Monthly Archives: February 2014

Opera: But does it make any money?

I’m currently reading a very humorous book by Sir Terry Pratchett, namely Maskerade. As a book, it’s many things – a comedic fantasy; centred around an aspiring opera singer; and a great parody of Phantom of the Opera. As all Sir Terry’s books do, behind the mask of comedy is a witty and insightful commentary on people and society.

I’ve often heard people lamenting things about Opera not being ‘profitable’ or art being a waste of money.

Here’s a funny, but startingly good response to the issue, excerpted here for your enjoyment:

Bucket's jaw dropped. 'Is it important?'
'Because,' Salzella went on, smoothly, 'opera doesn't make money. Opera never makes money.'
'Good grief, man! Important? What'd I ever have achieved in the cheese business, I'd like to know, if I'd said that money wasn't important?'
Salzella smiled humourlessly. 'There are people out on the stage right now, sir,' he said, 'who'd say that you would probably have made better cheeses.' He sighed, and leaned over the desk. 'You see,' he said, 'cheese does make money. And opera doesn't. Opera's what you spend money on.'
'But. . . what do you get out of it?'
'You get opera. You put money in, you see, and opera comes out,' said Salzella wearily.
'There's no profit?'
'Profit. . . profit,' murmured the director of music, Scratching his forehead. 'No, I don't believe I've come across the word.'
'Then how do we manage?'
'We seem to rub along.'
Bucket put his head in his hands. 'I mean,' he muttered, half to himself,'I knew the place wasn't making much, but I thought that was just because it was run badly. We have big audiences! We charge a mint for tickets! Now I'm told that a Ghost runs around killing people and we don't even make any money!'
Salzella beamed. 'Ah, opera,' he said.

Seriously though, it’s a really good point. We whinge about art not being profitable. It’s not true, the return for your money is just not fiscal…


The Infamous ‘Composer’s Voice’; Self-doubt is a costly mistress

When people talk about composing, especially when composers talk about composing, ideas like ‘talent’, ‘craft’, and ‘voice’ are particularly prominent.

The issue of talent is something I might talk about in another post, but from the research I did in 2013 involving questionnaire’s and some of Australia’s best composer, many pros feel it is a significant factor in “making it”. Craft, on the other hand, is something that the same composers attribute to study and hard work.

As for the idea of having a ‘unique voice’ it seems to be something that is quite commonly tied up with innate talent, and is almost always seen as separate to craft or technique. It’s the originality, flair and distinctive over-all sound that makes a composer’s music sound like them. Mozart sounds like Mozart; Haydn like Haydn; and Rachmaninoff like Rachmaninoff.

After years of show-n-telling my works-in-progress to composition teachers, the problem I most often find arising when composing nowadays is actually quite severe self-consciousness and self-doubt. I think letting go of control is one of the biggest hurdles for developing excellence at anything. When I’m improvising or just playing with ideas, life is good, and I’m not inhibited but when I have to write – and finish! – a piece, the second-guessing starts. “Maybe I shouldn’t start the piece like this” or “Is that the best idea? Maybe there is a better piece you could write?” etc.

The more you care, the more you try, and the more you try, the more control you attempt to exert over a process – even if it’s something you have effortless proficiency at – the more likely you are to stumble.

Here’s some examples of what I’m talking about:
Have you ever paid too much attention to your feet or legs while walking and started to feel awkward or clumsy?
Is your hand steady as a rock until you try to thread a needle?
People who suffer from stutters often find they get worse if they pay attention to the stutter.

Those who are effected physically by this type of thing are suffering from what is know as an ‘Intention Tremor’. A similar sort of thing also effects people psychologically. The term ‘paralysing self-consciousness’ isn’t metaphorical. If you become too self-aware, the most common response is to become self-critical, which leads to trying to control the outcome. Unfortunately, the attempt to consciously control complex tasks tends to have a  negative effect, which gives you more to be self critical about, which in turn leads to you trying to control even more. Eventually either your brain will implode, you’ll make like Abra and teleport the heck out of there, or you’ll give up.

In the book “Psycho-cybernetics” by Maxwell Maltz (highly recommend reading the new version which is more readable), this issue is discussed to some length. On page 181 is a section titled “Self-Expression Is Not a Moral Issue” which I think is worth a read for any composer. In fact, the entire chapter “Unlocking your Real Personality” is almost certainly worth the read, doubly so if you are the sort of person who tends to be overly self-critical (like me).

