Long read guest post by Jack Kohl

I sometimes meet with apologies from venues when a piano’s action may not be serviced to top form. I reply with a smile that such apologies are unnecessary, for in my youth I had to pull up as many keys as push down upon them when playing on battered uprights before elementary school children. In those days I played as often with my palms up as down, like a day at the gym dedicated to both push and pull. Once, however, just before a recital in a private South Carolina home, I encountered a woman whose main concern was – though my naked hands were plain before her – that I remove any rings I might be wearing before playing upon her piano’s vulnerable ivories.

Something unexplored lurks in the human mind in regard to protecting and maintaining the piano keyboard and its action, and I have been giving this mystery considerable thought. Many people tap their fingers on a tabletop when they are confronted with a dilemma. One might expect a pianist to take double recourse to this outward expression of resolving an inward problem. But in my case – and I have been meditating this puzzle in many places: at my own home piano; while on walks in my native village, during which I study the fossilized trackways of dogs in sidewalk concrete; and, also, at a New York City exhibition opening of paintings by a very noted figure of the piano world – one might note my right foot, at any time during the day, in silent, reflexive action, raising figurative dampers as if onto a still unrealized insight, as if attempting to apply an imagined legato of reconciliation unto considerations too separated to be united by the connective force of equally figurative legato finger action.

We come to pedal all things in our mind; we come to raise the dampers between all events – even the most wildly and seemingly polarized – and endeavor to connect them in the driest halls of our consciousness. Even when the higher part of my mind falls out of this practice, it is not long before a hole forms in the sole of my newest right dress shoe, near the ball of my foot. And even when that hole is just forming, I am made to note it as soon as I walk to a hack accompanist’s job in the rain – and my mind goes back to pedaling at all hours.

I have been pedaling hard to connect the three sites I name above, for I have had personal investments in all three, including the last, though I am no painter. But I, too, like many re-creative artists, have felt a compulsion to disavow performance as my main identity. This happened rather early for me, and I turned to writing (novels and essays) over performance art because I was convinced that the former would leave a permanent mark whilst the latter dissolves at once into air. I have discovered that both, however, under the powerful light of honest appraisal, vanish with nearly equal speed.

I met a musician friend, a percussionist, for lunch recently, so that we could discuss the trade of writing. He told me of playing a performance of Haydn’s “Creation” with a high level ensemble. A videographer had been employed to document the performance. My friend was proud of his role in the concert. But every time the camera was on him, and he was about to play, the camera then panned or cut away. I told my friend that he should view that panning as Providential, that he should not care to leave his mark as the mere executant of another man’s work. Haydn’s “Creation” is Haydn’s creation after all. I told him that if he has the writer’s impulse that following its trade is the way to keep the best intellectual control (true), to say something perhaps utterly new (true), and to leave a lasting mark (false). I say false because when the figurative camera of my mind pans to the spines and folders of my collected written works, it pans then away instinctively before they can speak. We can never watch ourselves.

In the finished basement of my childhood home, stands the piano I principally use still when I practice. Its action is in good working order. In another room of that same basement, for quite some time stood the old Francis Bacon player piano upon which I first learned to play. That piano had very yellowed and ancient authentic ivories, and in many places on its keyboard it had irreparable, stuck, keys. When I would stare at that ruinous action, I often wondered if elephant tusks had been the material of choice because they reminded one that an animal that leaves such mighty footprints has its greatest feature – its tusks – thrashing forever in the unimpressionable air? Was not the suggestive strength of the piano keyboard already in play when mastodons cut the glaciated atmosphere?

But not until recently – though I always knew the tracks were there – did I start to think about how, just below the carpeting underneath both pianos’ locations, there is a lengthy fossilized dog trackway in the concrete of the house foundation. One can see the uncovered section of the tracks to this day in the adjacent garage, where they make their way in and out from the driveway. The tracks vanish where the floor of the garage meets the driveway. No one can trace the dog’s approach to the foundation from his day of liberty in 1972, and no one can trace where he went after he left by nearly the same path by which he entered.

I have been rising of late from the well-regulated instrument that still sits astride the fossilized dog trackways, and I have been taking walks with my own living dog. He and I have been making a survey of all the fossilized dog trackways in our native village of Northport on Long Island. There are two great examples on Woodbine Avenue, one on Main Street, one on Highland Avenue, one on Sandy Hollow Road, and a very fine and complex one on Washington Place. Perhaps I started to note the trackways that are available to me that parallel the ancient prints I have visited often at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut. There I have stared down to the trackways and remarked to myself: that if one’s work is of value, someday, someone, will note it. For even the casual actions of unmindful dinosaurs from millions of years ago have not, at last, escaped detection.

But as I had felt in my final admonition to my percussionist friend, there seems something false in the permanence of legacies of any kind. I have been taking walks to Washington Place’s fossil trackway to think this through. I had discovered recently the Washington Place trackway because I had been compelled to take to its east sidewalk because two little white dogs were out in the yard on the west side of the street. A lady came out to gather them and mutter, to grumble reproaches to her tiny dogs for their combativeness, for I walk with a Rottweiler.

