In Praise of Beginners (part 1)

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I have never regretted choosing music as my main creative idiom. There are so many reasons I think it’s the best thing I could have chosen to dedicate my creative life to. I’m not saying it’s ‘better’ than any other art form, but for me personally, I figure it has just about everything.

Music is infinitely deep and vast. It’s always going to be ‘bigger than me’ by orders of magnitude and I will never run out of amazing things to learn and discover about it. It’s the perfect marriage of mathematics and emotion. It combines the joys of physical technique and mastery of tools with those of storytelling, of spinning a narrative in an eloquent non-verbal (and verbal, if you lean that way) language.

Music moves people. I know of no other art form that can get so deep under peoples’ skin and cause them to tap their toes, bob their heads, clap or drum along, play air guitar or dance around the room. We don’t put it in museums and go to look at it while talking in whispers. Even dance, as an art form, does not often make other people want to dance; we tend to sit still and watch other people do it. Music makes us move.

Music is highly portable. You can play or practise all alone, for no-one but yourself, and get endless pleasure from it – or you can use it as a medium for profound connection and/or collaboration. Music connects people like little else. People define their whole identities around music that speaks to them or for them in a powerful way.

Music can express absolutely anything. It can be beautiful, light, airy, dark, angry, sensitive, aggressive, contemplative, meditative, virtuosic, stunningly complex or sublimely simple. And because it can be very simple, it can be made by nearly anyone. It’s this last point that I want to talk about today. More

Have We Been Taking the Wrong Approach?

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What makes people different? What makes creative people, create differently?

When we speak of someone having a particular style, or a unique approach to what they do, what does that mean?

In the case of music or art, how can two people who work in the same medium or idiom, play the same instrument, and perhaps even have the same influences, do what they do so differently? Or if the differences are subtle, how can they change the experience for the listener or viewer so profoundly? What is that difference made of?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a lot lately, partly because we’ve had some substitutes playing in the band at the show I’ve been working for these past few months.

Now, we maintain a pretty high standard of musicianship – the core players are all very accomplished and versatile players, and when we ‘sub out’ we try to make sure we hire replacements of the same calibre. Luckily Berlin is well-stocked with fantastic musicians, and we’re fairly well connected with the community. So it’s not hard to bring in players that are up to the challenge.

However, it changes the music and the experience dramatically. For us, for our non-musical colleagues in the show, and for the audience, though they may be unaware of it.

I suppose through a certain lens this is all very unsurprising, but I started to ponder it a little and it began to strike me as a deeper and more subtle thing than it might seem at first glance. And, well, I’m all about exploring deep and subtle questions that might otherwise be overlooked… More

are you good enough?

The good enough mine
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I had a good night at work last night. Not a perfect night, mind you, just a good night. And while riding home through quiet streets (I’m a pretty devoted bicycle commuter) I started to think about what made it a good night.

Now regular readers will recall that my current ‘job’ is playing piano and keyboards (and a bit of trumpet) for a crazy circus/cabaret/dinner theatre show called Palazzo.  So when I say I had a good night, it means I was happy with my playing, and with how I presented myself and contributed to the music and the show.

So I got to thinking, what goes into that? In a nutshell, I need to feel that I’m basically ‘good enough’ for the job I’m paid to do, or the project I’ve taken on. Maybe a bit more than good enough, but at least that. I am not the kind of person that is able to be happy with myself or my work if I feel like I’m struggling and not really delivering the goods.

Since I grew up around a lot of scientists and generally like to systematize things, let’s break it down. What are the specific requirements of ‘good enough’ – or of ‘feeling successful’, as a wise colleague used to call it?

Well, I’ve come up with four which seem to determine it for me in my current line of work, and as usual I suspect they may apply more broadly…

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Creative Energy

Vertigo

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I enjoy explaining things, which is a good thing, since I have an almost-five-year-old who likes to ask questions. I suppose this is not unusual, but I’ve always viewed it as an interesting challenge to give him answers that are clear but comprehensible. And as time goes by, his questions get more and more interesting and perceptive.

I’ve noticed a trend in our explaining-things conversations: my answers tend to inevitably progress towards more basic underlying concepts, usually with a single fundamental tenet at the end: entropy and the laws of thermal dynamics, basic evolutionary theory and genetics, or often, the idea of energy. (I realize that these are fairly abstract concepts for a small child, but my philosophy is to be honest and clear and try to give examples that relate to familiar things).

making waves

‘Energy’ is one of those words with a lot of definitions, like ‘time’ or ‘spring’ or ‘clear‘. It’s a rich and subtle concept and underlies a lot of our relationship with the world. Everything we do, indeed everything in the universe, can be expressed and understood as an exchange or a transformation of energy.