I’ve excerpted some bits and pieces which, while not specifically talking about composing, raise some very applicable parallels:

“What Others Think?” Creates Inhibition.
When you become too consciously concerned about”what others think”; when you become too careful to consciously try to please other people; when you become too sensitive to the real or fancied disapproval of other people—then you have excessive negative feedback, inhibition, and poor performance. Whenever you constantly and consciously monitor yourevery act, word, or manner, again you become inhibited and self-conscious. You become too careful to make a good impression, and in so doing choke off, restrain, inhibit your creative self and end up making a rather poor impression.
The way to make a good impression on other peopleis: Never consciously “try” to make a good impression on them. Never act, or fail to act purely for consciously con-trived effect.
Never “wonder” consciously what the other person is thinking of you, how he is judging you.

Self-Expression Is Not a Moral Issue
Much mischief results from our taking a “moral” position on matters which are not basically moral matters at
For example, self-expression, or lack of it, is not basi-cally an ethical question, aside from the fact that it is our”duty” to use the talents which our Creator gave us. Yet, self-expression may become morally “wrong” asfar as your conscience is concerned, if you were squelched,shut-up, shamed, humiliated, or perhaps punished as achild for speaking up, expressing your ideas, “showingoff.” Such a child “learns” that it is “wrong” to expresshimself, to hold himself out as having any worthwhileideas, or perhaps to speak at all.

Disinhibition — a Long Step in the Opposite Direction
If you are among the millions who suffer unhappiness and failure because of inhibition—you need to deliberately practice
You need to practice being less careful, less concerned, less conscientious. You need to practice speaking before you think instead of thinking before you speak—acting without thinking, instead of thinking or “considering carefully” before you act. Commonly, when I advise a patient to practice disinhibition (and the most inhibited object the most), I am likely to hear something like this: “But surely you do not think that we need to exercise no care at all, no concern, no worry about results. It seems to me that the world needs a certain amount of inhibition, otherwise we wouldlive like savages and civilized society would collapse. If we express ourselves without any restraint, freely express-ing our feelings, we would go around punching people in the nose who disagreed with us.”
“Yes,” I say, “you are correct The world does need acertain amount of inhibition. But not you. The key wordsare ‘a certain amount.‘ You have such an excessiveamount of inhibition, you are like a patient running atemperature of 108 degrees, who says, ‘But surely heat isnecessary for health. Man is a warm-blooded animal andcould not live without a certain amount of temperature—we all need temperature—yet you are telling me that Ishould concentrate completely and entirely on reducing my temperature, and ignore completely the danger of not having any temperature.'”
The tricky thing about teaching and learning composing is that there is quite a lot of emphasis put on having a “unique voice” or being different, individual, and original. Both student and the teacher are aware of the expectation of individuality; you can’t just be another Beethoven, even if you could Beethoven as well as Beethoven could Beethoven that symphony. What is really being implied, without it perhaps ever being said, is “say something no one has ever said before!”.It reminds me of a skit from the old english T.V. show A Bit of Fry and Laurie where Stephen Fry plays the part of a passionate linguist:

Stephen: “Imagine a piano keyboard, eighty-eight keys, only eighty-eight and yet, and yet, new tunes, melodies, harmonies are being composed upon hundreds of keyboards every day in Dorset alone. Our language, Tiger, our language, hundreds of thousands of available words, frillions of possible legitimate new ideas, so that I can say this sentence and be confident it has never been uttered before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.” One sentence, common words, but never before placed in that order.”Friendly milk aside, the completely unique sentence that Stephen invents is, in many ways, an example of what can result from “say something no one has ever said before”. The most obvious solution is really to say something that (humour aside) no one probably said before, and for a good reason.

The second situation, which is probably more common, is that the student realises that the musical equivalent of sentences like “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.” probably aren’t going to win you any nobel peace prizes for your contributions to the human spirit. Rather, the smart ones realise that the difference between Beethoven and Mozart wasn’t that they were spinning different genres of gibberish. Something else was going on.

And so the student is stuck. They are expected to say something unsaid. In today’s musical landscape, they’re going to be seriously hard pressed to create something coherent which also doesn’t share similarities with other composers’s music.

Deliberate effort towards individuality is destined to fail. This is why, I suspect, composers insist on the importance of ‘talent’ and the unteachable nature of writing original music. It can’t be taught – there’s nothing to teach. You’re either ‘being yourself’ – or you aren’t.

The problem is that the insistence on originality creates self-consciousness. “Is this too rachmaninoff-y?”; “Does that bit sound too much like Ravel?” etc. As soon as you ask that question, it’s game over. You’re no longer being yourself, you’re trying to be “not-Ravel” and “not-Rachmaninoff” rather than “all-me”, which may happen to include some Ravel, Rachmaninoff et al. 

And this is where you will say hello to the self-consciousness cycle from hell. I think this is why child prodigies do well; they lack the self-consciousness and receive a lot more praise for work that a late-starter would be criticised for even considering to write.

