Sunday, February 28, 2010

Complexity and Value

Every year, a panel of individuals updates and revises a list of music for American middle and high school solo and ensemble competitions. There are actually several different organizations that oversee these contests, but the process is the same. Their selections comprise a long list of pieces considered to be "standard repertoire" and of appropriate brevity to fit in the contest schedule, which means that sometimes only one movement of a longer work winds up on the list. And each piece is rated by its complexity on a five-point scale.

There is a distinct difference between a "Grade 1" piece and a "Grade 5" piece, but judges in these contests are really judging how well a student plays whatever piece they have selected. Musicians that want to progress to a state-level competition usually have to play a piece of a certain complexity from memory, and they have to play it well. But a student can receive high marks for performing a piece that is appropriate for their level of experience, even if it isn't one of the most difficult pieces on the list. As an accompanist, I am playing for some talented students who have worked hard and play challenging pieces very, very well. I have also been rehearsing well-prepared "easy" pieces that are more musically compelling and enjoyable than some thrown together "difficult" pieces, and I have realized something about how I hold my own music.

Certainly, there are many pieces that are off the chart for what a high school musician is expected to be able to play well. In fact, there aren't very many serial or avant-garde pieces on the contest lists I've seen, and with good reason. Most high-schoolers don't have the experience with their instrument or with music theory to play such pieces convincingly. Or even musically. And yet I have been accompanying some beautiful, fun, and exciting pieces of music. Somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that "more difficult" equates with "better," and that belief had some deep roots.

Perhaps it comes from a desire to be taken seriously as a composer, or even a healthy appreciation for overcoming a challenge, but the thought that difficulty and worthiness run in proportion with one another has been something of a prison that I trapped my creative energies inside. Virtuosity has its place, but so does simplicity. I often criticize my musical ideas as unimpressive, when the sound would otherwise be ideal for what I want to express. Judging the value of my creative expression by how difficult it will be for a performer to reproduce... well, even writing it out in those terms seems silly.

Some of the most profound and compelling ideas have been simple ideas. In fact, I find immense humor in Rube Goldberg contrivances that accomplish the most mundane tasks in the most complicated ways possible. Many of the musical innovations of the 20th Century were not necessarily born out of interest in accessibility or beauty, but rather to form an intellectual argument about the future of art music. It was an aesthetic choice toward the complex, with a clear understanding that such music was not being written for the masses. Whether I enjoyed or criticized individual pieces, learning about and becoming intimately familiar with so much of that "intellectual" music likely had an impact on my beliefs about musical value.

That doesn't have to determine what I do from here on, however. I honestly want to compose music that expresses something beyond how hard a performer had to work. Whether the ideal sounds for what I am creating in a particular piece are "easy" or "complicated" is actually low on my list of conscious musical priorities. So, I am ready to stop limiting the possibilities of what I can create based on its complexity and start allowing for the full breadth of my ideas to take shape, no matter how simple they may seem.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Cause and Effect

Our brains want desperately to make sense of things. We like being able to point to causes for the things that happen. At the very least, we have someone or something to blame. That there are actual causes for so many events makes it all the more appealing. We just aren't always accurate in where we place blame. In fact, our minds fool us often enough that there is a specific term for drawing conclusions based more on assumption than actual data: false cause.

If I have a fight with my wife and wake up one morning to find my pet iguana dead, I could conclude that she killed my helpless lizard friend. It certainly makes sense. She was angry, so she committed an act of vengeance. It's what people do. I've seen movies and read books about it. But if I realize that the temperature dropped below freezing the previous night, I might conclude that he froze to death. If I care enough, I could start looking for evidence to support either cause and effect relationship.

When I remember that the power went out for awhile during that cold night, I could conclude that his electric heat rock wasn't doing its job. And in the absence of physical wounds on his fragile reptile body, I may owe my wife an apology for thinking she could sink so low. But my green, scaly confidant could just as easily have been sick. When it comes down to it, what do I really know about iguanas? Maybe I had been so busy that I never even noticed his declining energy and the glassy look in his eyes for the past week. He could have died of loneliness for all I know.

