music

Bits and Bites

anticipating the turkey
Creative Commons License photo credit: theilr

I can’t say I’m the world’s most prolific social media user sometimes, especially when I’m going through a heavy work phase as I have been recently (more on this soon)… but sometimes I have to admit that it facilitates wonderful meetings with people I would very likely never have encountered otherwise.

Recently, after a lively debate on another online-friend’s post, I was contacted by Deryn Collier to see if I was interested in making a contribution to her ongoing series of ‘Soundbites’ - short, provocative question-and-answer format pieces on creative ideas and issues.

The question Deryn gave me was this:

Stacey Cornelius’ post a few weeks ago got us talking about creativity and risk. You have a project underway where you compose a piece in less than an hour and you post it immediately to your website. Most people would call this risky, but you think of it as exploration and play. Is there a difference? What is it? Risk of what? Exploration of what?

And, given the tight 200-word limit, here’s what I came up with:

First I should probably clarify that the ‘under an hour’ thing is more a prescription than a rule, as I don’t like being rigid about these things. However, it’s a helpful framework for actually getting something done… It also minimizes risk, as it’s clear that not every session will produce a masterpiece.

However, I believe creative risk is largely artificial and comes from falling into a trap I like to call the Phony Syndrome – imagining that everything we ‘put out there’ is an opportunity for the world to discover the frightened child hiding behind the confident, competent façade we try so hard to maintain.

But kids don’t actually do this to themselves, at least not until we teach them to. They don’t worry about how their work will be perceived, they just pour the blocks out on the floor and start stacking them up into something. What people will think of it or whether it’s ‘good enough’ are thoughts that don’t enter their minds until later. I think it’s our great mistake to let them in.

So I basically try to channel that approach as much as possible. If people end up liking the results, so much the better!

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In Praise of Beginners (part 1)

Start
Creative Commons License photo credit: jakeandlindsay

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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Creative Commons License photo credit: CarbonNYC

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
Creative Commons License photo credit: kanu101

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 Mastery

Padmasambhava Statue, Nepal
Creative Commons License photo credit: Wonderlane

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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Authentic Creativity

The Holy Trinity: Onion, Celery, Bell Pepper
Creative Commons License photo credit: shawnzrossi

I did an interview recently, focused on my compositional work and approach (I’ll post a link when it goes live) and, as often happens in these things, once we’d wrapped it up and signed off I found my brain spinning with other ideas. You know, things we didn’t touch on but could have, things I wish I’d said or wish I’d said better. So it goes. I guess I just need to do more interviews…

However, one of these ‘afterthoughts’ has stuck with me, and I’d like to try to expand on it a bit here. It has to do with authenticity. Now, this is a subject I’ve touched on here before, and of course it’s also something of a buzz word in the interwebs generally and the blogosphere more specifically. We need to be more authentic, we’re told; people like authenticity, it’s generally considered to be a Good Thing.

But, ummm, what is it? What does it mean? I suppose standard answer would probably be something like “being true to yourself” – but let’s face it, that’s basically a meaningless cliché and doesn’t tell us much of anything at all. It’s an unexamined platitude.

(Quick aside: I’m generally allergic to unexamined platitudes – ideas or terms that are bantered around without anyone ever seeming to take the time to really question and define them, or find out if in fact there’s any substance to them at all. Or perhaps allergic is not the right word; I’m actually kind of attracted to these linguistic or logical black holes. I’m driven to try to figure out what, if anything, they mean – or at least, what they mean to me.)

Give The People What They Want…

A slightly better / more complete answer, then, for me – and the one I’ve been using for a while now, in various contexts – is this: Always try to be the best, most honest version of yourself, rather than being what you think people want you to be (or saying what they want to hear, and so on). It’s still pretty vague, but at least it’s something. The key here is that in fact we can’t ever know, really, what people want us to be, so it’s best not to spend a lot of time trying to reverse-engineer it.

However, I still think there’s room for improvement. And while I don’t claim to be any kind of ultimate authority on the subject, I do seem to have stumbled on something that is serving me reasonably well – for the moment at least – as a kind of guideline to help me move towards some kind of authenticity in my own life and work.

And it has to do with stew. Or goulash, gumbo, whatever, take your pick…
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