What I Learned From a Bad Polish Singer
In that brief summer respite from onerous corona-restrictions, I was over in Copenhagen socialising with two friends who were visiting our shores. Finally, we were allowed to travel somewhat freely and this not-so-friendly neighbouring country would again let us poor (southern) Swedes into their grand country.
It was warm, or at least by the standards of Scandinavian summers. The square besides the restaurant where we recouped ourselves was buzzing with people, heading hither and thither, as is customary for any decent-sized city as soon as the sun pops out.
Suddenly, a group of youngsters show up, no more than 18 or 19 years old. They were packing a full assortment of concert-style equipment: loudspeakers, electric guitars, microphones — the whole shebang.
As we were munching on our food, they told everyone who’d listen that they were a new band, travelling from Poland, and making their way in the world. “How neat,” I thought, “and some dinner entertainment too — much welcomed!”
Quickly, my initial elation turned into disappointment: the band wasn’t that great and the clamouring girl wasn’t exactly an undiscovered Adele. Ugh, I shrugged, and turned to my friends to say something insulting. No surprise, really: the music industry is ruthlessly competitive, where talented singers and instrumentalists are a dime a dozen. Had they been truly great and outstanding, they wouldn’t play for scraps on a busy public square, but for dough on a fancy venue somewhere. And if you know you’re not that crème de la crème, why even bother…?
Then it struck me. Huh. This was practice — not performance. They weren’t monetising or showing off their splendid musical skills, they were practising — with the real stake of an actual audience.
None of us are born great: we must work for it. We have to try and try again, fail a million times, and in the process hopefully get a little better. The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.
At some point we have to spread our wings and try. Whatever basement gig or family audience might have worked for this band in the past wasn’t going to cut it anymore. This girl had to try her wings with actual people — publicly — and build her confidence. And the more she does that, the better she’ll get at it. She’ll hit those notes higher, with more power, and hold them for longer. But to do so she needs to practice.
Earlier this year I re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, and it rocked my world a little bit. For some reason, it hadn’t resonated with me when it first came out in 2008 — probably because I wasn’t mature or clever enough to grasp its message. One of the many stories he recounts is the tale of Beatles, told a thousand times in a thousand different ways. Nobody who has studied them disputes how foundational their time playing in Hamburg was for their future development. What Gladwell pointed to that I hadn’t realised before was that the stunning quantity of hours playing together shaped the band into the harmonious, perfectly synchronised, insanely productive band we think of today.
Before their worldwide break, they had performed in Hamburg — before actual audiences — some 1,200 times over a few years. And not just an hour a night, but for six, eight or twelve hours straight. Day in and day out, they were forced to work on their craft, perfecting it daily.
Sure, it’s not a given that you’ll reach success or mastery by mechanically putting in those 10,000 hours (or whatever number is required). Plenty of people have done so in their various disciplines and not achieved the success they envisioned for themselves.
That Polish girl in Copenhagen was out collecting hours, Gladwell-style. And I didn’t see it.
Even though I have for years told myself the same thing in regards to my rookie language skills— and more lately yoga. To improve, I have to try, again and again, even if I don’t conjugate the verb correctly, or hold the pose particularly well, or can maintain the effort for very long. I make tons of mistakes in all the languages I practice: I sound like a six-year-old in Spanish; my fledgling German cannot grasp when I should which cases, and the genders are a complete mess; I’ve lost most of my Portuguese sway; and the hundred-or-so words I’ve learned in Icelandic are too basic to do anything with (and in Hungarian, I can basically just curse — but with some amount of sophistication, I might add).
Although I make a living crafting and editing (English) words, I make plenty of mistakes here too, especially in its spoken form. I forget to change the verb ending when I use plurals, I pronounce words (“casually,” anyone?) horribly wrong, and occasionally my spelling isn’t even that grand. Incongruent tenses is a thing.
Still, I try. And I fail. Again and again. That’s the way of the world — for me, probably for you, and most definitely for that Polish singer.
This piece is part of my October Writing Challenge — check out some of the other articles and see if there’s anything that resonates with you. All my published material can be found at Authory.