Between the barbell and me (September 2020)

I was a slow, scrawny, easily winded kid, but I discovered my inner athlete in my 40s. I’d spent decades at gyms doing a bit of random “cardio” or taking a fake, scripted, trademarked dance class, and using the shiny circuit machines for something called toning--a bullshit marketing concept catered to women’s irrational fear of building muscle fiber and “bulking up.” (In reality, significant visible muscle growth is a difficult achievement, even for mesomorphs with high testosterone using obsessive nutrition control. It rarely happens by accident, except to comic-book heroes created in lab experiments.) 

One day I got curious about that particular bunch of men who spurned the shiny circuit and stuck to the corner with beat-up old barbells. Some looked like Ahhnold but most were just lean and strong as shit. Squats, deadlifts, and presses seemed like intense, satisfying work, while what I’d always done to “stay fit” felt easy and boring. 

I admit I also had a perpetual urge to invade all-male milieus, because guys had a habit of hiding/hoarding the real fun. (Admit it!) This was several years before Crossfit unleashed a quorum of barbell-competent women, a development that I politically welcomed even though it meant more people monopolizing equipment (squat-rack squatters, you might say). 

 In my first attempts to hold an empty barbell (45 lbs) behind my shoulders and complete a full squat, my wrists, grip, and legs were only barely up to the task. The rough metal bar raised blisters on my palms at the base of my fingers. Over several years I dove deep into the study and practice of strength training, and the proper nutrition to go along with it. Blisters became calluses, of which I was extravagantly proud. Eventually, I got my 5’6” self down to 23% bodyfat, 133 lbs, dress size 6. And I could do 3 sets of 5 reps with the barbell loaded to 265 lbs. (Translation: I was just lean and strong as shit.) 

Yeah, I like to brag about that personal best, but the real story was the study and the practice. That’s where the joy lived. This late-blooming athlete was still a nerd. I read up on powerlifting (Mark Rippetoe, yo!), sought expert trainers to improve my form, lifted 3x per week with only a few rest/“deload” weeks, paid the visitor's day rate at local gyms during beach vacations, planned all my meals even if it meant cooking separately for my family, and tracked my progress in notebooks. My one concession to girlish whimsy was to use nice, colorful hardback Moleskines instead of the customary beat-up, dollar-store spirals. 

Compared with all the people listlessly paging through magazines while breaking a modest sweat on bolted-down bikes, all the people who obviously hated the gym (i.e. people like the old me), I now strutted around the place feeling fierce, focused, meditative, enraptured....

 

Several eventful years later, I arrived on the Baltimore County doorstep of one Pete Strobl, a vocal coach of renown, as well as producer and instrumentalist, who’d (semi) retired from decades in the LA music business. I showed up emotionally bedraggled. Professional and personal challenges had beaten me down--I wasn’t even in good physical condition anymore. As a singer I felt like a fraud who’d maxed out her meager talent and was hiding behind my piano and composer chops. 

At first I worked with Pete once or twice a month, then caught religion and started showing up three or four times a week. Many voice teachers, having been taught poorly themselves, use mystical language that might coax tasteful choices from a big talent, but can’t help anyone struggling. Metaphors like “spin the sound” or “send your voice over the top of your head like a waterfall” sound artsy but don’t mean anything, and lip trills ("buzzing") may warm up your facial muscles but don't do anything for your vocal cords. 

Pete was a rare thing in the arts: a jock, born and trained. He’d been a serious basketball player before becoming a serious musician. He knew that results are the only proof of method. He’d studied the physiology of vocal production the way he’d once studied best release angles for a 3-point shot. From him I received mechanically correct drills and instant feedback via digital audio recording. The colorful waveform on his iMac screen was objective evidence. I could see where I’d missed a breath or a downbeat, where I’d been relaxed and my voice was thick with sonic information (resonance), or where I’d gotten stuck in my head and choked on a high note. 

The tapes don’t lie. 

 

Breathing and groove: biophysics and math. Do sets and reps. Assess the feedback. Make small improvements. Sometimes be rewarded by an unplanned leap to a whole other mastery level in one take. (An Olympic-style lift: proper form, clean propulsion, good timing, and grace.) 

Instrumentalists, actors, bakers, athletes, surgeons, professors, painters--many people come to understand this (self-)improvement process or else their careers end quickly. In most fields you can’t be a prodigy forever. Singers, often adulated just for appearing in front of audiences and opening their big mouths, can be misled to believe that raw talent is enough. I was once captive to this fairy tale, which artificially buoyed me before making me crash into the seductive cliffs of self-pity. I was lucky to meet a coach who kindly ignored my dramatizing shenanigans and just told me the real story, an unglamorous, low-drama one about study and practice. 

In a world filled with the slapdash and the ersatz, a world overrun with charismatic frauds, how lucky we are if we can find just one activity where study and practice equal joy and solid improvement--and where “perfection” is, at most, a pleasant, temporary side-effect before the next round of work. The kind of work that invites you to focus, to meditative rapture, to ferocity.

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