Sisu: Part 2

 Guest post by Managing Director Megan Balderston The SISU mallet from CrossFit Burr Ridge's gym, athletic home of the managing director.

Those of you who have read Bruce’s Blog over the years may recall his December, 2010 blog about the Finnish word, “sisu.”

At a recent rehearsal for a musical I performed in, after failing once again at a particular dance pattern that was coming naturally and effortlessly to only about two people, my friend looked at me and groaned, “Why do we come here night after night, just to be yelled at because we can’t do this correctly?” The truth is, many of us who have a love of musical theater will never come even close to being Sutton Foster. Why do we do it, then? I have been thinking about that very question, quite a bit, as it relates to all of my various avocations and hobbies. They have this question in common.

There are a number of Chorale singers who are involved with the sport CrossFit, and I am one of them. I regularly attend our gym’s 6:00 am class, which right now is made up mostly of people my own age. If you don’t know (and I’m not sure how you don’t, as we CrossFitters have a reputation of talking about the sport ad nauseum) CrossFit gyms are notoriously spartan. No spas, no mirrors, just equipment and mats. Our class is small but mighty, average age is 50, and we have the following in common: a love for 80’s music; we may not like the individual exercises, but we like the way they make us feel; we believe in building on our strengths and trying to develop our weaknesses; and the camaraderie helps. In fact, one day as Bruce and I were chatting about it, he remarked, “It sounds absolutely miserable but they know how to build a program so that you all have fun.” Indeed, painted on the wall of our gym is the following list: 1. Check your ego at the door. 2. Show up and do the work. 3. Nobody cares what your time is.  4. Everybody cares if you cheated. 5. Effort gains respect.

What do these disparate activities have to do with choral singing, and each other, let alone the concept of sisu? Quite a bit, as it turns out: they all have the common theme of "deciding on a course of action and then sticking to it despite repeated failures."

Two weeks ago I was attempting to get a “PR” (personal record) on a back squat: this is a lift where you place a barbell across your shoulders, lower into a squat, and then press back up so that you are standing upright. As a novice to intermediate level lifter, I was thrilled to increase my “PR” by 5 pounds. So I thought, why not add another 10 pounds and see how I do? Alas, I could not stand up again; I got stuck “in the hole” at the bottom of the squat. This is a bit humiliating. However, one of my gym buddies reminded me: you can’t improve, if you don’t first attempt more and fail.

Choral singing, the way Chicago Chorale does it, is also about this kind of mindset. I suppose we could pick easier repertoire, or a less rigorous schedule, or do any number of things differently so that we wouldn’t be presenting concerts that require so much effort. So much grit. So much sisu. But I believe that would take away exactly the kind of determination that makes Chorale a special group within the landscape of Chicago’s many musical groups, both amateur and professional. We care so much, and if we have to white-knuckle some things, and demand more out of ourselves to present a beautiful program, that is where we would rather be.

Do I love failing? Noooo, that’s not it. But I do find that I love the process of learning something new, and showing myself that I can do things I never dreamed I could. I probably strangely love the cycle of repetition, humiliation, exaltation, despair, laughter, and renewed confidence. Bruce sent a note around to the choir this week, in which he said the following: "I want us to be clear-eyed, clear-eared, objective, self-critical, idealistic; I want us to be, and do, the very best that is in us." 

I’m with Bruce. As a 48-year-old woman I do not need to lift weights, to float a high F, to tap dance, or to open myself up to scrutiny and possible humiliation by putting myself on the line in any number of ways. And yet I think of all of the wonderful things I would be missing if I did not: it would be a quieter, and less joyful life. We all owe it to ourselves to explore what is the best in us, whether or not we will become the best in the world. Effort gains respect, for sure, but more importantly effort gains self-respect. Sisu. The determination required for the journey is as special as the end product. I hope you will join us when we present our concert on June 10th, and hear what "sisu" sounds like.