Between the Ears

As many regular readers will be fully aware, as a sports fan, one of my pet hates is interviews with sportsmen, managers, coaches and so on. Reporters stick a microphone under a player’s nose within seconds of him having driven himself to the edge of his competitive abilities and are aghast if he fails to provide a searingly insightful and witty analysis of his own performance, as if that wasn’t actually the job of the reporters themselves. People often bang on about the “fact” that sport is “entertainment”. No it’s not, or at least not to real sports fans – it’s about something much deeper than that, the limits of human ability, the struggle for supremacy and success. (For instance, this year’s World Cup final was a hopeless write-off if you were after entertainment, but a fascinating and ultimately totally fulfilling clash of two styles and philosophies if you were interested in it as a sporting contest.) A coach’s first loyalty is to his team, not to the viewing public, and if bland platitudes are what best serve the interests of his team, that is what he should express. Filling airtime is the media’s problem.

On the other hand, if you want honest and informed opinions about sport, there are some sources who can provide them without betraying loyalties. The football fitness coach, Raymond Verheijen, is one – since he is freelance, he is free to say what he really thinks – and, having the directness and honesty characteristic of the Dutch, he very often does. You can find him on Twitter here.

Here’s a recent sequence of tweets from him, following Ajax’s recent defeat to Auxerre in the Champions’ League:

“Wednesday night Ajax Amsterdam messed up big time in the Champions League vs Auxerre….and of course it’s a mental problem….ha ha ha. A ‘mental problem’ is often located inside someone’s head…..and to be more specific…..between someone’s ears………. how can a ‘problem’ be located inside someone’s head (=physical) but at the same time called something else than physical ??? In our head ‘between the ears’ we have the brain…..and the brain allows us to ‘think’…..and thinking is as physical as you can get…. So ‘mental’ problems are really ‘thinking’ problems and everything that’s related to thinking….like memories, emotions, feeling, etc. So ‘mental’ is not something else than ‘physical’ but is a part of physical. The brain is part of the body just like the heart, muscles, etc. Someone who says a problem is not ‘physical’ but ‘mental’ really says ‘It’s not fruit…it’s an apple’ or ‘It’s not sports…it’s football’. However, for coaches & players the word ‘mental’ is of course the perfect excuse to talk about a lost game without saying anything….. And of course the ‘mental’ concept is a perfect alibi for sport scientists to get involved in world of football without really contributing. This ‘mental’ illusion shows the football world needs former players studying sports science instead of scientists having to study football.”

It’s a powerful and thought-provoking idea, that the separation which most of us take for granted between ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ aspects of any activity doesn’t really exist. But it’s something that struck a chord with me. For many years as a singer, I laboured under the misapprehension that “technique” was something that could be studied separately from other aspects of what I do. When practising, I would do my technical work (often quite half-heartedly), and then move on to singing my repertoire. I would tell myself that technique was important, because if I was singing something and was encountering problems, I could turn to my technical work to help me.

This was misguided at best; vocal technique should be applied thoroughly at all times, in which case it prevents problems from occurring in the first place, rather than fixing them after they’ve occurred (by which time, by definition, it’s too late).

But even more than that, I think the idea that “technique” is something which exists independently of the activity to which it applies is false. In terms of professional performance, there is a technique for everything, and everything is technique.

Let me take acting as an example. In a recent radio interview, I was asked (without prior warning), to express a preference – acting or singing? Without thinking, I instinctively answered – they’re the same thing. In the singing world, especially in many training institutions, there is still a widespread assumption that people are either good actors or not (and that if someone is a gifted actor, they must consequently be a less gifted singer), and that there’s nothing that can be done about it – as if somehow one was born with the ability to act, or without it. I used to encounter the same problem when I was teaching maths, and it was usually the first and major obstacle to overcome – “Oh I just can’t do maths, my brain isn’t designed for it”. They couldn’t be more wrong. Acting, maths, singing, running, any human activity can be learned by any fully-functioning human being, given the time and willpower to apply themselves to the learning of it – and the correct technique for doing so.

Furthermore, there is a received wisdom that opera singing is about juggling two (or more) separate disciplines – that there is the singing and there is the acting, with two completely distinct and separate techniques, and sometimes you have to sacrifice the one for the other. But that is to misunderstand the true nature of what we can do, if we aim instead for one, unified technique that fulfils the aims of both disciplines, and allows the two to pull in the same direction at all times. In fact, with an activity as emotive as singing, how can they possibly be separated even if we wanted to do so? The very act of singing causes one to feel powerful waves of emotion, and we can either waste our energy trying to suppress them, or decide to accept them, work with them and channel them to our own ends.

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About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at: mail@paulcareyjones.com
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