at the edge of your range

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, an episode featuring a replay of part of a 1988 interview with Otis Williams of the Temptations. Williams described in fascinating detail what it was like to work for — definitely for, not with — Berry Gordy, Jr., the brilliant and obsessively disciplined mastermind of Motown Records. Gordy developed an incredibly complex system for coaxing great pop songs from his stable of songwriters, matching those songs with the right artists, and then arranging and producing the performances in ways that would — in theory and usually in practice — produce hits.

One element of Williams’s story really stood out to me. He explained that Gordy would instruct his musicians to record songs in keys that made the singers uncomfortable — that made them sing right at the limit of their range. Gordy believed that this gave a special urgency to vocal performances. Williams remembered with particular vividness the day the Temptations recorded “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” because, he said, it was one miserable day for David Ruffin. Williams described Ruffin going through take after take, pouring with sweat, his famous glasses sliding down his nose. Eventually he had to have some time to rest between takes. But eventually, this is what that frustration produced. One of Ruffin’s best vocals — maybe his very best, though if I had to pick just one I’d probably go with “I Wish It Would Rain”.

I’m not a singer, or an artist of any kind, but in my own little realm of work I’ve tried to follow this principle: work at the edge of your range. A couple of times in my career I’ve tried to make myself write books based on what I already knew, and I just couldn’t do it. I have to be discovering something, trying something I haven’t tried before — finding out where my range as a thinker and writer stops. The down side of this habit is that sometimes I have written (and even published) things I didn’t know enough about. That has been embarrassing. But I really can’t seem to do things any other way, and in general I think it’s a good principle. I mean, after all, isn’t that how you extend your range? Unless, of course, you ruin your voice … but let’s not think about that possibility.