Good Horse, Bad Horse

In his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Zen master Shunryu Suzuki approaches the question of fast and slow learners in terms of horses. “In our scriptures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones. The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run.

“When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best.” But this is a mistake, Master Suzuki says. When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.

“If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers. Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage. This is also true in art, and in life.” The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse. And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones.

Suzuki’s parable of the four horses has haunted me ever since I first heard it. For one this, it poses a clear challenge for the person with exceptional talent: to achieve his or her full potential, this person will have to work just as diligently as those with less innate ability. The parable has made me realize that if I’m the first or second horse as an instructor of fast learners, I’m the third or fourth horse as an instructor of slow learners. But there is hope. If I persevere and dedicate my efforts to bringing along every Brewster and Edmundson who shows up at our aikido school, I’ll someday know this aspect of instructing all the way to the marrow of my bones.

So when you look for your instructor, in whatever skill or art, spend a moment celebrating it when you discover one who pursues maximum performance. But also make sure that he or she is paying exquisite attention to the slowest student on the mat.


Leonard, George. “Mastery. The Keys To Success And Long Term Fulfillment.” (1992).

Deserving It

One of the profound lessons I’ve learned over the course of working on my voice is that ‘functional success’ often comes easily when I’m not pushing for a result or ‘end-gaining’ (to borrow a term from Alexander Technique).

There is something pervasive in the idea of ‘earning’ something. Whether that something is success, accomplishment, fame, or fortune. For some people, instant or easy success can cause feelings of deep unease, make one feel that they are a ‘fraud’ or ‘imposter,’ and creates feelings of self-loathing.

Our American culture lives on myths of people slaving away, and getting ahead by the sweat of their brow. It would only be natural that singing would go the same way: if I’m not working hard, pushing, or driving, then I’m not ‘earning’ my vocal progress. In the arts, we’ve made it into a cornerstone. I remember watching “Fame” as a kid, and Debbie Allen’s character would say, “You want fame? Well fame COSTS. And right here is where you start paying…with sweat.”

The tortured artist is part of the mythology of singing, too, sadly. One only need invoke the name of Maria Callas for an example in our own time of  a singer that ‘suffered for her art.’

I myself am a victim of this mentality. As a male singer I have always thought that the powerful upper range of the male voice was built on effort, force and gusto. It took a vocal crisis for me to realize that perhaps a re-evaluation of this ideology was in order. What I’ve noticed is that ‘rightness’ and ‘beauty’ in the sound came more easily when I wasn’t ‘working’ for it. When I frankly just gave up on it, the voice worked. When I let the voice lead ME, startling revelations came fast and furious. And yet, the voice was still me!

It’s like those moments in our youth when we are frustrated, perhaps we’re even crying with rage, and then something happens that makes us ‘figure it out,’ and we then laugh through our tears. Children do this all the time. For me, the release of incorrect physical response caused that exact ‘jubilance through frustration’ feeling. It was EASY, fun, and the sound was lovely. And then we wonder why did we rage for something so easily attained?

But the mind, watching all things, suddenly filled my brain with doubt. “That’s too easy,””That can’t be right,” and other feelings of total mistrust immediately clamped down on the excitement of what I had just felt. The body rejoiced, the brain was skeptical.

Here’s a simple analogy:

What would happen if someone came up to you on the street and just gave you a dollar out of nowhere?

How would you react?

Would you think “I don’t deserve this,” or “What did I do for this?” or “Is this person making fun of me or tricking me?”

It’s just a simple dollar – and yet we can’t accept it. How sad for us that the greater richness and beauty of our voices lies dormant within us, awaiting its release – easily within reach – startling us with its ease and grace – and our minds want to trample it because we think that it shouldn’t be that easy, that we don’t deserve it? We reject the voice as easily as we reject that simple dollar bill – because we don’t think we deserve it. 

Henry Wood wrote a book that haunts me, “The Gentle Art of Singing.” I think about that title a lot and wonder what it would be like to never force a tone? What it be like to sing with total ease and freedom – not only freedom of the instrument but freedom from the fear? Techniques of singing can sometimes become the armor we construct to hide behind to avoid exposing ourselves fully to an audience. Interestingly, it is this very vulnerability and openness that draws others to us and connects us to the world around us. Singers that create armor around themselves rarely touch a human heart. The heart knows real when it hears it. Even children, unversed in musical nuance or knowledge, can be moved to tears by genuine heartfelt singing.

When something ‘works’ in a lesson – let’s work to accept it and rejoice in it. We are worth more than we know, and we all DESERVE to sing in a way that is congruent with our deepest selves.

You are worth it.

Take the dollar – it’s yours.