Investments in Loss: A Path to Improvement

The champion chess player and Tai Chi Push Hands champion, Josh Waitzkin is known to the world as the subject of the very popular 1993 movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer, detailing the progress of a young chess master who reminded of the last great american chess champion, Bobby Fischer. I loved that movie also.  But I am a fan of Josh Waitzkin for his book: The Art of Learning, which I think every one should read who hopes to reach a high level of proficiency in any discipline.  In this post, I would like to concentrate on one of Josh’s themes from the book, based upon a concept that his Tai Chi teacher emphasized. Investments in Loss.

My own Kung Fu and Tai Chi teacher, Sifu Karl Romain, introduced this idea to me, when I began sparring.  His advice was that I should let myself lose to my opponent the first time I sparred him or her such that I can learn the opponent’s strategies and concentrate on what I am not aware of instead of using what I know in an attempt to “win.”  There is really no winning in a good sparring session.  It’s about learning!  Although I must say, I would have preferred not cracking three ribs in the process of learning to defend a “mandarin duck feet” followed by a forbidden spin kick!  But that is martial arts. I digress…

This is a concept that we can all learn from regardless of discipline.  I notice that singers have a tendency to protect what they think works:

This approach helps me sing the aria straight through without fatiguing.  I should keep it right?

You should keep it until you want something better.  Singing the aria straight through is not the final goal.  Are you free to make music?  Are you flexible to the point that you can live in the moment and sense the musical/dramatic needs of the piece?  Or are you just making sounds relatively stably through the length of the aria?  Whatever the next step is, it requires giving up something to discover the next thing.

For example, in my early years of teaching, I heard teachers preach “pure vowels!”  Being a language person, I quickly gave in to this idea.  I enjoyed the immediacy of feeling myself articulate the words with exactitude.  Yet, my sound was not very appealing at the time.  I later came to a teacher who emphasized the open throat.  I was praised for my new, more robust sound but my diction had gone to  mud–dull and unintelligible.  One of my great teachers before she died told me to become a successful tenor I should never lose my natural baritone color.  She was correct.  During the early years of my progress from baritone to tenor, I attempted to brighten the sound, lighten up, as many had suggested, only to become stiffer and less resonant.  Going back to my teacher’s advice helped tremendously.  My high notes where coming back and I could handle the tenor tessitura more easily when I committed to my true baritonal sound.  Yet, lately,  I have had to concentrate on brilliance and more tenor-like colors.  In experimenting with these extreme tenor colors, I discovered a brilliance more extreme than I ever thought possible for my voice.  With years of experience, I knew I would be giving up a little bit of my baritone richness for a period of time.  However, having gone back and forth so many times trying to get both sides of my voice satisfying, it did not take any sacrifice of my rich baritone substance to acquire the stretchy brilliance that I equate with lighter voices like Kraus and Gedda.

It has always been clear to me that the balance I seek involved both depth and brilliance.  We however have a terrible tendency thinking that we must give up one thing for another to manifest. Here is our paradox:

Depending on where we are on the path to balance, we may have to give up a little bit of one side to be able to experience the other side.  But in more advance stages, we start to become aware that with practice, we can actually have both sides with complete satisfaction.  This reflects the functional nature of the voice:

The folds may thicken and stretch simultaneously!

Two complimentary functions!  They are connected and yet, when functioning at their best, they feel as if they are independent.  High overtones depending on the opposed stretching of the folds, just as low overtones depend on the opposed thickening of the folds.  Ying and Yang, so to speak!  Greater levels of interdependence are experienced when we are willing to let go of our safe place–That feeling of: 

I dare not wander away from what works!

It is indeed about balance.  We should not wander from our safe place until we know it well.  But once we know our home, we must wander from it to experience the world.  It is always there to come back to.  Or we may decide, we will make our home in a better place.  At very least, we should have the option to decide.  This is the way of the artist!  This is the way of the singer!

© April 4, 2016

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