05 January 2009

Direct Paths

For many musicians, the question of identifying what exactly got them "hooked" on music in the first place and subsequently attempting to reproduce that effect on their own audiences leads to a curious and awkward relationship between self-discovery and externally imposed learning. Depending on the musicians and their unique experiences, this process may be wholly or partially about developing a theory of causality between music and the emotions; unfortunately, the colloquial, pseudo-scientific understanding of the relationship between music and the emotions that dominates much of both amateur and professional musicological discourse today is so flawed as to be of little or no practical use to those musicians seeking a personal solution to this question. As an instrumentalist, I would argue that this unfortunate circumstance necessitates a renewed focus on direct paths to musicianship, namely through the imitation, internalization, and synthesis of the physical, sonic phenomena that comprise the music one is interested in, as it is these phenomena which are directly responsible for any emotional content one might ascribe to music.

That different listeners may experience unique emotions during the same performance is well-documented; this is, I would argue, not merely an unavoidable fact, but also an essential form of biodiversity in any musical ecosystem without which the collective creative ferment of society would become dull and monotonous. It is for this reason that many well-intentioned efforts at music appreciation are fundamentally flawed: they assume that the ultimate goal is to create the same experience (emotional or otherwise) in each listener by educating them to listen and respond a certain way (usually the way of the person giving the lecture or writing the article). I would argue that if a piece of music seems to be quite universally well-received, this is not a piece which many people have been taught to like, nor is it one which imposes a particular listening style on anyone who might hear it; instead, it is a piece which appeals to the greatest total number of unique individual listening styles.

As one element of such appeal, emotion per se cannot be dealt with generically. There is a great range of possible emotions, many of which have been reported as a response to music by someone at some point. It should follow from this realization that musicians cannot learn to emote musically simply by emoting generically; there must be a more direct path. The trick here is to somehow balance the conscious and subconscious, to avoid becoming a "trained monkey" without merely playing "by feel." One must be suspicious of any technique that bypasses the conscious mind too greatly, such as the technique of applying descriptive terms to musical phrases in order to elicit a musical performance from the student without helping them to recognize and understand the technical factors at play, or the approach of simply repeating a task until it becomes more of a habit than a consciously executed action. Success in this realm is achieved only by putting aside for a moment the sedimented emotional and literary associations that others have imposed on the music over the course of history and forging a musical interpretation that synthesizes one's sonic experiences into a unique personal voice.

In order to be able to reproduce these results at will, the student first must consciously understand how they are achieved; varying amounts of repetition can then be used to adjust how conscious the student is of their newfound technique. Basic fundamental techniques like breathing or hand position require significant repetition so that the student truly does not think about them yet executes them correctly; technical nuances and interpretive devices, on the other hand, ought to be internalized without becoming blind habits, since the student will inevitably need to maintain the ability to make subtle adjustments to these techniques "on the fly." While the teacher should use whatever means necessary to elicit the desired results from the student, once they are achieved, it is always helpful to ask what exactly it was that made these results possible. Only with a concrete understanding of the answer to that question can the student begin to take ownership of their development and start to become their own best teacher.

Insofar as desired emotional responses are caused by physical, sonic phenomena, pedagogy must concern itself first and foremost with nurturing the student's ability to create (or recreate) such sonic phenomena. Rather than leaving students grasping for sonic equivalents to their unique emotions, teachers must ask students to (1) identify the sonic characteristics which lend a given performance its perceived emotional qualities, (2) imitate and vary these devices according to personal preference, and (3) apply the personalized devices to their performances as they deem appropriate. This is first and foremost a creative endeavor, akin to composing or improvising, whereby the ultimate goal is not merely to "paint by number" by compiling an inventory of devices to be drawn upon one at a time when needed, but instead a synthesis of one's cumulative knowledge and experience into a unique personal voice.

Physical, sonic phenomena must be the unit of currency in any economy of musico-pedagogical ideas. Emotion being an effect of such phenomena and not a cause, it tells us very little about how a performer might create or recreate a musical moment. Conversely, direct paths to musicianship are those by which the student acquires the knowledge and ability to consciously and purposely realize their musical intent.

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