On three squares of concrete right before one house along that east sidewalk of Washington Place, are some splendid fossil prints, leading principally north away from the address, a frozen moment from which the instant before it is hidden, and a moment from which the instant after it is hidden, for the fossils are on only those three squares of an otherwise blank and lengthy sidewalk.

Such fossils always imply humor to me – humor from the printmaker. But the running dog had equal joy on the dry slabs of the sidewalk before and beyond the wet concrete. There is something in the glee that dogs find in locating the wet section, the blank slate, that is roped off to them. Vandals and dogs have no hesitation to christen a new, blank, notebook. They do not hesitate; they do not lose heaps of ideas because they fear what is best to record first – or fear what format the blank journal seems to demand.

The dog pedals with the joyful pant of his living tongue. The concrete tracks are a record of keys that stuck for him. But the solid pavement before and after the tracks were as the better regulated keyboard; they let him race and leave no record. What strikes me is how much a poorly regulated or humidity-plagued piano action stands in analogy to wet concrete on the sidewalk: individual paw prints can be immortalized until perhaps all the blank is taken up. A good action is like a dry sidewalk: always repelling any impressions, always keeping itself clear of print.

A book to its author is somewhat like the wet concrete. It captures the running mind of the writer as it passes over it. The figurative concrete hardens and captures the pawprint traces of his thoughts. But there is an equal amount missing in the record – as much is missing from the book of the run of the writer’s mind as is missing from the dog’s run over wet concrete when it occurred. There is something very significant about the blank blocks of concrete surrounding the printed areas – the blocks that were there to set the dog to speed and receive him at the end but could take no prints, for they were already dry and solid. At last, the sidewalk sections that record the prints and the adjacent ones that had been dry (and show nothing) seem equal to me. Both sections suggest to me that a re-creative artist’s and a creative artist’s legacy are ultimately the same. Legacy is, at last, only a well-used present.

The well-regulated keyboard is like that solid, already dry, concrete – and is like the ground leading up to the desk, to the manuscript in progress, to the studio, the easel – as much a trackway itself as it seems but a runway for getting up to speed for the impressionable trackway. In fact, are we not most uncomfortable in the area that takes impressions? Does not the dog shake his paws just after he hits the figurative plaster or manuscript of the concrete? I note that dog fossil trackways rarely double over themselves. And when we part from our own impressionable trackway – the writer’s desk, say – do we not seem to take to a fresher, healthier, more sensitive material, dip our pen in a better well, though of invisible ink – the ink like that of the well-regulated action, which keeps no records?

The writer must value that horizontal dash, what lives above the print sections and the unimpressionable slabs, as much as do the performing artist and the dog. The tracks do not immortalize the runner’s dash. They only immortalize another witness’ review of that dash – or the dasher’s review of his own run, in which case he is reduced to another witness, as alienated from his former self as if he is another man. All means of record keeping, all the stuck keys, omit the horizontal, the play of forward and lateral motion. The sticking keys leave a record only of vertical, separate, attacks. The kind of legato I describe is not captured by finger work, pedal work, or even by a recording device. It is only achieved in the mind in the moment. The best reader of any passing moment pedals in his mind and disavows his desiccated tracks. The dog pedals in his horizontal glee, not via his recorded landings. The latter are only as the punch holes in a player piano roll.

Somehow the wet concrete, that which allows supposed immortalization, is no more impressionable than the surrounding hard blocks that accept no prints. The most well-regulated piano action shows no sign of what happened at its keyboard after the playing is over. The well-regulated action shows no sign that one was there after one is gone. It is a like an Etch-A-Sketch toy that shakes and clears itself.

And recordings are like a file, an archive, of stuck keys. Perhaps that is the real reason they become so odious to their creators – and, ultimately, to others – over time? Recordings, even notated compositions, are but signs of stuck keys. They stand in the way of the future. A well-regulated piano is rather like the ground just before and after a trackway; the keys do not stick. The dog who left the fossil prints leaves a clue in his incomplete trackway: that the choice of the wet concrete was not by design, but partial and by chance – part of a greater sequence. Tree roots push the old trackway slabs up, like scores onto the piano’s music rack, yet no matter how we play and run, the best mediums (the well-regulated actions, the hard sidewalk), reject all efforts to leave new tracks.

The tangible objects of a body of creative work – the books, the canvases, the scores – are like pianos with irreparable, sticking, keys. Imagine having to cast aside and store each piano on which one has performed after only one use! One would be left with the opposite of a piano showroom; one would be left with a piano charnel house. One would be left with slabs of stored trackways, but soon only a collection of a hoarder’s tragedy. The record left on the piano with sticking keys is less important than the record one cannot see in adjacent and perfectly regulated keyboard actions. Who among piano majors has not, late on a weekend night, moved from piano to piano in the vacant practice rooms, as if to rehearse on varying actions? Who has then not thought of such charnel houses but for the work of the piano technician? The piano technician is as a priest in confession – creating the forward moving motion of inalterable blank slates.

