Wednesday, June 17, 2015

You have to really want it

We've all seen the movies where the group of misfits, or the underdogs, or some hometown hero who comes out of nowhere, manages to win the important contest just because they really want it very badly. It's a popular mythology, and it's not just in movies. Sports announcers like to play up this aspect, too.  The team that wins always wants it worse than the other team; that's the difference.

I've never been a huge fan of this idea, and I've noticed I have some company. In general, people who are successful in their fields tend to stress craft, and the hard work needed to get where they are. People who are not as successful tend to think in terms of raw talent and desire.

If you've been to those movies you notice that it is the desire that always puts the hero over the top. There is usually a bit of training involved, too, but that's the boring, repetitive part that in real life would go on for a long time and not seem very glamorous. It's the part where the real price is being paid for the eventual outcome. In the theater that isn't going to play well to a bunch of people sitting on their duffs waiting to share viscerally in someone else's success, so it usually goes by in a two-minute video montage with some inspirational music.

This is a cheap way to enjoy success, watching someone else do it and enjoying the emotional payoff of wanting to see them do it. It is pretty addictive, and popular, after all, the whole concept of being a sports fan is based on it. Let those guys do the hard work and we'll enjoy the success, after we've put in our time sitting on our couch with a bag of chips and yelling at the officials for two hours.

Given how important desire is in this scenario, you might imagine I've always been suspicious of it in my own field, and am forever stressing training and craft and consistent hard work to students. But lately I've come to think I've been a little hard on just plain wanting it. It's pretty important, too.

It doesn't exist in a vacuum, though, and that's where I haven't changed my mind a bit. If all you do is want something but don't put in the practice you won't get anywhere. In the moment, at the end of a long period of learning to do what you do very well, that sheer desire may make the difference, but the training has to be there. But maybe desire isn't just something you put in at the end. It may be what causes you to go out there day after day and practice. And practice hard. In which case, it is not just important, it is essential. Like most things, there are two versions of desire--one real, one counterfeit. The one where you'd sort of like to do something but not badly enough to discipline your mind and body to the task--to pay the price--that's not the real thing.

But lately I've been thinking about the role of desire in performance--the kind that shows itself in the heat of the moment, after all the hours of work.

Consider that amazing catch by that Seahawks wide receiver in the Superbowl last year. That ball bounced off of about 5 parts of his body as he lay on the ground and he still managed to haul that ball in. What a catch! How do you suppose he did that?

I'm thinking of all the hours of practice. Constantly running down the field, constantly learning to time the run, reach up at just the right time, cradle the ball just the right way, pull it in to your body, over and over, the same way. Consistent, efficient, flawless. And every kind of route you can run, catching it on your toes to stay in bounds--every kind of scenario, over and over to make it automatic. But once in a while the quarterback throws it wild--over the head, off to the side, an impossible catch. Hey, that's not the way it's supposed to go!

But he catches it anyway, somehow. Sure, we are working for smooth technique, and for making everything as easy and as well timed as we can. But the main mission here is to catch the ball. If I wind up looking like an idiot, I don't care, as long as I catch the ball. I can yell at the quarterback afterward, but in that moment, the point is to CATCH THE BALL no matter what. If I have to fling my body into outer space, do a somersault, catch it between my feet and reach down to grab it, grab it as it bounces off somebody's helmet, doesn't matter. The concentration on that receiver's face was evident. Until that ball hits the ground it's a live one. It can bounce in eight different directions, but as long as I keep focusing on it until I can grab it I can make a catch and that makes all the difference because I want it. Badly.

What we're talking about now is the "wrong kind" of practice. This is the kind of practice that is directly against the point of practice itself. It is the kind that you are supposed to avoid. Instead of smoothness, consistency, constant drilling of every detail so it goes easily, this is completely off-book, simply trying to make a passage go down without making the procedure our top concern. It's also the kind of practice that you can't get with any consistency because each situation if different, and, since it implies a loss of technical control, it's what you are trying to avoid in the first place. But can you make it work?

Every teacher I've heard or seen talks about slow tempi, much repetition, writing in all your fingerings and phrasing, not leaving anything to chance. It sounds slow and methodical, and I can't blame impatient students for finding this difficult. It's important. But this busy professional can't do all that. With several deadlines a week, and having to continually sight-read at rehearsals and sometimes concerts--you can't write in all your fingering when you are sight-reading!

What gets me through? First, all of that consistent training enables me to make up solid fingerings on the spot. Most of the time, the patterns, sensed immediately, cause my fingers to seemingly think for themselves, and execute the same fingerings I would upon reflection. But not always. Sometimes I wind up playing some pretty poor fingerings. In this case, it is years of finding ways to keep playing without breaking the musical phrase, years of solving difficult problems where no good fingerings were available, and years of being in situations when you had no time to adequately prepare but had to make good music anyway that allow me to make virtually any lousy fingering work so that nobody notices. My teacher in college once bragged that he could make any fingering work, and demonstrated a very legato phrase using the same finger on several consecutive notes. I can now do that myself, sometimes at high speed. It wouldn't be my first choice, but it gets me through.

And what about all those situations where you are accompanying amateurs and at the concert the tenors can't find their notes and suddenly out pops their part in the midst of the accompaniment? The next time it may be the altos. At rehearsal I never play strictly the accompaniment. And I never know which vocal parts I'll be playing in combination (that's up to the director), nor will I know, in the heat of the moment, who is going to need help. That comes down to listening hard, and being in the moment. I can't practice exactly what I'm going to play in that situation, any more than that wide receiver can practice catching the ball when the defender gets his finger tips on it and changes its trajectory slightly, or the ball bounces off of somebody else and takes a bizarre carom. What he CAN practice is the act of concentrating on catching the ball in similar circumstances. He can practice the desire to make it work under the direst circumstances. You CAN practice wanting it. Again and again and again.

This is why, in rehearsal, if I can't get a page turned, or the music falls off the stand, I keep going, determined, through some combination of memory, playing everything with one hand, and speedy recovery, not to have to stop, and in a decade of playing rehearsals for choirs, I don't think I even need one hand to count the times we've hand to stop because of the accompanist. It's about efficiency in rehearsal of course, but I'm also thinking: what if this were a concert? I have to find a way to make this work. That has paid off in some nearly disastrous situations in concert. I say nearly because I somehow managed to make it happen. I was determined to make it happen. Nothing between me and the ball I was absolutely going to catch no matter what. In that moment, training may come to your aid, but the script goes out the window. It's all about the desire. And the odd thing about that is, you CAN practice that. You have to!

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