Saturday, 23 November 2013

On being patient...

I am an impatient person.  Most people who know me are aware of this.  Whether it’s ordering my coffee, getting my internet to work, or advancing my career, I have no time to wait.  I want to be there NOW.  I want to get that NOW.  Like those annoying kids in the back of a car on a road trip, I’m always asking “are we there yet?”  On one of my worse days, I might be asking with bitter frustration, “why the hell aren’t we there yet??”

It’s a strange thing, this impatience of mine.  It’s a unique mixture of ambition and laziness.  I really want to get somewhere.  But I don’t want to take the time to do the work it takes to get there.

Right now, I'm struggling a lot with my impatience.  I’m starting with a new teacher, and as is often the case with a new teacher, we are rebuilding my technique from the ground up.  It’s back to basics for me.  After years of doing back flips and cartwheels, I’m learning to walk again.  The process is extremely painstaking and slow.  And I hate it.

I don’t want to take the time to breathe deep and low.  I don’t want to take the time to engage my support.  I just want to sing the note already.  I just want to get there!  And so I sabotage myself.  I block myself with my own ambition.  I’m in such a rush to sing that I don’t bother to make sure I’m singing well.

I am not alone in my impatience.  We live in an impatient age.  Thanks to high-speed internet and pre-recorded television, we’re all used to instant gratification.  Skipping the commercials.  Switching tabs on our internet browser when we’re bored.  Putting every thought into 140 characters or less.  We, as a society, have extremely short attention spans.  We can't seem to focus on anything in the long-term.

What’s wrong with doing things so quickly?  There’s nothing wrong with speed, per se.  Instant noodles and high-speed wifi don’t exactly spell the end of civilisation.  But this obsession we have with getting everything right now might land us in a lot of trouble.  Because, as they say, good things come to those who wait.

There was a great article recently by James Clear about deliberate practice and the “ten year silence”.  Apparently, most artists produce their most successful work after ten years of relative obscurity.  In other words, it takes about ten years of deliberate, focused practice, ten years of trying and failing, ten years of perseverance and gradual progress, before you finally achieve something great.

Can you imagine?  Ten years without recognition!  Ten years without gratification!  Ten years of working away, never knowing for certain if you’re actually going to get anywhere.  That doesn't just take a lot of perseverance and faith in yourself - it also takes an inconceivable amount of patience.  How many of us would be able to endure that decade?

Last week I did a 5km race.  5 kilometres is not a very long distance, but for me right now it’s just long enough to be a challenge.  The thing about running long distances is, it’s just as psychological as it is physical.  You have to have the mental fortitude to keep going.  The first kilometre is easy enough.  You think “this is no problem, I just need to do [X amount] more of these”.  But as you keep running, the kilometres get longer and longer, until the last kilometre feels like it will never end.

The temptation, of course, is to run fast at the beginning.  But if you start off too fast at the beginning, you’ll never make it to the finish line.  You have to learn to pace yourself.  I don’t mean being lazy and jogging as slowly as possible.  I mean finding an ideal speed – a speed which is challenging for you, but which you can sustain in the long term.

Getting ready to run the Downsview 5k in Toronto
The same goes for any long-term process.  If you start by rushing yourself, soon enough you will burn out and stop short of meeting your goal.  The trick is to work slowly and steadily, taking the time to do things thoughtfully and thoroughly.

Pop culture loves to sell us the story of the overnight success.  Shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice" show us that it only takes one audition, one song, to turn your life around.  This is utter nonsense!  Overnight successes never happen in the real world.  There are of course some cases where singers are “discovered” by a conductor or director, and their career takes off like a shooting star.  But even in these cases, we don’t see the years of hard work and perseverance that led to their “overnight success”.  The overnight success is an illusion.  Success comes gradually, with steady, focused work.  What seems like overnight is usually the result of years of dedication.

We only see the chick once it's hatched - we don't see what happened inside the egg.
Most singers have to play the long game.  We keep plugging away, making steady progress and developing a career bit by bit.  We might see colleagues who succeed at an early age, and we might feel pangs of jealousy.  But the truth is that most of these young prodigies don’t sustain long-term careers.  They are a “flash-in-the-pan” phenomenon.  Their talent may be exciting while they are young and attractive, but as they get older it often becomes apparent that there’s nothing behind the pretty face and the pretty voice.  They don’t have the three-dimensional artistry it takes to keep an audience’s attention in the long run.  It’s not because they aren’t talented – it’s because they weren’t given time to nurture their talents fully and develop into mature artists.  They were thrust out onto the stage before they were ready.

Most of us take a lot more time to develop our careers.  And this is hardly a bad thing.  We need this time to do the necessary work on our voices and ourselves.  We need to develop into emotionally mature adults who can handle the ups and downs of a music career.  We need to grow into colourful, thoughtful, expressive, and skilful singers.  The kinds of singers who will sustain and audience’s interest for years to come.  If we rush ourselves, we risk becoming shallow singers.  Singers who display more style than substance.  If we take the time to do the necessary work, we can become singers of depth and quality.

The problem is, singers are ambitious people.  We're always obsessed with “getting there”.  But the truth is, there is no “there”.  The future doesn’t exist!  The only reality is the present moment.

Every minute that we spend in the “future” is another minute not spent on the present.  Another moment not focused on the work at hand.  Spend too much time thinking like this, and you could dream your whole life away.

If you spend all your time trying to “get there”, you will go nowhere fast.  If you focus on the now, if you take the time to work thoughtfully and thoroughly, you can go somewhere slowly.  Which would you rather do?

Slow and steady wins the race.
Back to me in the practice room.  I’m learning the difference it makes when I give myself time.  If I rush to sing, my voice sounds shallow and light.  If I take the time to breathe and support properly, the sound is richer, fuller, and deeper.  It may be driving me crazy to work this slowly, but it’s worth it to take the time I need to produce a higher quality sound.  Bit by bit, I’m hearing the difference it makes.

It’s not huge improvement.  It’s not a dramatic improvement.  It’s a slow and gradual improvement.  A focused, thoughtful process.  There are no magical solutions or overnight successes here.  I'm learning to be patient, to take my time.  After all, good things come to those who wait.

1 comment:

  1. OMG I feel you. You articulated it so well: I don't WANT to slow down and breathe properly, I just want to sing the NOTE! Definitely feeling the same, often. And slowing down and doing the work anyways. :)