These ideas absolve, even vindicate, the concert pianist – or any re-creative or interpretive artists or performer whose medium is time-dependent – from his seeming dependencies on the trackways of predecessors. He lives a sort of hopscotch life in respect to trackways – and would seem to be helpless after the tracks end, and in the area before the start. But whether it is one’s own original work or another’s, only the living, unrecordable utterance is of ultimate value. I have known many Henrys, but not a one seems to share the same name when I hear it.

Only the most transient creation is the most eternal and ineffaceable. There is no impressionable material to record how a solitary consciousness improves a moment. A pianist feels his work is written in haste onto atmospheric sheets that are immediately cast into a fire of succeeding silence. But intuition tells me more and more there are no safe and permanent library shelves or secure archives. One comes to suspect that knowledge and achievement are not cumulative, but that growth of mind is really a succession of abandonments.

Always the well-regulated action protects us. We in turn are careful to keep it from proximity to windows and heaters, and we add climate-control devices. We seem to want them so well-regulated that no cavity can ever form on the figurative elephant’s teeth; sometimes the strings look like floss meant to tackle tusks.

The well-regulated action works then to push back instantly against all sounded notes, so as to erase the marks of utterance, to keep our philosophy high. The well-regulated action works in analogy to the sun and the moon, working to render blank the shorelines by cleansing tides. Does this not suggest, perhaps, why we favor celestially black lacquer on concert grand pianos? The darkness of the cosmological voids suits the mystery of such instruments.

We are right to worship the achievement of the inventor of the piano’s mechanism. One can credit Cristofori for his genius in respect to turning a harpsichord into a piano, but his mechanism’s receptivity to later improvement in respect to speed may be its greatest legacy. I notice the common human trait of impatience at elevators – as if repeated pressing of the call button will somehow accelerate an arrival. But on the best pianos the repetition has an answer for every attack. I do not think any facile pianist will disagree that there is no other button that is always so ready to meet our efforts to push it in faster succession. We even have fingerings for this: 4-3-2-1 (or alternate attacks between the two hands on one note). Again, the greatest representatives of modern actions will reset and give a note for each of our strikes. We cannot dance fast enough to leave a fossil on a well-regulated action.

Now that I have lingered over my home piano and one of the fossil trackways in my own village, I wish to tell of the third consideration I named at the start: my recent time at the art gallery on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan. I was early for the 6:00 PM opening, so I spent time alone on one of the benches in the dog park adjacent to the American Museum of Natural History. I watched many dogs run about with glee over a firm, dry, unimpressionable, dust. I entered the gallery after friends arrived, and with all the thoughts I have given above very much in mind, I was struck immediately by the arrangement of the room. On the three interior walls of the small space were the paintings. But of most significance to me was that the gallery was also a performance space. A grand piano stood before the front window; thus it stood principally before a canvas that can hold no images. The canvases that reject permanence – the keyboard and the window – were placed together well.

Again, on the walls perpendicular to the piano were the paintings. If their canvases could have provided the same unremitting challenge as the well-regulated piano and its action before the front window, then those canvases would have been as trampolines to the paint as soon as it had been applied. The paint would have bounced back with each brush stroke; or, like the front window glass, the paint would pass right through and absorb the mark of the artist no more than a footfall on the edge of the tide. But the hanging paintings were as stuck, as sticking keys. The piano stood there as the ultimate, unremitting, blank canvas. The well-regulated action is as an infinitely perfected piece of glass, one that permits no reflections: all of the performer’s inner spiritual photons pass through, consigned to an endless outbound journey. The piano keyboard is as a revolving door that leads somehow ever forward. Scratches, fossils from the nails of virtuosos, may remain in the fallboard, but nothing fossilizes in the keyboard below.

What distinguishes the great halls of the different branches of the arts from each other? A library must be expanded, for its shelves begin to creak – even, to a microscopic degree, if its holdings are electronic. The same holds for museums. Their rate of accession must always threaten their space and future. But a performance space does not augment its holdings with time. It deaccessions a work as soon as it is acquired. In virtually the same instant a work is gained, displayed, and then deaccessioned; for it vanishes by a power beyond our will. A concert hall is a library with the most voracious kind of bookworm.

The piano action is as an artist’s pencil with tip and eraser on the same end. It resets constantly and always offers no more than the present to its user. Not only does it efface even the record of one’s most superior virtuosic predecessors, it erases the record of oneself from even an instant before. I know of nothing that welcomes so much the utterance of only the present moment. Only the player sitting at the bench, sitting perpendicular to the keyboard can hear the performer whose arms move parallel over such a resistant fossil bed.