Creativity is, of course, no exception. While creating ‘something out of nothing’ is a nice turn of phrase, under the surface nothing new is ever really created, we just move things around and reorganize them into new patterns. That’s still a lot, and making new patterns is a profound and transformational thing to do! But here’s the thing: it takes energy.

And in my own life, energy has been at something of a premium for the last few months… More

The First Time…

Preparing for flight

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Note: this is a slightly edited re-post from the first ‘version’ of this blog, and functions as a bit of a teaser for the now basically finished and nearly release-ready ‘Cliffjump Manifesto’ that I’ve been talking about here for far too long…

About six or seven years ago I spent some time in Dubrovnik, Croatia, a stunning medieval walled city on the eastern coast of the Adriatic. Some good friends/colleagues and I had the good fortune to have a ‘working holiday’ arrangement there for a couple of summers, whereby we would play music – basically whatever we felt like playing, but nominally jazz – in exchange for lodgings and food at a cool local taverna called the Sesame. Nice place, recommended if it’s still there!

During the daytime we could pretty much do whatever we wanted, which was naturally walking, exploring, swimming, and generally hanging out. Dubrovnik has incredibly thick and ancient stone walls, which in many places stand right on the water. In a number of spots there are narrow passages through the wall to little enclaves on the outside, often small cafés or restaurant. One of these, which we never really knew the name of but which we called ‘the Lav’ for reasons that will shortly become clear, was a favorite haunt in the late afternoon.

Everybody’s doing it…

Now ‘Lav’ in Croation (I am told) means ‘lion’, and the reason we called it that was this: next to the restaurants zone there was a kind of high rock terrace overlooking the water, and at the lip of this was a large rock on which someone had written this word, ‘Lav’. This was where people jumped from. I don’t really know how high it actually was, perhaps 15 meters (50 feet) or so. High enough to be daunting, but then lots of people were doing it; you could swim right underneath, the water was very clear and you could see that the shore dropped off very steeply and there was lots of uninterrupted water of great depth to jump into.

Nevertheless, it was a kind of test of courage, which built up over days and days while I built up my resolve to try this thing. I’m not a kid anymore and I don’t take these things as lightly as I used to, but I also haven’t completely outgrown the urge for a physical rush. So I have a very clear memory of standing up there on the rock on the day that I had decided I was going to do this thing, and taking deep breaths and telling myself that it was going to be OK, people were doing this all the time.. and fighting the biological imperative we all have built in that tells us to NOT JUMP OFF OF VERY HIGH THINGS, EVEN IF EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT….

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Creative Mastery

Padmasambhava Statue, Nepal
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Today we’re going to talk about mastery. Thats right, you heard me. Mastery. Not ‘being pretty good at something’ or ‘knowing more or less what you’re doing’ or even ‘being in the zone’ or ‘feeling the flow’. Mastery. Being a master of whatever it is that you do. You in? Good. Buckle up…

So. I have a few piano students these days, and while the lessons are largely focused on practical pianistic things, I try to teach from the same kind of holistic perspective and approach that informs my composition and performance work – and of course, this blog. So from time to time some of the more abstract and philosophical stuff does find its way into the lessons.

Recently I found myself trying to convey something which has become very central to my whole thinking about music and piano-playing, in a kind of subconscious way, and I think it applies to creative work more broadly. It concerns, as you may have guessed already, the concept of mastery.

I suspect that many creative people tend to have a vague idea of mastery as something unattainable, or at least attainable only by an elite and supremely gifted few. Something for the rest of us to strive towards, perhaps, but never attain. And what would it feel like to attain it, anyway, since we never really sit down and define exactly what it means? How would we know that we’ve arrived?

Some of us are even uncomfortable with the whole idea, mistrusting perhaps the elitist overtones… And yet there are masters, undeniably – those whose abilities seem to transcend normal limitations, whose confidence and poise match their technical command, who make it seem easy.

I believe that coming to terms with this word, and what it means to us, can have a profound impact on our approach to creative work. So I’m going to try to get very specific about what it means to me (and as always, you’re heartily invited to join me with your comments at the end!)…

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