On Commitment, part III – Tools of the Trade

Creative Commons License photo credit: brainware3000

I bought a new keyboard recently. And I don’t mean the one I’m typing on – which could certainly use an upgrade, to be sure, but I’m referring to a much bigger one with black and white keys that makes music. It’s quite a serious one, a real professional tool with bells and whistles, not to mention buttons and knobs and flashing lights, galore. Oh, and the whole thing is fire-engine red, and made in Sweden. If you’re a serious keyboardist like I am, this is something to drool over – and in fact, I’ve been wanting one for years.

So why am I doing this now, rather than years ago? Well, for a number of reasons really, which I’d like to explore here as a kind of framework for investigating the third type of creative commitment: to the tools and techniques that take our work to another level. We have to be committed not only to the idea of creativity, but to the reality of it as well, and this often requires investment in money and time that may not return directly for years or decades to come.

Gearing up

While I am a self-confessed gear nut and can get pretty ‘into’ music technology, amongst a number of other varieties, I have been on a low-acquisition kick lately and have have been pulling away from this kind of thing for a while. This has been educational, to be sure, and liberating in a number of ways, but due to a confluence of factors – first, I landed a steady gig for next winter (not the one I auditioned for last month, but in the same vein) for which I will need a solid reliable and professional unit; and second, I found this one about to go very, very reasonably on eBay. So I jumped.

It’s not the first ‘serious’ keyboard I’ve owned, of course. I’ve been buying and selling gear on some level most of my life, and in and of itself on a purely monetary level I can confirm that it has been a disaster of an investment strategy. However, not all ROI (Return On Investment) is measurable in purely quantitative terms and if I start to think about how all this gear has affected my creative journey over the 25 or so years I’ve been pursuing music as my life’s calling, a very different picture emerges.

Don’t be a Tool

There are very few fields of creative endeavour that don’t require equipment of some sort or another, and many, such as music, are difficult or impossible to imagine without the deep human-tool interaction that defines them. Like it or not, after all the positive attitude and visualization and enthusiastic projections and wonderful intentions, one of the things that makes the creative act personally rewarding, and interesting to others, is the development of subtlety and skill in the control of a specific set of tools or techniques.

The tools we use in our creative work, whatever they may be, exist not separate from but in constant dynamic interplay with the skills to use those tools, which we develop and maintain over a lifetime. Having access to great tools can provide a healthy incentive to develop the skills to make use of them in a subtle and sophisticated manner; the pride of ownership can take this one step further.

Having a ‘new toy’ can also catalyze or renew a drive to practice, develop, explore techniques that may relate to that tool specifically. This in turn expands and refines our skills, and feeds into our existing network of interconnected knowledge – some conscious, some subterranean – which we draw on when confronted with other new tools or situations.

Forests and Trees

On the other hand, there is also a real danger of getting lost in the tools – or the technique. Gear-obsession is an issue for many musicians, some of whom could definitely stand to practice a bit more rather than focus on instruments or equipment they might like to own someday (this being in the do as I say not as I do department).

Technique-obsession is perhaps a bit less obvious – what could be so bad about being driven to improve? Haven’t we all been told that practice makes perfect since we were kids? Well, yes, and though perfection is likely unattainable it’s always amazing when someone gets very close to it – but I think it’s worth pointing out that many profoundly creative artists have fallen well short of technical perfection, and they are no less interesting for it. In many cases, they have been all the more so because their powerful originality not only transcends their technique, but is actually defined by it. Bob Dylan comes to mind, just to choose the most obvious example.

In looking for a quote on this subject, I stumbled on a forum post I wrote on a related subject a couple of years ago, which sums up what I want to say here fairly well:

I read a lovely interview with pianist Lyle Mays once, in which he was asked the standard question: “how much do you practice, and what is your practice routine?” Since I have assimilated his reply so deeply into my own philosophy at this point I cannot be sure how much of this is him and how much me, but basically his answer was: “well, at this point I don’t really practice, I only compose. If there is something I can’t do that I’m hearing in the composition, I will sit down and figure out how to do it, but for the most part, no, I don’t want to get caught in the trap of technique for its own sake. There are problems and limitations in my hands, but I am learning to live with them and build my musical voice around them.”

A simpler expression of this comes from the great Bill Evans (as quoted by Kenny Werner in his wonderful book ‘Effortless Mastery’, which I’ll probably talk more about in these pages before long): “I practise the minimum”. I like that, it’s like a Zen kōan, you have to ponder it awhile before the meaning becomes clear.

If you look carefully at the artists and musicians we consider ‘great’, few of them were preoccupied with ‘perfect’ technique. Most, if not all, have attained a significant degree of expertise in their idiom – enough to reach that ‘transcendent’ point, but not ‘too much’ as it were – never missing the forest for the trees. The forest floor is littered with works that are either too technical and leave us cold and unaffected, or too conceptual without any of the subtlety and nuance that comes from technical mastery.

I Walk the Line…

The goal, then, is to find a balance – enough technique to do what your creativity calls you to do, but without forgetting what the technique is for. Clearly, early in an artist’s creative development more practice will be required to develop a solid technical foundation… and for some this will become a lifelong habit (I’m reminded of a story about the great cellist Pablo Casals, overheard at age 90 practising a G major scale; when asked why he still felt the need to do so, he replied “so I can play in tune!”) but for others it will give way to other forms of development.

And so it is also with the tools of the trade: it is unsatisfying and uninspiring to struggle with equipment that is not up to the demands of the work you’re trying to do, or too limited to allow the full expression of your ideas or emotions; but it is also easy to become driven by the acquisitive urge and forget what you wanted to do with the tools in the first place.

It can be a strength to make the most of whatever tools you have at hand rather than buy shiny new things, but it can be healthy to sometimes reward your creativity with a truly ‘professional’ tool. Psychologically speaking, it can increase your satisfaction with the process… and a ‘professional’ tool makes you feel more ‘professional’. But of course ‘feeling professional’ doesn’t make you one, the skills are still required.

What matters in the end, of course, is what you do with the tools and technique at your disposal, and how it affects your audience – what it makes them feel. A big part of this is going to come from how you feel about what you are doing, and to the extent that better tools or stronger technique can make those feelings better and stronger and more satisfying, they are worth pursuing.

At least, that’s what I’m telling myself to justify the big shiny red keyboard-shaped hole in my bank account…