A well-regulated piano’s action will no more let a key stay down than will the water in a pool permit one to keep a ball under the surface. One can keep the ball submerged if complete focus is rendered on that one ball. But let one’s focus and downward force be set off balance in any way and the ball pops up – as will the key of any chord if one’s proper weight is not maintained upon it, as is often the case with one’s outer (and sometimes inner) fingers in wide or densely voiced chords. The well-regulated action will no more retain a shape than a pool of water. But though the glory of public performance may lure many a narcissist to the trade, the action of the instrument at the same time does not permit Narcissus to see himself reflected in the pond of keys.

Probably the only significant fossil permitted to form in proximity to a well-regulated piano action is on the music stand. Perhaps that is the real reason we respect so much those who play from memory. The audience does not so much crave the impression of improvisation as it desires the reassurance of seeing the instrument admit no fossils – seeing the keyboard insist that the canvas is always unfilled, that all prospects are ahead even when time is up. The encores are but preludes.

The grand piano’s lid is shaped not unlike an artist’s palette. But when the lid is opened, is it not on such an angle that any figurative paint could not but slide away? That surface, too, seems to hint at an unremitting will toward a blank slate, toward an infinite future. Perhaps that is why there is something unnerving to me when I play on pianos in private homes where the lids are closed and covered with family photos and other impedimenta. A pianist craves those things to be removed from the lid. Perhaps many a pianist practices with the lid up because then the symbol of a palette that sloughs away its paint augments the suggestiveness of the well-regulated action that retains no history.

Perhaps the reminder of an unremitting and endlessly demanding future is at times too much for some? Perhaps it is not to keep the dust away that we have fallboards on pianos? When one closes the fallboard of a piano it is like the gesture of closing the eyes of a dead man, for we fear those eyes are still seeing. And, to boot, we often cover a closed piano as if with a shroud. Something lurks within these gestures; they are inspired by more than fear of dust and ghosts.

Under very rare circumstances for a pianist, Nature conspires to augment the perpetual prospective blank of the piano action’s canvas. Once, when I had cause to perform on a piano positioned on an outdoor platform, an intense beam of sunlight passed directly over the keyboard for a time. Then it was as if I was challenged by an even greater unimpressionable canvas. The white keys, despite that intense sunlight, were not heated, it seemed, much more than they would have been under other circumstances. C major was not unpleasant. All white keys seem in accord with each other, even though, after close inspection, one will notice that not a one in the compass of an octave is cut the same! I groped the C major sections under that sun as when one walks barefoot in a beach parking lot in summer and strides, tightrope-style, the lightly painted lines of the parking spaces.

But the black keys! The black keys became hot. They were hot enough to make me anticipate the moments when my fingers could leave them. The farther a key signature was from the twelve-o’clock position on the circle of fifths the more uncomfortable it was to touch that keyboard. The sun had augmented the brevity of the action’s retention. I cannot recall – even from times under the brightest stage lights – another case when a keyboard presented two temperatures to the hand.

Yet under common circumstances a pianist must warm up his own hands. Most other instruments warm up with the player. But the piano – ever-resetting – for the most part remains cold as the Cosmos, giving harsh but vast reassurance amidst the mortal paintings, amidst the canvas fossils on the walls and the books on the shelves, of a ceaseless breadth of time that is yet to be; as the piano in that Columbus Avenue gallery sat in that center of canvases, silent as a Sphinx, yet not quite radiating riddles nor music yet to be written or played, but, instead, a promise of infinitely incipient and prospective time.

When I left the gallery I walked with brisk steps to the subway, and I kept my eye upon the blank slabs of the cheerful and hard sidewalk, and only looked up to dodge the herds of the professional dog walkers – each living animal with a tongue protruding like a damper pedal from the midst of ivory teeth.


Jack Kohl is a writer and pianist living in the New York City area. He is the author of That Iron String (A Novel of Pianists vs. Music), Loco-Motive (A Novel of Running), and You, Knighted States (An American Descendentalist Western), all from The Pauktaug Press.

www.jacksonkohl.com   

“Ideas lie everywhere like apples fallen and melting in the grass for lack of wayfaring strangers with an eye and a tongue for beauty, whether absurd, horrific, or genteel.”

– Ray Bradbury, writer

A very good friend of mine is a writer, and our conversations often touch on the subject of creativity and the notion of “feeding the muse” – how we stoke up reserves of inspiration when these become depleted through our creative work.

Inspiration itself is hard won. It does not come from nowhere. “Light-bulb moments” are rare and most creative people – musicians, writers, artists – will agree that the best way to foster creativity is through a consistent daily routine. But when that creativity fades, “what comes out must be put back”, as my writer friend would say.

In his collection of essays entitled Zen in the Art of Writing, the writer Ray Bradbury set out his techniques for cultivating inspiration. Although primarily aimed at writers, these techniques are equally applicable to musicians, and I have highlighted a number of them below, using Bradbury’s original suggestion as a basis to guide the musician seeking inspiration.

