Tag Archives: music

Who Am I? [Part I: Relating To Music – and the Rest of Reality Too]

Who am I, musically speaking? It’s a tough question to answer as living beings change and grow (and stagnate and wither too…) and where we are at any one time is something that can be quite difficult to pin down, and where we are going long term can be even more difficult to see. Really, adding an extra dimension to our perception of reality would make things a lot easier, although hopefully it would be less disturbing than it was for Donny Darko. As part of my PhD, my supervisor, Robert Davidson, has been encouraging me to look at myself, study myself, and understand myself and how that all fits together to make my music.

So let’s start with a smidge of self-analysis and explore first my relationship with music, and then expand outwards from there.

Relating To Music – and the Rest of Reality Too

I am already quite an introspective person by nature, and my focus in everyday life is definitely more inwards. Events happen but it is the internal consequence of those events that I tend to be orientated towards. This is true with listening to music and also with writing it. My primary way of relating to a piece of music or art etc is:

  1. The music is heard
  2. I have a response to the music in some form
  3. I observe that internal response
  4. If that response is unusual or special then my conscious mind starts to analyse, deconstruct and catalogue the event so as to understand both my response and what caused that response.

For example, I was recently listening to a work by Unsuk Chin for orchestra, and was particularly struck by one of the Timbral combinations which just had a very magical and alluring quality. Part of my brain then catalogued an impression of this timbre and the instrumentation. However, the magic didn’t last for me musically. The sonority was just one in a string of aurally distinct/unrelated sonorities. It was like finding a diamond in a bucket of polished stones, only to have it sink out of reach as other stones were ever added.

This was how it felt to me, and my conscious mind then analysed that experience and came to the follow conclusion:

This is one of the things that I dislike about this style of music, there are so often very striking and beautiful sonorities or moments, that are ultimately seem to be treated more as happy accidents than receiving the attention I feel they deserve.

What is important about this is reflection is that it shows how I relate to music. The importance of music to me is as a means of self-discovery, of internal astronomy, or perhaps archaeology. A way of uncovering what is already there, but unknown or unseen or unexpressed. It is not about subverting aesthetic conventions or trying to start a 3rd Viennese school, or experimenting. For me, this is what art is – a mirror held up to our minds and consciousness so that we can see what they look like. However, because we can’t ever see the entirety or it, or see it with the clarity a mirror lends us for examining the physical reflection, we have to explore this internal world through an ongoing process of exposure to a variety of ‘mirrors’ to see what remains true despite the change. As such, art – well, all of life does this really – provides an opportunity to apply perceptual differentiation to our consciousness as a means of discovering ‘deeper truths’.

However, what is interesting about this observation is that it very closely mirrors my Myers-Briggs personality type (INFP). While I wont go into a lot of detail about this, there are a few choice pieces of information about INFPs which relate directly to my relationship with music. The following, in fact, is the first sentence from the top Myers-Briggs site on google:

As an INFP, your primary mode of living is focused internally, where you deal with things according to how you feel about them, or how they fit into your personal value system. Your secondary mode is external, where you take things in primarily via your intuition.

From <http://www.personalitypage.com/INFP.html>

Both of these elements are clearly at work in my music listening process (outlined above), and it doesn’t surprise me that what is true broadly would be true in this central aspect of my life. While Myers-Briggs typing has never been properly scientifically validated, it does present a format for considering our thinking about and comprehension of reality, and I do feel some of the descriptions can be useful ways of discussing our perception and relationship with reality.

While I likewise think that, even if valid, human’s are more complex than the 16 Myers-Briggs categories can truly account for, there is nonetheless one strong message which has always stuck with me; People are different. Not better, not worse, just different. And so as strange as it is for me to think that some peoples’ relationship with music may be one largely of exploring the sonic frontiers or achieving the realisation of some philosophical ideal through sound, for me at least, such holds little interest ultimately… And that’s fine. And if you’re different, that’s fine too.

Ultimately, my music-making fills the following needs:

  1. Self-exploration, which also feels very similar to what Maslow termed self-actualization.
  2. Connection and Communication. For me, talking with people (with some few exceptions) is not really a comfortable way for me to express the deep undercurrents of thoughts and feelings that go on. Music fills this need – or at least, it can – and allows me to feel connected where my inwards focus can be very isolating. The need to communicate is still very strong, it’s simply that language often seems to lack the subtly required, especially in the spoken form.
  3. Something to do & something to hope for. There is a quote, whose origin seems uncertain, that we humans really need three things to be happy: Something to do, something to hope for, and someone to love. Composing does fill the first two of those needs. It provides a satisfying and rewarding work and countless things to hope for, even if there is plenty of soul-crushing rejection and indifference too.

What The Pro’s Think – Talent

As part of my Honours Thesis, I asked 13 professional Australian composers a bunch of questions about learning to compose. The questionnaire was answered anonymously, so I can’t reveal who said what, but I found the responses incredibly interesting and worth sharing.

Here’s some snippets of what their responses tell us about the perceived importance of Talent as it relates to becoming a composer:

Innate Ability/Talent/Aptitude/Inspiration

“If one does not have the requisite inner ear, imagination and creative drive, then there is nothing you can do!” – 3a. Q1

“Ideas come to those who have acquired fluency and a high level of technique.” – 3a.Q5

“…creativity can be drawn forth and nurtured.” 2.Q1

“Yes, like any skill, some people have more aptitude but totally possible.” 5.Q1

“Only partly. You would have to have the right attitude and sensibility, from thereon you can be taught the musical language.” 6.q1

“Certainly, technically it is. Composition techniques can be taught…” 7.Q1

“Talent will need to win out in the acquisition and development of the above.”7.q3

“Technique can be taught… at a craft level… technique alone is not enough.”8.q.1

“Not from scratch. There needs to be an innate ability already. Then a refinement of that can be assisted by teaching.” 9.q1

“Originality cannot be taught” 6.q3

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…

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 [www.soundcloud.com/chris-healey-1] 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