Virtuosity in a Box

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March 14, 2017 by Ray Yanek

Suzuki_Violin_No.580_4-4_(1982)_pegbox

By Takeshi Kuboki [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

I used to coach high school football many years ago, in what sometimes feels like another life.  I worked with the offensive live and every practice and every game, after the warm-ups and calisthenics, we started with one, all-important drill.  The players would line up, get in their stances and when I yelled ‘go’, they took one foot and moved it forward 6-inches.

That was it.

First the right foot then the left, then a staggered step one way and a staggered step the other.  Over and over and over and over again.

Every practice.  Every game.

I travel the world and taste regional delicacies vicariously these days through TV shows like Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations or some of the less grotesque Andrew Zimmern shows.  I stand in my kitchen in rapt attention, watching the hosts move through different landscapes and cultures.  They sample high-end food at cutting edge restaurants, but often they spend the majority of their time eating at the tables of the locals.

The best food–the transcendent food–both (and many other) hosts claim is the simple food:  fresh food prepared simply with few ingredients, by people who do it well and who have been doing it for a long time.

In Crossfit, the coaches I work with take us through a lot of prep and technique work.  Since I started last August, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve simply picked a barbell off the ground, brought it to my waist and shrugged my shoulders, then put it back down to pick it back up and shrug my shoulders again.  Last night, I stood in place and hopped up and down while slapping my thighs twice while in the air as a prep for doing double-under jump ropes.  

In Crossfit,  we take a lot of six inch power steps; we cook a lot of simple, plain dishes over and over and over again.

Crossfit founder Greg Glassman preaches a philosophy of virtuosity, which he describes as ‘doing common things, uncommonly well’.  Everyone is in a rush to do the advanced, the intricate, the complicated he claims.    Very few work to perfect form and function, and that lack of basic mastery leads to failure, injury, frustration, and minimal gains.

If you’ve been in any gym you’ve seen examples of this.  There is the guy on the bench press with one shoulder well below parallel, the other half-extended upwards.  You could march the Roman infantry under the arch in his back.  He’s got one leg on the bench, the other pointed out in a half-split.  Then, off in the corner, is the guy doing some obscure Bulgarian lift that requires three kettle bells and a donkey that he read about in an old Soviet weight training manual.     

The focus, Glassman believes, should be on the basics, on the form and function that gives us, like a football lineman with a proper six-inch powerstep, a strong base on which to stand.  The focus should be on adding only those ingredients that will enhance the natural taste of the entree, not mask or overpower that flavor in the name of sophistication.

Sometimes, I think myself into writer’s block.  I’ll sit arms crossed and stare at the ceiling, thinking about grand themes and the problems with societal norms and values.  I think about morality, about the struggle inherent in the human condition.  Seriously.  It must be the English major / teacher in me.

And then thankfully, I realize all that is bullshit and that rather than playing in areas way out of my league, I need to focus on the basics.  Focus on doing the common until I can do it uncommonly well.

In stories, character is the ingredient that brings people to the table.  When I focus and work to create interesting characters, interesting situations in which to place them in follow naturally.  

When I focus on the character, the story stands on a six-inch step on which I can build. Sometimes, the story stays plain and simple.  Other times, those more sophisticated elements arise seemingly on their own as they should.

Do the common, uncommonly well… and good things seem to happen.

 

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