“Collect Experiences Instead of Things”

Experiences are the staple diet of the Muse, and the richer our experience, the better fed and healthy the Muse will be. For the musician, experiences are not only musical ones (listening to music, going to concerts, collaborating with other musicians), but life experiences in general – relationships, travel, sights and smells, interactions with others, events large and small. All feed the creative Muse and have a bearing on our personal music making.

“Read Both Trash and Treasure”

For “read” substitute “listen”, and value every listening experience – the good, the bad and even the ugly! Listening is a fantastic source of inspiration for the musician (something which I feel some younger musicians and students in particular do not engage with enough). Listen to great artists and recordings, and the “pulp fiction” of recordings too. When working on a specific piece of music, listening to a selection of recordings of the same work can offer remarkable insights and enable one to create a personal vision for the music. If one remains open-minded, there is always something to be learnt from a recording or performance one dislikes, or a piece of music one regards as “bad”. 

“Write [Play] With Zest”

Our passion, love and excitement for what we do drives us and feeds the Muse. We should approach each practice session with excitement, asking ourselves “what can I do today that is different, or new?”

“Make Lists”

Make notes of experiences which fuel the Muse and reflect on how those experiences have influenced your music making. Lists enable us to organise our thoughts more coherently and provide focus when it comes to practising and reflecting on our music.

“Run Fast, Stand Still”

Bradbury urges writers to “strike while the iron is hot!” to get ideas down quickly

The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are”

This is tricky for musicians, for whom slow, considered practising is essential to learn music deeply and retain it. But I agree with his statement that “in delay comes the effort for a style”. In order to create a personal musical identity, vision and sound, we should strive to be spontaneous, driven by our musical instincts rather than the desire to imitate or aspire to be someone we are not.

“Choose Your Friends Well”

Musicians, like writers and artists, seek affirmation and endorsement from those around them. The best critique often comes from those who best understand the exigencies of the profession – i.e. fellow musicians. Seek feedback and critique from trusted friends, colleagues, teachers and mentors whom you know will support and encourage you.

As Bradbury says, “Who are your friends? Do they believe in you? Or do they stunt your growth with ridicule and disbelief? If the latter, you haven’t friends. Go find some.”

“Train Your Muse”

Just as we practice regularly and intelligently, as an athlete trains, so the Muse must also be trained. A well-trained, well-fed Muse allows us to say what we want in our music without feeling restrained and to be spontaneous, making music “in the moment” which brings vibrancy, excitement and genuine expression to our performances.

 

Where does inspiration come from, the spark to create, to make?

….even fairly mundane activities can feed in to the discovery of new insight, new knowledge and new means of expressing ideas in all sorts of ways

– Professor John Rink

It may surprise you to learn that creativity tends to spring from routine, from the mundane. “Light-bulb” moments are rare, and sitting around waiting for the fickle muse to strike is largely wasted time. The personal routines of creative people may be wildly eccentric or incredibly precise, but the common thread is the routine, and the dedication to commit to practising your craft or art on a regular basis.

Forget the idea that inspiration will come to you like a flash of lightning. It’s much more about hard graft……Routine is really important. However late you went to bed the night before, or however much you had to drink, get up at the same time each day and get on with it.

– Mark-Anthony Turnage, composer

A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood

– Tchaikovsky

People often ask me how I manage to get so much done – writing and updating this blog regularly, editing Meet the Artist interviews, practising the piano, teaching, attending and reviewing concerts, in addition to my commitments to my family. The answer is quite simple: my days and weeks roll by with what might appear to be rather dull regularity. I rise at the same time each day and follow a generally unchanging routine of piano practise (usually first thing in the morning when my brain is most alert), writing and teaching. The boundaries of my daily routine give my mind the chance to wander freely, to the extent that ideas for blog articles may come during the middle of my piano practise, and vice versa. By rendering aspects of daily life automatic and routine we “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action” (William James, psychologist). The self-discipline of a daily routine brings comfort and a kind of personal meditation which allows creativity to flourish. Routine also lets us to plan our work schedule and any deadlines which need to be met, which means we can be more realistic in estimating how much time we have to complete a writing project or learn a piece of music ready for a concert, for example. If this all sounds far too regimented, it’s worth noting that a well-organised schedule means one actually has the time to “go with the flow”, to fit in unexpected, spontaneous or last-minute events and activities, and it can help avoid procrastination. (Consider for a moment why disorganised people might complain that they have “no time” to get things done……)

Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.

– Gustave Flaubert

Creativity is important for musicians. Paradoxically, it is the very discipline and routine of regular practising which can spawn new ideas and bring freedom and spontaneity in performance. Our regular encounters with our music, and its composers, set by the parameters of daily practising, open the mind to new ideas, experimentation, reflection and reworkings. But don’t begin each day with the assertion “today I will practise for X hours or minutes” and then worry about finding the time for it; resolve to practise and then just go and do it!

