The ability on a camera-laden set to inhabit a character without a twitch of distraction or preoccupation or visible hint of the internally or externally irrelevant is a scary but brilliant feat.
Ordinary people cannot do it. But I have seen great actors do it even at cocktail receptions full of cell phones. In a world where major writers have announced that they cannot focus on their work without extracting or blocking the modems in their laptops, this kind of thespian concentration is worth noting. (One thinks of the writer Anne Lamott’s remark on her own maturing undistractibility: “I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink,” she has said. “Then I had a child and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.”)
Who knows what goes on in any athlete’s head, but he comes across as someone who has genuinely found a way to solve the three brutal overlapping problems that come for any really great athlete late in his or her career. Namely, how to a) keep up the phenomenal and borderline terrifying level of motivation required to commit to nonstop training and preparation after you’ve already realized all your goals, while b) making peace with the fact that you not only aren’t as good as you once were but in fact are doomed to get worse, while c) maintaining a realistic, evolving sense of what you can do so that you know how to plan and when to feel proud, frustrated, optimistic, etc.
I read Timothy Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Tennis, and really enjoyed it. It’s one of those “hub” books you come across every so often, where you realize there are spokes sticking out into a bunch of other stuff that’s been on your mind lately.
Gallwey’s working theory here is about the internal dichotomy between “Self 1” and “Self 2” in performance. Self 1 is that voice inside, that part of you that “knows” how to do things, that instructs, urges, reprimands, exhorts. Self 2 is the one that does things. Given that Self 1 is so eager to “try hard” and correct and evaluate, successful practice and performance is about building trust for Self 2 and learning through practice and simple observation.
Letting go of judgments does not mean ignoring errors. It simply means seeing events as they are and not adding anything to them.
Mindfulness! There’s a flip side of that, too – Self 1 can be too pleased with itself when things are going well. Self-congratulations also takes you out of the moment. I really like this section, about avoiding criticism as we learn:
When plant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we do not criticize it as “rootless and stemless”. We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within it, at all times, it contains its whole potential.
Another interesting bit:
If you think you are controlled by a habit, then you will feel you have to try to break it. […] There is no need to fight old habits. Start new ones.
And I thought this was nicely phrased…
Natural focus occurs when the mind is interested.
Focus isn’t something we do, it’s something that results.
I also like one final section on the games that people play aside from the actual game itself. We each tend to embrace different goals within the game: to be perfect, to be better than the other guy, to appear to be great, to bond, to learn, to be challenged, etc. Each of these motivations influence and contaminate and distract us from performance to some degree.
Very highly recommended!
Some other related posts around here: Never try to look cool and learn something at the same time. Nervous is good. Performance vs. editing. In order to have your best performance you have to be relaxed. That eye-on-the-object look. Reality not maybe is zen. Festina lente. Willing to be shit at things. Forever the 5-year-old of something. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you.
Doubt is what drives me, the nervousness that I don’t have it anymore. There’s nothing a coach or anyone can say to me that’s more powerful than my own fear that I can’t do it anymore.
Status as currency. The whole thing is worth a read. I liked this aside on public speaking, which also connects with live music and standup comedy and other types of performance, and why they’re scary:
“Bidding for status” is another activity with economic characteristics. The nature of a bid is that it sets a particular ‘price’ that can be accepted or rejected. Robin Hanson suspects that speaking in public is a way of bidding for status. The very act of standing in front of a group and speaking authoritatively represents a claim to relatively high status. If you speak on behalf of the group – i.e., making statements that summarize the group’s position or commit the group to a course of action — then you’re claiming even higher status. These bids can either be accepted by the group (if they show approval or rapt attention, and let you continue to speak) or rejected (if they show disapproval, interrupt you, ignore you, or boo you off stage).
You rush your mom or whomever off the phone in some less formal syntax (“Yo, I’mma holler at you later,”), hang up and get back to work. Then you look up and you see your co-workers looking at you and wondering who the hell you’d morphed into for the last few minutes. That right there? That’s what it means to code-switch.
My dad and my sister are experts at (subconsciously) stepping up the Southern accent ever so slightly when the situation calls for it. I’m pretty sure I do it, too, but it’s quite possible everyone sees right through me.
Beethoven specialists are known as great musicians, great interpreters, whereas Bach specialists tend to be viewed vatically, as mediums. I found myself connecting Casals’s moaning and Gould’s humming—for a composer who is supposed to be pure, we sure enjoy a lot of extraneous noise!—the musical equivalent of speaking in tongues, channeling, a kind of cultish signal, a sonic signature of being on the right occult frequency to communicate with the master.
It was at a concert of lovely old music. After two or three notes of the piano the door was opened of a sudden to the other world. I sped through heaven and saw God at work. I suffered holy pains. I dropped all my defenses and was afraid of nothing in the world. I accepted all things and to all things I gave up my heart. It did not last very long, a quarter of an hour perhaps; but it returned to me in a dream at night, and since, through all the barren days, I caught a glimpse of it now and then.
What was very interesting is that the words Tony writes are 90% illegible. He is expressing ideas and scribbling with the marker but does not have time for accuracy. For example, on one slide that I remembered, I saw that the word FINANCE was not even slightly legible, SUCCESS looked like a jumbled signature, then there were lots of swirly lines and arrows. Without the context of Tony, it would have made no sense. But the ideas were conveyed better with the aid of these notes.
Do I stop? Or go?
[Bach] says, in effect, yes this is bound to be boring but I am going to be so masterful that you will be in awe and not care even if you will be bored.
Jeremy Denk is a great writer. See also Denk on recording and photos of Glenn Gould during the March 1955 ‘Goldberg’ recording sessions collected by The Selvedge Yard.
No matter what you are saying your effectiveness will be primarily determined by how much you love saying it.
In the moment of playing, the logistics of just hitting the notes distract you somewhat from the continuous choices you are making. In the edit you have nothing but choice. And yet you feel helpless, since everything has already been played.
People tend to think that creative work is an expression of a preexisting desire or passion, a feeling made manifest, and in a way it is. As if an overwhelming anger, love, pain, or longing fills the artist or composer, as it might with any of us—the difference being that the creative artist then has no choice but to express those feelings through his or her given creative medium. I proposed that more often the work is a kind of tool that discovers and brings to light that emotional muck. Singers (and possibly listeners of music too) when they write or perform a song don’t so much bring to the work already formed emotions, ideas, and feelings as much as they use the act of singing as a device that reproduces and dredges them up.
Tim Tebow and the Taxonomy of Clutch » Skeptical Sports Analysis. I was getting worried about the recent @skepticalsports drought, but those dark days are past for now.