But not being able to draw a line back to a cause drives me crazy. I want his death to make sense. I want to know that I had some power to do something differently and get a different result. When it comes down to it, I want life to make sense. Every little bit of it. Knowing why (or at least believing that I know) somehow makes the things I don't like easier to accept and it makes the things I do like appear to be more than just happenstance. If I like what happened, I can attribute it to something that I did, or I can attribute it to a higher power. If I don't like what happened, I can look for someone to blame. That can be a higher power, too. Who ultimately killed my poor iguana, after all?

Uncovering this trick that our minds play on us is one of the building blocks of the tools taught in the More To Life program. Our minds draw shortcuts that make the most sense so that we can get on with the important business of our day without trying to figure out the why behind every event. But when those assumptions are wrong, we can mistakenly try to correct pieces of the puzzle that actually fit just fine. Or we can continue down a path that isn't really headed where we want to go. Which is why I value feedback from other insightful people who might see things I miss, and it's why I choose to open my mouth and express the things I notice.

We can't know the causes for every event. When we are committed to staying conscious, though, we can develop the partnerships and practices that will keep up us on track for what we want to create. And we can begin to recognize the difference between the things we actually know and the assumptions our mind tricks us into believing.

For the record, no iguanas were harmed in the writing of this post.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

One Bad Apple

Yesterday I heard about an open position at a place where I once worked. The person who was in the position hadn't impressed the committee that oversaw his work, and they had decided not to continue his contract. In addition, they decided that they were going to revise the position to favor people that had a different set of credentials from the individual with whom they were displeased. Even though it is likely to be much more effort, it seems to make more sense to revamp the position than to consider that they may have just done a less than adequate job in filling the position.

The human brain likes to put things in boxes. It loves to label partly because it can make extrapolations about other things with the same label. If a person behaves a certain way, then other people with similar characteristics will behave in a similar fashion. If a situation has a particular outcome, then other similar situations with have a similar outcome. It becomes a matter of prediction.

We can predict how someone will behave based on their skin tone or age or attire, and we can determine in advance whether we are going to like or respect someone based on our predictions. Except that we are often wrong about our predictions. When we assume what is going to happen without regard for the actual relevant data, we are likely to be surprised. When we assume how a person is going to behave based on arbitrary attributes, we sometimes overlook useful information.

Sometimes we draw conclusions about a person's trustworthiness, capability, drive, or intelligence based on the flimsiest of observations. Some dangerous issues go overlooked while our attention focuses on less critical matters, all because we act on superficial assumptions. Some people are hired for a position largely because of their alma mater, and yet it is inconceivable that everyone who graduates from a particular school will have the same level of capability. At the end of the day, we cannot completely trust all of the conclusions we draw from extrapolation.

An alternative might be to assess things more purposefully. Awareness that our minds are likely hurrying us along to a conclusion before we have taken in all of the relevant information can give us incentive to slow down and look at the truth of a situation or an individual more clearly. This requires a certain level of consciousness, of course. I wonder how often challenging circumstances can be traced back to a series of decisions and assumptions made by someone on autopilot. Or a whole group of sleepwalkers. I believe that what we create tomorrow will be built on the purposeful decisions we make today, about ourselves and about the people around us.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Illusion of Safety


I barely acknowledge some of the fears that drive my behavior. I am afraid of being perceived as "pushy," so I don't express the potential I see in some people's lives. I am afraid of being the focus of someone's anger, so I don't always support people on the commitments they make. I am afraid of not being accepted, so I keep to myself insights and ideas that could actually pave the way for someone's dreams becoming reality. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it most likely boils down to a desire to be safe.

Every day, I pass by many apartment complexes with "security gates," to provide an illusion of safety to the residents. I've lived in those kinds of communities. The gates, when they actually function properly, may make it a little tougher for someone, but anybody that really wants to be on the other side of the gate can find a way to do it. My mind sometimes has me convinced that by not sharing what I see, I am keeping myself safe from other people's judgment. When I take an honest look, I can acknowledge how silly that mental security gate is.