Sportspeople understand this too. Look at the hours of regular, routine training they undertake to hone their skills, to enable them to run faster or jump higher, to reach their goals. We may describe the top tennis pros or highly-acclaimed concert pianists as uniquely “talented”, but no one, not even the greatest pianist in the world or the winner of the US Open, gets by on talent alone. That “talent” has to be nurtured, honed and finessed, and the only way to do this is through regular and concentrated work on one’s craft.

Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.

– Pablo Picasso

For musicians, regular practising brings freedom, flexibility, and a sense of being and playing “in the moment”. This in turn brings creativity and originality to one’s playing and performance, enabling one to forge a personal and more deeply internalised interpretation and vision of the music, which does not rely on external validation from, for example, teachers, peers or critics. At this point, one can be said to have fully “taken ownership” of the music and in performance this can lead to even greater freedom, risk-taking, excitement and spontaneity – all aspects of performance which are palpable to audiences.

Don’t begrudge the time spent routinely practising. Not only are you training the procedural (“muscle”) memory, building security into your playing, and advancing your musical abilities, you are also allowing the mind to open, ready to explore and experiment, reflect and re-evaluate.

quote-the-great-composer-does-not-set-to-work-because-he-is-inspired-but-becomes-inspired-ernest-newman-61-59-06


Further reading

Musicians may be most creative ‘when not actually playing instrument’

Daily Routines – how writers, artists and other interesting people organize their days

A new museum in Helsingborg, Sweden, celebrates failure. Yes, you read that correctly – it celebrates failure. The museum displays corporate products which flopped but which paved the way for greater innovation and extraordinary commercial success (for example, Apple’s Newton device was the forerunner of the iPhone and iPad), and prove that failure, and a willingness to learn from it, is a crucial part of success.

“Innovation requires failure. Learning is the only process that turns failure into success.”

– Dr Samuel West, creator of The Museum of Failure

Meanwhile at Smith College in the US students can enroll on a “Failing well” course designed to “destigmatize failure”, foster resilience and equip them with the tools to cope with the exigencies of real life – failures, setbacks, disappointments, making wrong choices.

Despite knowing that we can learn from mistakes, and that the process is an important aspect of life experience, most of us fear failure, and fear the reactions to that failure – ridicule from family, friends, colleagues, embarrassment, personal disappointment, negative self-talk, imposter syndrome, crippling self-doubt and depression. As musicians, setbacks and failure can have a profound effect on how we approach our music making and professional career. If we perceive failure as humiliation, it can paralyse our ability to learn and develop, but if we can separate our ego from the failure or setback, we can use the experience positively as an informed learning process to shape our future approach, make us stronger and motivate us to work harder and smarter. Sadly for many of us, the “wrongness” of making mistakes is inculcated in us from a young age – by parents, teachers, and peers – and such prejudices combined with a constricted mindset leads us to blame and criticise ourselves for our failings.

The problem for many musicians is that our music and our instrument are crucially entwined with our identity and setbacks can therefore feel like a very personal attack. But if we are able to see what we do as ‘work’, and not allow it to define us as a person, we can take a more objective approach to mistakes and setbacks. It’s fine to take time to wallow in frustration and disappointment, but better to reflect on what can be learnt from the experience to do things differently next time.

Failure is part of creativity and mastery. Without it we cannot learn, explore, experiment, expand our horizons, and progress. By removing emotion and adopting a more positive mental attitude, we can turn failures into successes and become more creative and motivated to succeed. Neuroscientists have found that the parts of our brain responsible for self-monitoring are actually switched off when we are being creative. Thus, by being creative, negative feelings connected with failure can be turned down, allowing the brain to think clearly and spark new ideas and approaches.

Don’t be discouraged by a failure. It can be a positive experience. Failure is, in a sense, the highway to success, inasmuch as every discovery of what is false leads us to seek earnestly after what is true, and every fresh experience points out some form of error which we shall afterwards carefully avoid.
― John Keats

My students don’t believe me when I tell them about a book called The Perfect Wrong Note, which celebrates mistakes and what we can learn from them. In our day-to-day practise, mistakes should always be regarded as opportunities for evaluation, reflection and refinement. Mistakes should encourage us to consider the following questions:

  • Where did the mistake happen?
  • Why did the mistake happen? Was it due to poor fingering, poor technique, misreading?
  • How can I put this right?
  • What can I do to ensure I don’t make the same mistake again (or elsewhere in the music)?

As a teacher, the student who continues to make the same mistakes should give one pause for thought, calling into question one’s teaching approach and forcing one to consider the following:

  • Why is the student making this mistake/s?
  • Does the student know why the mistake is occurring?
  • How can I help him/her put it right?
  • Is there something lacking in my teaching? Am I not explaining something clearly, has the student been using an awkward fingering or does he/she need some technical assistance?

