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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Choral Singing and Zanshin

The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating "fuckface" into [Japanese], but it might translate into "emotional intensity" in football lingo.
"Emotional intensity" doesn't cover half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word "zanshin" is loaded down with a lot of other folderdol you have to be [Japanese] to understand.
- Neil Stephenson, Snow Crash

Usually, when my sensei at the dojo brings up zanshin, she is reminding me to maintain my stance at the completion of the technique. I am slowly learning, though, that there is much more to zanshin. And the more I learn, the more apparent it becomes that I don't have it.

Zanshin seems to be related to the Buddhist principle of mindfulness. It means being aware and ready before, during, and after a technique. It means devoting all one's attention and energy to every detail of what one is doing. It means total, focused commitment to every motion.

I have a hard time scrubbing a dirty plate with zanshin, let alone performing an aikido technique.

There is a new yudansha (black belt) at the dojo. His style is very different from ours, which often makes him confusing to work with. But sweet Lord, has this guy got zanshin. Every movement of his arm is a deliberate cut with an imaginary sword. There is a purpose for his every step. At the end of every technique, his hands are ready and his eyes wide in anticipation of another attack he knows isn't coming.

When showing his favorite technique, a Saito-style shomenuchi ikkyo, even his little pinky finger is buzzing with zanshin. If you think I'm exaggerating, it's only because you've never seen him. He even bows with zanshin.

I used to wonder what I must look like to him, haphazardly hacking my way through the steps of a technique, missing all the little details, and then congratulating myself for getting to the end, with no thought crossing my mind of maintaining a constant energy.

I say "used to wonder" because I think I figured it out last night at choir rehearsal.

Now me, I'm the son of a choir director, a veteran of classical choirs since age twelve, and an extensively trained classical baritone. If I do say so myself, I'm practically a professional. Most of my fellow choir members I tend to think of (rather condescendingly, I admit) as "church choir singers". They sound just fine, but to a snob like myself, they seem to be lacking something: an energy, an urgency, a deliberateness.

I sing with intensity. My pianissimo has as much energy as my fortissimo. I put all my effort into the shape of every vowel, the enunciation of every consosant, the timing of every rest. My back is straight, my shoulders are rolled back, and my folder is always held just so.

The choir sang the last note of a piece last night, and then all seemed to relax and shut down as the piano finished the final cadence. Our director made note of this after the music stopped, reminding us that our duty to the congregation does not end until the music ends. I was struck at that moment by how much he sounded like my sensei.

For my part, I didn't need to be reminded. Until a moment after the last note played, my posture remained in place, my music was held up for me to see, and my right hand was ready to turn another nonexistent page. My eyebrows were raised expectantly, waiting for a cue from the director that I knew wasn't coming, and my jaw was loose and ready to open for another note.

This is zanshin, I thought. Up here in the choir loft, I have zanshin to burn. I have all 31 flavors of zanshin.

I have a hard time making connections between my music and my martial arts. I suspect this is because I have a talent for music that is proportional to my passion, and no such talent for the martial arts. But tonight at the dojo as I train my aikido, I will try to find that feeling I have on the choir risers.

I suspect it will be a largely fruitless search, but at least now I have some idea of what I'm looking for.

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