To be clear, deliberately trying to sound like another composer is a problem as well, but for both problems, I think the solution would be similar:

1. Expose the student to a wide variety of music
2. Encourage self-expression
3. Discourage intentional or direct copying, mimicry etc except for when it’s made clear that it’s an exercise only, and not ‘composing’
4. Have a nonchalant or indifferent attitude toward material that is unintentionally similar to other composers’ works

5. Don’t make observations like “This section sounds like Ravel” as this sort of commentary will IMHO, if taken as a positive, encourage copying, and if taken as a negative, make the student self-conscious. Neither is helpful!
6. Encourage students not to be self-conscious, or self-critical during the composing process.Lastly, there is one more thing which I think is very important to a composer developing a unique voice:
Encourage them to solve unique musical problems while being unashamedly themselves in the process. I think musical problem solving is the thing that ultimately distinguishes one composer from another. Genuine, non-derivative problem solving is something which encourages new connections to form in the brain. Two composers writing pieces about the ocean will write completely different pieces, it’s the same object, but each has a different set of experiences and associations that they knit together in unique ways.I haven’t got any proof here, but I suspect that problem solving can only be individual. People’s brains simply will not make the same connections between ideas in the same way, and so identity doesn’t come from studying the works of other composer or ‘exposure’, not alone anyway. Finding ways that make the student solve problems in their own unique way, without feeling self conscious about it, will, over time, result in them developing composing strategies and conceptual frame works which… work.Would Stravinsky have discovered Primitivism if he hadn’t have been commissioned for the Rite of Spring? That commission made him take everything he had learned and think about it in a whole new way. Synapses fired, Stravinsky was inspired and a whole new genre was born.Be less self-conscious. It’s good for your health and your composing.Oh yeah, and live long and prosper! 😉

Why this blog’s name

Why is this blog called “Musiking By Nurture” you may ask. Well, if you’ve asked yourself enough to come to this article, then I obviously did a reasonable job choosing a name. 😉

The main inspiration for the name, however comes from a trumpet book I perused a few years ago called “Trumpeting by Nature”. Something that has always been quite apparent to me is that nothing I have managed to achieve however big or small seemed to happen ‘by nature’. Every modest achievement has seemed to be something that I had to actively nurture. This isn’t a comment about talent, something which either doesn’t exist, or I have never been fortunate enough to possess. Rather, it’s about the fact that, regardless of the advantages of your natural strengths, they’re not much good without deliberate nurturing.

It’s true that some people do seem to have a lot of natural advantages to pursuing their ambitions. For example, some people love talking to people, schmoozing, and feel quite at  home selling what they have to offer. I’m not one of them. While I do enjoy spending time with people, I am most comfortable on my own. This isn’t that I dislike people, mostly I just find talking is tiring, and strangely, the more ordinary the conversation, the more tiring. [Get me going in some sort of debate though, and I’ll be happy to talk for hours!]

In terms of selling my music, my perfectionistic tendencies mean that I’m never totally satisfied with anything I write, and people don’t want a composer to tell them the truth that something is “pretty great”, they want to believe it will change their life, even if both the salesman and the buyer knows that, in truth, it really wont. People buy apple products because they want to believe how much better it will make their life, and apple is happy to tell you all those ways, even though both know an iphone wont make you a better person, cure aids or feed the starving masses.

I don’t do well at that sort of pretense. I write good music, I just don’t sell it well. I think if you listen to it, you might something that will make you introspective. Something that will make you reflect on your inner world. But I can’t promise you will experience that. However, I do offer a full, 30-day money back guarantee on any recordings that don’t satisfy you. Seeing as I share all my recordings completely free [] I shouldn’t have a hard time honoring that promise.

Some people also find themselves lucky enough to have someone using their own strengths to sell your strengths and vice versa.  Think here of the two Steves – Jobs and Wozniak. Jobs had the passion for business and the salesmanship but not the technical ability; Wozniak had the technical skills but not the salesmanship. One without the other and Apple would never have gotten off the ground. There would have been either a great computer, but one that never made it to market, or there would have been a great entrepreneur without the right computer to sell.

Something that I have come to consider quite important is not to try and change your nature or become some idealized, but ultimately fictional person, but to nurture what nature gave you by way of strengths and find ways to use your strengths to solve weaknesses.

Consider it this way: Who is most likely to win a fight to the death? A strong 6’6″ man or a comparatively weak one?

The strong man, right? This is the way I think people too often think about strengths and weaknesses. The problem is that we need more information. Is the weak man faster than the strong man? What weapons are they using against each other?

Let’s think of it now as a 6’6″ man, trained to wield an axe like some sort of a prehistoric paper mill. And of the weak man standing 50 feet away with a nice bow, a quiver of arrows, and 20 years of archery practice. Who would you bet on? I know who I would pick.

The point of this analogy is that when we give ourselves the space to bring our personal strengths to bare, we will be much more effective than if we spend all our time trying to turn skinny men into axe-wielding maniacs.

