way. Then something interesting happened. When he hit the center of the field and rose to a certain height, he stopped flapping his wings, raised his head, flew in slow deliberate circles and kept rising higher and higher. Interesting, that. He sought and found a thermal. Finding it was effortful. After that, as long as he remained in it, flight, lift, air-flow and altitude happened as if by themselves. This was the birth of one of my favorite metaphors for singing and for life. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s hard. And it seems that the mere anticipation of easiness, of hardness or of a precise balance of the two, induce both muscle activation and psychological processes that allow us to rise in our own thermals.
I recently had the opportunity to work with a very talented student violist twice in one month in the context of 2 separate seminars; Performance Training and Mental Training. One of my initial questions revolved around the distinction between playing alone at home and playing solo for an audience. What exactly, precisely were this violists’ inner pictures, dialogues, sensations and movements between the two? When that became conscious and clear, I asked her to, as well as possible, alternate between the two. She complained about rigidity in her wrists, vague back pain and stiff shoulders. By alternating between extreme effortful playing, as in a concert situation and relaxed joyful playing, as if she were alone at home, it became clear that not only her belief, but also her habits revolved around the conviction that playing was invariably ‘hard’. It required great effort, always. Her body actively reflected this. No amount of rationalization or explanation would remove these extraneous tensions. The solution here is not to be found in rationalization or explanation, as interesting to some as these might be. The solution lay for this musician in her inner life, in how she represented her own playing to herself, in all its complexity. She spent a lot of time in nature. We had that in common. So my metaphor for the thermal had her nodding enthusiastically. That inner picture of rising in a thermal, combined with an imagined sense that she was already a successful professional, promoted an optimal balance between ease and effort. Her playing sounded, for her and for us, more natural, freer and generally more musical.
This metaphor and others like it, seem even easier for singers. Singers, especially Opera Singers, live in a world combining the auditory, the sensory and the verbal, in a way which instrumentalists don’t. That makes these kinds of inner pictures for most quite easy to produce. In a lesson just the other day, a soprano was having trouble with an OH vowel on a high note. She’d sung this phrase countless times to her own satisfaction, but something recently was bringing her to exert way too much effort in its production. Here the Hawk-in-the-Thermal metaphor induced the idea that the higher you get, the easier it becomes. This may not be always the case or the best metaphor for all singers, but in her case, it was money in the bank! After singing the high note a few times, she actually said: “It’s as if the tone comes by itself!” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
It’s always fascinating to me in my own life and in those I know, how the exquisite combination of Effort and Ease raises consciousness and increases effectivity. You know how it is to want something so bad that you clutch onto it until you cramp, only to have it manifest later through release. You also know how it is to wish and hope and long-for and yet do nothing for the longest time, only to have right effort bring it about. These are examples of exaggerated, one-sided thinking (if you can call that ‘thinking’). Maturity brings a more complex and balanced view. Self-Knowledge is synonymous with finding this balance. It is essential that we teach our students, our clients and our children to find it for themselves.
Evan Bortnick http://www.musa-vocalis.de