Mistakes show we are human, and fallible, that it’s ok to have an off day when your playing and practising may not go as well as usual. Giving ourselves permission to make mistakes allows us to be fulfilled by our music and to feel empowered about our practising. A willingness to make mistakes teaches us to be self-critical, but in a positive, productive way.

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Mistakes and failures contain all the information needed for learning – if we are willing to use it – and as the Museum of Failure demonstrates, failure is a crucial part of innovation, creativity and progress.

There is no such thing as failure — failure is just life trying to move us in another direction……Learn from every mistake. Because every experience, encounter, and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are.

– Oprah Winfrey

 

 

A guest post by Charles Morgan Lines

“There are two components to conducting, expressiveness and exactness. These two components are in dialectical opposition to each other; in fact, they cancel each other out. A conductor must find the way to bring the two together.”

Ilya Aleksandrovich Musin, Conductor Maker

Ilya Musin (1906 to 1999) was a Russian conductor and renowned teacher of conductors. His identification of the paradox that lies at the heart of the art of conducting, the need to be both expressive and exact in one’s communication with the orchestra, is of immense significance, for not only conductors but also others who want to develop and utilise their skills to an exceptional level.

Exceptional performance within any sphere requires the ability to be both exact and expressive in our actions, to be technically reliable, accurate and consistent, and uniquely expressive, imaginative and creative. The best soccer players, golfers and tennis players can not only execute their skills perfectly time after time, but also combine and use them in new and unexpected ways that enhance their performance and surprise and delight their audiences. Think of Messi and his visionary passing, Ballesteros and his gift of recovery around the greens, Federer and his ability to wrong foot his opponents with unexpected shots and angles; they can not only execute their skills accurately and consistently but also find ways to express their personal style and uniqueness through their sport.

Many highly successful scientists are not only technically rigorous but also uniquely creative, imaginative and even playful in their approaches, again able to express their personal style and uniqueness through their vocation (Galileo and his imaginative and playful experiments, Einstein and his memorable and engaging thought experiments, and Richard Feynman and his creative and practical lectures).

So, how can we all work towards achieving and combining the exactness and expressiveness that leads to exceptional performance? The first thing to make clear is that it takes time and disciplined effort. For most of us it takes about ten years to achieve the fluency of thought and action that is an essential requirement for top level performance. Having said this, appreciating how the two dimensions of expressiveness and exactness interact with each other can act as a helpful springboard, providing the impetus for our initial and on-going efforts.
Exactness relates to our ability to execute our skills, apply our knowledge and use our experience. If we are low in exactness we will find it difficult to execute our skills, apply our knowledge and use our experience consistently, efficiently and effectively. If we are high in exactness we will more easily be able to execute our skills, apply our knowledge and use our experience consistently, efficiently and effectively.

Expressiveness relates to our ability to express our unique perceptions and preferences and demonstrate the blend of skills and attitudes that constitute our personal style. If we are low in expressiveness we will find it difficult to express our unique perceptions and preferences and demonstrate the blend of skills and attitudes that constitute our personal style. If we are high in expressiveness we will more easily be able to express our unique perceptions and preferences and demonstrate the blend of skills and attitudes that constitute our personal style.

These two dimensions of exactness and expressiveness can be combined to create the above matrix, which can be used to inform and support the development of our skills and the personal style we use to deliver them.

The matrix consists of four quadrants:

The beginner quadrant is where we are at the beginning of our journey towards mastery of our skills and acquisition of our personal style. We are low in exactness and expressiveness. We do not have the skills, knowledge and experience we need and therefore lack the confidence to express ourselves and develop our personal style. Key to moving out of this quadrant is successfully identifying and taking those first few crucial steps that will help us begin to develop the skills and gain the knowledge, experience and confidence we need.

The loose cannon quadrant is where we are if expressing ourselves within our chosen field comes easily but reliable and consistent execution of its technicalities does not. We are high in expressiveness and low in exactness. We possess a personal style that needs to be polished; others commonly perceive us as possessing a ‘natural but raw talent’. We are capable of flashes of insight and brilliance but they are unpredictable and unreliable. We do not know how we succeed at things and so we find it hard to replicate those successes as and when needed. Key to moving out of this quadrant is to identify and focus on our key strengths and attributes, find out precisely why and how they work and then practise these aspects until we can call upon them at will, so ensuring consistent and effective execution. We also need to try out these aspects and approaches in different contexts to identify when they are most and least appropriate and/or effective.

The technician quadrant is where we are if we can execute our skills and apply our knowledge within our chosen field accurately, consistently and effectively, but whilst doing so we find it difficult to express ourselves individually, imaginatively and creatively. We are high in exactness and low in expressiveness. We need to identify and develop a personal style. We may be perceived as reliable and a ‘safe pair of hands’ but not a ‘star performer’ capable of delivering brilliant and unique ideas and performance. Key to moving out of this quadrant is moving away from our comfort zones and the usual or generally accepted ways of doing things. We need to explore differing approaches and ways of doing things and identify those that intrigue us, appeal to us and perhaps even positively challenge us the most. We then, through experiment and practice, need to fine tune and blend them to create our unique style, our unique way of going about our chosen work.