Likewise, no matter how good you are with sharp steel, it’s pretty silly to take on an archer from afar. Or at least, not without some sort of seriously good strategy to minimize your weakness. If you look around at all the really great people in every field, they all, from what I can tell, have achieved their success by using their strengths to their advantage.

Am I talking about talent? Not really.

I associate talent with some sort of natural aptitude for a particular skill. Which quite often simply means they got lucky at the start. Child prodigies, for example, are a great example of ‘talent’. What’s really happening though? Are they superb pianists from the very first notes they play? No. So what makes them different from the many other kids who start playing the piano?

Well, they very luckily get a lot of crucial things right at the start. For example, if you sit enough people down to learn the piano without telling them anything about technique, statistically  some of them will guess more-or-less the right way to play (There is always a spectrum of ‘right ways’). And because the right way to play is generally the best, easiest or least-limited way of playing, they wont have any pressing reasons to deviate from that technique unless someone tells them too. In this case, their average learning curve might look like this:

With the tapering off happening as they approach the human limitations for paying the piano. These are your “naturals” and your “prodigies”.

Unfortunately, most people don’t do this. Their learning curve – if they persist long enough – will likely look like this:

The slow start is due to limitations in how they initially learned to play, and the sudden acceleration is as a result of figuring out the right/better ways to play the piano, and then, like the ‘natural’ or ‘talented’ person, their skill level will also taper off as they approach the limitations of the human body.

In real life, however, even the person who gets everything basically right at the start, will have something more like the following:

Still others never manage to completely overcome the limitations inherent in the way they unfortunately adopted.

So what I’m talking about with analogies of strengths and weakness and working with your strengths hasn’t necessarily got anything to do with natural aptitude for a particular skill. Instead, it has to do with your strengths and weaknesses in terms of how you think, act and approach learning that skill.

The people who achieve success as concert pianists don’t all start out as child prodigies – and not all child prodigies make it as successful concert pianists. Also, they are often quite different in the way they approach learning. This is part of the reason why there are often many different ‘schools of thought’ on learning to play any instrument, or achieve any skill. In basic terms, some say ‘technique comes first’, others say ‘music will create it’s own technique’, and others advocate dividing your focus between music and technique in different ratios. Some believe in analyzing, deconstructing and researching, others find ‘analysis leads to paralysis’; some teachers believe in imitation as a teaching tool, and others believe that imitation can stifle a students own style from developing. S

None of them are inherently right or wrong, although many teachers will argue one way or the other. I think it depends on the student and their way of thinking and experiencing learning. For example, it’s probably true that some students who learn through imitation may, long term, have trouble outgrowing that, but this is not going to be universally true. In fact, it seems possible that one could use this strength to synthesize a new style through the imitation of many different ways of playing.

So what is my idea of the ideal approach to learning? I would probably summarise it as “use your strengths to conquer your weaknesses”. Others have described it as “Approach a weakness from a place of strength” and good old Shakespeare so astutely said “Know thyself” which just about sums it up really.

The important thing is to not confuse your nature with skill aptitude. For example, there is an interesting phenomenon where people from one field sometimes make groundbreaking discoveries in another field. This is, I suspect, the result of finding a way to use your unique strengths to solve a problem that others have already exhausted their strengths on.

Anyway, the point is that this blog will therefore be primarily about nurturing your nature and tackling weaknesses through strengths.

Well, it’ll be about me tackling my weaknesses (of which there are many) through one of my strengths – thinking through a problem by writing about it. But you’re welcome to join me for a laugh along the way.

~ Live long and prosper

Composer or Emerging Emerger?

I am best known as a young emerging composer. Of course, being ‘best known’ for something doesn’t exactly mean much. Take the case of your mum, she could be an astronaut and to you she’d still be ‘best known’ for the annoying way she expects you to clean your room more than once in your lifetime.

What exactly I’m emerging from or into I’m not quite sure. I feel that being a composer is like being a bum. You either are actively bumming or you aren’t. The ’emerging’ title just tells you that you have yet to successfully stake out your own regular piece of a-grade street corner from which to run your not-for-profit business. So while I’m still canvasing the area for a nice park bench to call my own, I guess I shall have to embrace it. Who know, one day I might even make it. People far and wide might even know me as “that guy who lives in that park”.

How bright and promising the future looks with all those flickering street lights.

And this is that magical point in the analogy where I’m actually no longer sure whether I’m talking about composing or bumming. The subtle differences between such similar English words is terribly confusing.  Although, to be honest, while I said earlier I was an emerging composer, the real question here is, am I an emerger? Or am I an emerging emerger?

If you are at all curious what an emerging emerger might do musically, then you should consider checking out the following links:

And if you’d like to get in touch, just pop down to your local park bench and see if I’m in. If you can’t find me, then you can drop me an email via: healey dot cj at gmail dot com