Thank you for not singing.

In the original introduction to this blog, I mention the Chinese philosophy of not-doing (wú wéi) that underlies the name of this website.  In another post, I tell the story of how I learned in practice what it means to drive with no hands.  The other day as I was driving back to Princeton from Philadelphia I heard Terry Gross interview the mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick, who described another example of doing by not-doing when she sings.  I highly recommend listening to the complete interview.

In September 2012,  Anne Mei, Gale and I heard Dolora Zajick sing as the witch Azucena in a magical production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore.  While much attention was directed to the soprano, Guanqun Yu, who stepped into the lead role of Leonora when the scheduled singer fell ill, Ms. Zajick “was on fire” that Saturday afternoon, in the words of the New York Times reviewer.  (Woolfe)  You can also hear Dolora Zajick sing on the Fresh Air podcast.

At one point during this interview, Terry Gross asks Dolora Zajick how she learned to relax her tongue and her jaw, which is ” almost counterintuitive because I think usually if you’re doing something that requires a lot of effort, you just kind of naturally tense up.” Terry sounds surprised when Dolora answers, “You just don’t.”  She challenges Dolora: “Sure, that’s easier said than done.”

In reply, Dolora gives a very detailed description of how to not-do (wú wéi), introducing yet another activity that works best by not-doing..

It is easier said than done, but that’s exactly what you do. You learn to let go and stop trying to do too many things and figure out, isolate what you really need in order to function. A perfect example. If you look at a – if you compare an amateur weightlifter with a professional one, the amateur one, his neck is straining and he’s using all these extra muscles and he’s grunting and all kinds of things. And if you look at a professional, his whole body is relaxed. Even the hand that is holding the weight, and yet, but he will be exercising only the muscles that are meant to be worked. (Gross)

In response to Terry’s question of how you can teach someone to let go of what they think they need to be doing when they sing, Dolora says “there’s two approaches. One is to replace it with something else. And the other one is just to get them to let go.”  She elaborates that it is very difficult for “a control freak” to just let go.  When she “finally figured out how simple” it was just to let her mouth drop open, she said to her teacher “is that all it is, and he put his head on the piano keys and he said, why do I do this to myself?”  As she explains later in the interview,

The best way to tell somebody how to figure out how to relax the tongue is to just say, well, notice where it is when you aren’t doing anything. That’s the relaxed tongue. It’s not about putting it somewhere. It’s about letting it be where it wants to go.

When Dolora returned for her next lesson, the teacher had put a sign on the piano, which read “Thank you for not singing.”

Gale raised a good practical challenge to this idea of not-doing.  If you don’t do something, she said, the dishes will never get washed.  It took me a while to think this through, but this challenge made me realize that I need to be clear that not-doing is not the same as doing-nothing.  Dolora Zajick’s description of the skilled weightlifter illustrates this point precisely.  The skilled weightlifter does not use “all these extra muscles” to strain and grunt, etc., but he/she does use “only the muscles that are meant to be worked.”  In the case of washing the dishes, the maxim would be: don’t “wash the dishes,” and you get all the dishes washed.  Sometimes I won’t rinse the dishes after a meal if the dishwasher is full of clean dishes, and then I won’t clean the pots and pans and will just let them soak to they won’t be so hard to scrub.  Come the next meal, I’ll say to myself: just let these soak with the others.  Soon I have a big job to do: empty the dishwasher, wash the dishes, fill the dishwasher with the dirty dishes, scrub the pots and pans, and clean the sink and the counter.  If, after each meal, instead of thinking I have a job to do, I had just cleaned up, all this work would have been done and I wouldn’t be worrying about when I was going to get the time to “wash the dishes.”

One Comment

  1. I would say this is a result of mom creating 7 habits of highly successful dishwashers , our primitive consumptive taste and modern technology — Henry Ford’ s production line.

    Reminds me too of wire clothes hangers; they too multiply like rabbits.

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