My hairstyle isn't "safe." I write music that could be called challenging on a few different levels. But I am not always willing to directly challenge other people's perceptions of reality. Even when their perceptions keep them from creating the lives they claim to want. It seems safer just to let people believe what they believe and behave how they behave.

My mind gets hung up on the idea of accepting other people. I want to accept people for who they are, and I want to respect the beliefs that they choose. But accepting people doesn't mean refusing to challenge them. Especially on the beliefs that they are acting on subconsciously. Like my belief that sharing what I see will result in rejection. What I actually want is to let my strengths be of benefit in other people's lives, and some of those strengths involve seeing potential that others simply don't see.

So the question becomes, how do I dismantle that silly security gate and the illusion of safety? Well, for one thing, communication is a skill that can bridge the gap between what I fear and what I want. When I am careless in how I communicate what I see, then it's more likely that I will say things in a less hearable way. When I communicate clearly and in detail the possibilities I see, and I am clear about my motivation for doing so, I create a space that allows for easier partnership. Or even space for others to springboard from my vision into a purpose of their own.

My willingness to be vulnerable leads me to recognize that I can be passionate about something without being attached to what someone else does with it. I am only responsible for me, and I am also the only one who can share what I see. It's not necessarily "safe," but really... what is?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Remarkable Timing

It was raining and cold. I had parked to run into a store for just a moment and was getting out of my car when I heard a thunk. Looking around on the ground I saw nothing, and I concluded that one of the buttons of my bulkier-than-usual clothing had whacked the car door. No problem. I took care of my business and was returning to my car when I heard my cell phone. I darted through the rain, trying to get back into the car quickly, and reached into my pocket as I slid into the seat. But my phone wasn't in my pocket.

I looked around in the car, but didn't see it anywhere. So I opened my car door and heard the faint sound of my phone letting me know I had missed a call. Out in the rain, on my hands and knees, I searched for the source of the sound. Lo and behold, my cell phone was on the ground, underneath the vehicle next to mine, completely out of sight unless one was crawling around in the parking lot. If my friend had not called at the exact moment I was returning to my car, I would most likely have driven away and left my phone behind to be crushed under the wheels of an unsuspecting SUV.

Some people would call that a remarkable coincidence. Others would cite the experience as proof that there is a higher power watching out for us. Or our phones, at least. I think there is a useful perspective somewhere between the two. After all, calling it coincidence puts me at the mercy of chance, which is in a sense true. I can't control anything but my own actions, but I am far from a helpless victim. It was absolutely a case of remarkable timing, but I am left wondering how many other instances of remarkable timing I miss every day. Not mere coincidence, but opportunities to act.

Taking it as a wake-up call to be more aware of what is happening around me gives me an opportunity to notice things that I can do in my own moments of remarkable timing. Leaving my phone behind in that moment would have been a frustrating complication in my life, and my friend had no idea how a call at that specific time would save me from that frustration. Imagine what would happen if we were purposefully watching for those opportunities.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Value of Drive Time

When I made a shift in work environment recently, one of the benefits to the change was that I would not be driving 45 minutes, twice a day, four days a week. I certainly know people who have a longer commute, but the shift in schedule was a piece of how I saw myself creating time for what I wanted to be doing next. Essentially, my weeks were gaining an additional six hours over and above the 40-something hours I had been spending on the job.

It wasn't until I was driving extensively over the past week to rehearse with a bunch of talented high school musicians that I remembered how much I actually enjoyed my time on the road. Sure, I get frustrated at traffic from time to time, but more often I had been using the time to plan or work out details of various projects. Essentially, the drive time had helped me be efficient and insightful. When I looked at it from a new perspective, it wasn't such a great benefit to give up the commute.

This made even more sense when I took the Strengthsfinder 2.0 test online and read about the strength of being Strategic, my highest strength according to this particular evaluation. It said that Strategic thinkers need "musing time" to give their brains a chance to work on problems and challenges, coming up with the best course of action. In other words, my actual strengths were being engaged effectively because I had a commute. Take away the commute, and my brain isn't able to work things out as effectively.

