Anyone Can Do That

The other day I received an email from a faithful reader who noted that he had stopped reading The Soprano Sorceress because the song magic was “too easy.” Over the years I’ve received other comments along the lines that all she had to do was open her mouth and sing.

Right. Except that under the magic system in Erde, the song had to be perfectly on pitch and in key; the words had to specify what had to be accomplished; and the accompaniment had to match. In the opening of that book, a sorcerer destroyed a violinist whose accompaniment was imperfect — because it could have threatened his life. Comparatively few professional singers, except classically trained opera singers, can maintain such perfection in a live performance. And some of those don’t have the best diction — yet clear diction would be vital in song spell-casting. Now… try it in the middle of a battle or when your life is under immediate threat.

I bring this up because there are certain skills in any society, but particularly in our society, that almost everyone thinks they can do. Most people believe they can sing, or write, or paint almost as well as the professionals, and almost all of them think they can certainly critique such with great validity.

I’m sorry. Most people have a far higher opinion of their skills than can be objectively confirmed — and that’s likely an understatement. Even in noted music conservatories, only a minority of graduates are good enough, talented enough, and dedicated enough to sing professionally. The same is true of noted writing programs or established art programs. For that matter, comparatively few graduates of noted business schools ever make it to the top levels of business organizations or corporations.

A similar attitude pervades our view of sports. Tens of millions of American men identity with sports and criticize and second-guess athletic professionals whose skills they could never match under pressures they can only vaguely comprehend. Monday morning quarterbacking used to be a truly derogatory term, enough so that its use tended to stop someone cold. Now it’s almost jocular, and everyone’s an expert in everything.

Is all this because our media makes everything look easy? Because the media only concentrate on the handful of individuals in the arts, athletics, and professions who are skilled, dedicated, and talented enough to make it look “easy.” Or is it because our society has decided to tell students that they’re wonderful, or have “special” talents when they’re failing?

The bottom line is that doing anything well is not “easy,” no matter how effortless it looks, especially when one of the talents of the best is to make that accomplishment look effortless… and that usually means that only those who truly understand that skill really know what it took to make it look easy or effortless.

5 thoughts on “Anyone Can Do That”

  1. Ty Hatch says:

    Great insight. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Joshua Blonski says:

    I'm guilty of occasional "You Should Have Known" syndrome when watching hockey games. It's so easy from a near birds-eye view of the game from the stands or on TV to see a better pass or to see that opponent coming up from behind. But I do try to stop myself from saying and thinking those things, because I know they're wrong. Sure we see the pass, but it's likely the players did too. But they took a gamble, or the angle looked differently to them, or pressure made them want to try something else. Who knows?

    An ex-teammate of mine commented on this same topic. That is, that it's easy to criticize one of the pros. But then if you're actually paying attention, it's so humbling when we get out on the ice and can't even do a fraction of what the pros can. We know the game so well, and yet the physical skill we have is paltry at best. But you know what? That's why we go watch the real deal. We want to see the high level of performance that we can't come close to having. Getting overly critical in this regard also takes away from the enjoyment of the game.

    I think we get used to the bar raising. If the pros in a given field are at Point J, in order to beat them consistently (that is, aside from just standard variations in any given performance), another person or team has to get to Point K. Then the next person or team needs to reach Point L, and so on. Because of this, the view might have a tendency to become, "Wow, they're just not good enough." I hear it all the time. If fans think a given hockey player is subpar, that player gets all sorts of insults said about him. And that's just ridiculous because, after all, he made it into the NHL and that in itself is a huge accomplishment. If that's so easy to do, why aren't these criticizers on pro teams?

    I do see a similar view in music though too, especially among guitarists. I can't say how many times I've been told, "Yeah, I learned this song and I can play it nearly perfectly now," only to hear it played far from perfectly afterward. Sometimes the piece is performed well, but that doesn't mean it was played as well as David Gilmour from Pink Floyd plays his solos. And as good as he is, even he makes mistakes. A pianist's finger will occasionally slip and hit two keys instead of just the one. A singer's throat or lungs might be just a little to tired at one point in some song because they forgot to take a breath where they usually do in a line.

    It's sometimes too easy to see the mistakes and point them out instead of simply enjoying the excellence presented to us. And it's likewise easy to assume (as you have pointed out) that we can do as good or better, when we're the ones outside of and looking in on the situation. Really, it's one thing to even see (or hear) potential mistakes in a given professional display. But it's another thing to think that, before that mistake was made, I could have anticipated it and avoided it had I been up there instead. That kind of thinking is just flawed, almost all of the time. Instead of getting hung up on mistakes, it's so much more pleasant to enjoy a performance, or a piece of writing, or a work of art, or any other given skill that's set before us.

    My last thought goes back to music. I've heard some people dismiss some of my favorite musicians before for countless reasons ("It's not fast enough," or "That doesn't sound that difficult," or whatever else, skill-wise). I try to point out that, even if you can play what they played, you're mimicking what now exists. The original musician had the inspiration and presence to create it in the first place, regardless of how simple or difficult it may be. If that were so easy to do well, the ones who criticize have no excuse why they're (on the whole) not as successful too.

  3. Andrew says:

    I apologize for not having the book in front of me, but I remember that the characters in Shadowsinger confront this issue:

    The Lord (forget his name) asks
    "Can it be that hard? It looks and sounds so simple?"
    And the retainer answers:
    "Does a perfect circle look difficult sire? Yet how many can draw one? Does blade work look difficult…"

    Testament to the quality of your books that your writing still rise to the surface of my mind when I think of related topics…

  4. mossjon says:

    I loved the Soprano Sorceress series because it stressed the effort, knowledge and talent necessary to sing correctly. My daughter is a Junior at UNT (musicology undergraduate) who will pursue her masters in opera studies. She is a mezzo soprano and already has nearly a decade of voice training … and she's got many many more years of training ahead of her before she becomes acceptable for operatic performance. Proper vocal training takes dedication, perseverance, stamina and then there's the talent.

  5. christoph says:

    There are multiple graduate degrees in music in my immediate family. I've been through years of music education (cello lessons, theory & composition, and even a couple years of graduate level conducting).

    While I have decided to move a different direction in work life, I can say with some certainty that the difficulty of attaining true proficiency in the world of classical music is highly underrated. Highly, highly underrated. I think this has to do more with how people (mis)perceive music itself than it does with other societal trends.

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