The maestro quadrant is where we are if we can execute our skills and apply our knowledge consistently and effectively and in doing so express ourselves individually, imaginatively and creatively. We are high in exactness and high in expressiveness. We possess a mature and evolving personal style. We are likely to be perceived as someone who can suggest different and insightful ways of looking at things and effectively implement innovative ways of doing things. We are the people organisations and businesses rely on to create their competitive edge and help them become acknowledged leaders in their fields. Key to staying in this quadrant is battling complacency. We need to continue growing and developing our skills, knowledge and experience. We need to seek out new and exciting challenges. We need to make a habit of seeking and acting upon feedback. Lastly, and arguably most importantly, we need to reinforce our own skills through helping to develop those of others.

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Charles M Lines trained as a musician and studied composition at the Colchester School of Music during the early 1980s. He joined the UK Civil Service in 1984 where he worked for various government departments, eventually specialising in management consultancy, training and development. In 1996 he became a Senior Lecturer at the UK Civil Service College.

At the age of 41 he left the Civil Service to work as an independent management consultant and trainer. He has since been in demand both at home and abroad, providing management consultancy and training events to a very wide range of clients.

He speaks and writes regularly about creative problem solving and how music’s creative principles and practices can help us all be more creative in our approach to life and work. Charles is the author of ‘Creativity in the Air: Fifty Ways Music Can Make You More Creative’ and also writes the Creativity in the Air blog

Musicians will be familiar with this image of an iceberg. The tip, the visible part, represents our public persona and the music we perform and share with others, while the mass which is hidden below the surface of the water represents the many hours of practise, study and preparation which enable us to perform. Anyone who believes that music flows effortlessly from the musician’s body or who thinks it is “easy” should consider this illustration below and its metaphor.

But what if we allowed others a glimpse into our practise rooms, to watch us practising, working, refining and finessing our music, to sit in on rehearsals with colleagues, and to observe the long and detailed process that goes into making a concert which may only last for 90 minutes?

In a college of art and design in the US, students are being encouraged to do just that – to offer up their work-in-progress, their rough drafts and preliminary designs, even their mistakes, for scrutiny by others in a new exhibition called ‘Permission to Fail’. We are used in exhibitions, books and concerts to seeing and hearing the finished article and I think this often makes viewers and listeners rather complacent, or even ignorant, about the long and involved creative processes which go into producing a work of art or preparing a piece of music for performance. It is all the working out, the sketching, redrawing, practising and pondering which enables us to unleash our creativity, and by learning from our mistakes and our “workings out”, we reach a finished product wrought from a special mixture of curiosity, exploration, trial and error, hard graft, and imagination.

Music practise is usually undertaken alone and in private, except when colleagues come together to rehearse ahead of a concert. Do we really want others to see us sweating over a knotty section, swearing at that passage which always trips us up, hear 50 repetitions of the same section, practising to make the music permanent and perfect? There is however a great curiosity about how musicians, and other creative people, work: I find this often manifests itself in (sometimes daft) questions about “finding the time” and much exclaiming about the amount of time one spends doing it. Then there is the ongoing “not a proper job” aspect of being a musician (or writer or artist) whereby because one loves what one is doing it can’t possibly be serious or commercial, and that practising, or drafting a synopsis or sketching out a painting, is somehow self-indulgent and without value. The pianist Valentina Lisitsa filmed her practise sessions and it was the huge popularity of these video clips that enabled her to relaunch her career. In a way, these films proved that she was a fallible human being, and offered a glimpse into her world as a working musician, which made it more comprehensible to those outside the profession.

Many art exhibitions these days will include the artist’s ephemera, including notebooks, sketchbooks and scrapbooks. Of course for most artists, these books were private, not for public consumption and were the artist’s way of recording ideas to be worked up later in the studio: they were never intended to be shown to the public, yet they offer fascinating insights into the working practices, processes and mindset of a creative person. They also reinforce the fact that creativity is not just about the finished product, it is also about the journey to get there. I think it’s important that we as practitioners of a creative activity appreciate the the joys and frustrations, the mistakes and the eureka moments which we must go through, and to regard all of these as important staging points on the journey. The “10,000 hours rule” has largely been debunked, with an emphasis now placed more firmly on quality rather than quantity of practise. That said, one does need to put in the hours and practising should be habitual, concentrated and thoughtful.

I’ve never regarded my practising as some mystic art, to be kept secret and hidden. I’d much rather people better understand the process involved in learning and finessing music instead of saying daft things to me like “it’s amazing how it just comes out of your fingers” and “How do you do it?”. This is why I share my practise habits with my students, so that they understand that while we might undertake the practising alone, we are in fact engaged in a shared activity – creating music.

Further reading:

How Creativity is Helped by Failure

Accountability in Practice – article by pianist and teacher Graham Fitch