It occurs to me that people often fall into patterns of behavior that tap into the natural strengths subconsciously. They might gravitate toward certain jobs or certain kinds of relationships without realizing that an area of innate ability is being directly by that decision. For me, I chose to work somewhere that required pockets of time that my brain could do something it does well. But I didn't choose the commute because it would engage an area of personal strength. At least not consciously.

Now that I know what works well for me, I can make those decisions more purposefully. I won't necessarily be inventing a daily commute, but I can schedule musing time into my day. Acknowledging what is true about my strengths gives me an opportunity to effectively seek out ways to engage my natural capability in what I am creating rather than trying to make things work the way they are "supposed" to. It's another way of trusting myself.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Going with the Flow

Photo: AP
Over the last several days, I have taken a little time here and there to sketch out a plan for a new piece. I find that the music I write makes more sense if I know where I am going with it. Deciding on a overarching form, and creating a "schematic" of how the instruments will interact with each other, provides some general boundaries for a composition. It is rather like looking at a map and planning a route to get from the first sound to the last, even before I know what those sounds are exactly.

Today was the first day I actually put notes on a page, using my preparatory work as a loose guide. I like what I wrote, and I have some great ideas for where it can go. But it is obvious to me at this point that some of my initial thoughts about the piece will be discarded. The route I had mapped out didn't take into consideration that a bridge was out. Or that there is a particularly beautiful stretch of road I would be missing.

Some of the music I wrote while I was in school took on a pedantic feel when I was unwilling to give up a carefully planned concept for the sake of aesthetics. I don't enjoy listening to music that is more intellectual than it is expressive, but that is exactly what I wound up creating when I was inflexible about my plans for a piece. I am proudest of my works that are engaging, even when this meant sacrificing a bit of the intellectual design to give the musical ideas their own space. I want to write more music like that.

And I want to be living like that as well. Dancing with what happens and still keeping a general sense of what I want to be about. I may wind up creating something unexpected, and it may be different that what I originally conceptualized. But the alternative is to work against what life brings me, and "lifeless" isn't an adjective I want applied to anything I create.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Evoking Passion

As I have been playing piano for a large number of high school musicians over the past week, it has struck me that so many of the beliefs and habits people carry around for the rest of their lives are already in place for these students. Many of them are talented, but the level of dedication and artistry displayed by a few of them is reflected in the music they play. They have tapped into a true passion for what they are doing... something not everyone discovers. A few students are on the other end of the spectrum as well. After every few measures, they take a pause to offer excuses and justifications for why they don't know a piece or aren't playing very well.

Of course, some of this latter group's behavior could be the result of nerves, but there is something more underneath. After accompanying so many other musicians over so many years, it's evident to me that some of them call forth a level of passion and intention that others never reach. And the same goes for other walks of life as well. There are some people who turn being laid off from a job into an opportunity to create something about which they are truly passionate. I have heard of people writing books, starting companies, or taking their lives in unexpected and satisfying directions, all because they "lost" a job. Others interpret the same circumstances as a sort of paid vacation, or use the situation as an excuse to indulge in self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. They don't tap into the same level of passion and purpose.

In my own life, I have taken the time created by stepping away from a predictable work schedule to compose music and seek more opportunities for my music to be heard. And I have been working to fit all of the things that ignite my passion into one big picture of my life. Seeing how excuses and assumptions work against other people, though, I have realized that I can be doing the things that are truly important to me, regardless of my circumstances. Many years ago, I was working full time as a courier and wrote a ten-minute wind ensemble piece over lunch breaks and in the evenings. And back then, the full score and all of the parts were written out by hand; I didn't have a computer program to assist with notating the music the way I do now. But it mattered to me, and so I made it happen.

Believing that I have to create a special set of circumstances in order to have what I want is a self-imposed limitation. It means that I have an excuse for not doing the things that matter to me, which could have the payoff of letting me play the martyr. In any case, recognizing that I have the freedom to do what what's important to me regardless of my circumstances is liberating. I am grateful that I know what I'm passionate about, and I strive to stay awake to how I can inspire others to discover what those things are in their own lives.