Most of us go into singing because we exhibited certain attributes that others found superior to the norm. Was it great intonation? Was it a seamless range? Top notes? Charisma? Emotional commitment?
In every field there is a point at which difficulty presents itself. In my youth, I found Math very easy. I remember an instance in high school geometry when I was visibly disappointed when I got a 99/100 in a geometry test. My classmates thought I was being silly. It was that easy for me. Then I had Pre-calculus and it began to be difficult. I persevered and kept my grades up, but Calculus was definitely a new level.
Now that I am looking at the possibility of getting my Black Belt in Kung Fu next year, I am faced with a new level. Suddenly I can no longer accept a horse-stand that is not deep enough. If I am to really become a Black Sash I have to become more flexible. If I am to become more effective in sparring I have to improve the speed and form of my kicks, I must improve balance, etc. For a 48-year old guy, I do pretty well. I can keep up with the teenagers at the Kung Fu school, but it is not about keeping up. It is about measurable skills that are part of an overall skill-set and to accomplish a certain level, one become conscious of why all serious martial artists have certain specific abilities, whether a full-split or flexible fast kicks, or very quick hands. It all requires dedicated practice. So I must ask myself: “Is this as far as I go in terms of true skills?” “Do I just get by to Black Sash?” Of course the answer is a resounding: “NO!”
Kung Fu reminds me that every level requires rededication. I am excited to to see what lies beyond a full-split and form-perfect stances. As my teacher says: “Black Sash is the beginning of real work! Everything up to that point is fundamentals!” So it is for me with singing. One tenor colleague told me recently not to be so obsessed about a high C and get singing. In a way he is correct. But for me, it is not just about singing and getting through something. Whether my repertoire never require an important high C, it is important to know you have trained like a tenor and that note is yours.
It was earned. It means to me, I developed a very specific coordination. It also made me realize that accomplishing that feat is just the beginning of being a tenor. Now there are refinements in coordination, building stamina, repeating this feat so many times it is no longer even a challenge and then going to the next thing: Coloratura, trills, dynamics, crescendo-diminuendo, notes beyond high C, etc. Then skills in context: Vocal stability vs. emotions. How does all that relate to voice leading, phrase structure, linguistic articulation, etc.
How much better can I really get?
It has nothing to do with keeping up with the teenagers. What if I can go further than them? Or not as far?
There is only one way to find out. I can only concentrate on how far I can go.
In Tai-Chi Walking, there is a part when it seems one is leaning backwards, yet judging by the feet, no distance has been lost. The move is only a preparation for going forward to the next step. Without that leaning back, the next step is not possible. This is the “Plateau Phase!” This is the period that prepares the body, the voice for the next skill, for the next leap forward. Judging by the thousands of singers I have encountered in the last 33 years of conscious studying, I would bet that 90% are not willing to endure the Plateau Phase. That is usually the time they find another coach, another teacher, another school, or another country. Running away from the problem does not fix it. It keeps coming back in different guises until it is truly addressed.
I would go as far as saying that the defining characteristic of success is the ability to go beyond the Plateau Phase.