Instead of cereal boxes, I enjoy reading non-fiction with my morning coffee. That’s only because carbs make me fat and books don’t. And well, because I’m a self-employed entrepreneur of the starving-artist sort, I am particularly fascinated by business innovations/management literature these days. This morning it was this book on the table: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, by Jim Collins. Just mentioning the title would be a great conversation starter among a group of emerging artists, and I have enjoyed applying the perspective of a CEO to myself this morning as I glance over at the pile of new audition rep recently suggested to me by my voice teacher.
In flipping through the chapter summaries, I notice this question:
Isaiah Berlin, social and political theorist, philosopher and historian of ideas, wrote his now-famous essay called “The Hedgehog and the Fox” based on the ancient Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Ok, I like this already. My teacher’s and my goal is to learn to dominate an extremely simple technique, and this could be a great way to reinforce that idea.
The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox circles around the hedgehog’s den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, and crafty–the fox looks like the sure winner. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a dowdier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his day, searching for lunch and taking care of his home.
The fox waits in cunning silence at the juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right into the path of the fox. “Aha, I’ve got you now!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog becomes a sphere of sharp spikes. The fox, bounding toward his prey, sees the hedgehog in defense and calls off the attack. Retreating back into the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place, and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.
Berlin extrapolated from this little parable to divide people into two basic groups: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They are “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels,” says Berlin, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn’t matter how complex the world, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple—indeed almost simplistic—hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.
In Good to Great, Collins defines a Hedgehog Concept as a “simple, crystalline concept that flows from deep understanding” about the intersection of the following three circles. I have directly applied these circles to the understanding necessary for a young vocal artist to succeed:
- What you can be the best in the world at (and, equally important, what you cannot be the best in the world at). This standard goes far beyond fach. Just because you posses the competence and acoustics of a certain fact doesn’t necessarily mean you can be the best in the world at it, or that all the skills of that fach will come easily to you. Conversely, what you can be the best at might not even be some technical aspect that opera professionals would immediately listen for in your repertoire.
- What you are marketable as. Today’s working world-class singers have somehow attained piercing insight into how to most effectively generate sustained interest in their package and profitability of their choices of roles. In particular, they have discovered the single denominator that has the greatest impact on their hire-ability.
- What you are deeply passionate about. The great singers focused on those roles and arias that ignited their passion. The idea here is not to stimulate passion, but to discover what makes you passionate. As a personal soap-box-side-note, tell me how you can discover what makes you passionate without exposing yourself to the great singers of past generations and being adventurous and brave in your vocal work.
Some things to think about:
- The Hedgehog Concept is not a goal, strategy, or intention; it is passive; it is an understanding.
- If you cannot be the best in the world at some aspect of your package, you should take a closer look at what is happening in the practice room, or if you really even want to compete in this career path.
- The “best in the world” understanding is a much more severe standard than technical competence. Conversely, perhaps there are aspects at which you could become the best in the world, but at which you have no current competence. How is your diction? your dynamic sensitivity? your acting? your endurance? your trill? your ability to collaborate in another language?
- To get insight on your marketability, listen for feedback on the one aspect of your total package that has the single greatest impact.
- Great singers have a skill set based on understanding. Good singers have a package based on competency and/or bravado.
- Getting the circles of the Hedgehog Concept is an iterative process. Use your “team” (your teacher, coaches, studio mates, and significant others).