There are no shortcuts

This week in our Artist Launch Series, we have been celebrating David Walton. I reached out to him and asked for a favorite quote.

He sent: “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” - Beverly Sills

Beverly Sills was an American lyric coloratura soprano (“lyric” referring to long, smooth vocal lines and “coloratura” referring to fast and high singing) whose peak career was between the 1950s and 1970s. Beverly is one of my favorite sopranos for the ease with which she tackled difficult, fast passages and the balanced, spoken quality of her singing despite it being in the stratosphere. As an example, I recommend this recording of the Mad Scene “Regnava del silenzio” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lamermoor

Re-reading what I’ve written, I’m caught by the phrase “for the ease with which she tackled difficult, fast passages” because as a fellow lyric coloratura, I know she only got that way from spending hours on a single measure and by building her vocal agility over years and years of training. James Clear said it best: “What looks like talent is often careful preparation. What looks like skill is often persistent revision.”

It is no surprise that David Walton has resonated with Beverly’s quote; I find that the same characteristics that I envy in her singing, I envy in David’s as well. If you take a few minutes to listen to David’s recording of “Povero Ernesto,” which is another bel canto aria (“bel canto” is Italian for “beautiful singing” and “aria” is Italian for song) by Donizetti, he has the same ease and grace to his singing that is indicative of countless hours of hard work.

As a society, we have a fascination with the wunderkind (child prodigy) and the solo genius- Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk. In reality, there are teams of people who have helped them get to where they are, thousands of hours spent working, making sacrifices, and not to mention, the luck of having the right idea at the right time. With the culture brought about by the internet, we are now, more than ever, focused on instant gratification. It’s easier to think people are born gifted rather than face the reality that we could be like them too… if we put in the hours and hours of deliberate practice.

In German, there is a word - gestalt, which means “an organized whole that is perceived as more than a sum of its parts.” To repeat an example that was used to explain the concept to me, when you look at a chair, you don’t see all the individual components that go into the existence of the chair. We simply think “chair,” instead of thinking of each individual wood piece and nails that together create the structure, the varnish, the fabric for the cushion, and the stuffing that makes it comfy. We certainly don’t take that line of thinking further and consider where each of those parts were manufactured, who contributed to their creation, or their original form as a tree or cotton plant, or the sun, water, and carbon dioxide that fed the plants. Instead we simply see a chair as a chair.

As we are in the midst of a societal shift, I would like to see a change in perspective from a knowing to a not-knowing mind. As pattern seeking creatures, we use binary thinking to define something with its opposite: good and bad, like and dislike, comfort and discomfort, light and dark. But this is a dangerous over-simplification and when faced with complexity we don’t have the tools to begin to understand that there is more than appears at first glance—a chair is not just a chair. I advocate for a return to curiosity and for the desire to understand to outweigh the desire to be understood. And in the case of musicians, athletes and other skilled technicians, we should drop passive phrases like “gifted” and instead use words that recognize time, effort, deliberate improvement, and grit are at the heart of their mastery. Because, just as Beverly Sills vocalized, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going."

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“And now go, and make interesting mistakes,
make
amazing mistakes,

make glorious and fantastic mistakes.
Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.
Make good art.”

                                                     -Neil Gaiman