Lessons about music, learned on my holiday
Last week I enjoyed seven days of real holiday down at Sandy Point, a fairly isolated part of the Victorian coast line (though not too many hours drive from Melbourne). No internet, no mobile coverage… just lots of books, and lots of instruments to play. Tiny (boyfriend – that’s his pseudonym for this blog) and I didn’t in fact get through all the many ‘projects’ we brought away with us. But we did spend a lot of time doing not-very-much, and in the process, I amused myself drawing the following parallels between our adventures and some important lessons in music learning and music making.
1. The significance of space, stretching out in front of us, and in front of our students
I read somewhere that standing looking out across an endless vista – towards the sea or mountains, or from a high point in nature – gives our souls room to expand. I love the way I feel my breathing slow and deepen when I stand and look out to sea, or along an endless coastline. I feel small and insignificant, and yet essential and connected, all at the same time.
I think a lot about ensuring there is space in front of my students, metaphorically. Particularly emotional space, in terms of what they feel ready to take part in, or try out, in our creative music lessons. Children come to our classes with so many diverse experiences already behind them. Working with new arrivals, especially refugees, I can’t possibly know what they feel ready to take part in. Rather than guessing, or pushing them, I can make sure there is ‘space’ in front of them, ready for them to step into, when they feel the time is right.
2. Some things work themselves out in their own time
We had a fireplace in the house we stayed in, and it was a temperamental, capricious beast (the fireplace, and the fire within it). Somedays the flames took hold quickly and resolvedly, and we could sit back and enjoy it. Other days, it really kept us guessing, trying to work out the best strategy to get it going. (I say ‘us’, but I should really say ‘Tiny’ – I was more of a supervisor, watching from the comfy sidelines of the couch, looking up from my novel to call out suggestions occasionally).
On our second morning, this was the case. Tiny tried all sorts of things (blowing, rearranging the wood and kindling, opening and closing the door to the fireplace, adding more newspaper). “Just leave it awhile,” I suggested eventually. The cup of tea I’d made was getting cold… and then, not five minutes later, we looked toward the fireplace, and the fire was roaring away merrily! So the lesson here is, sometimes things just need a bit more processing time than you expect. Allowing time is similar to creating space in front of students… we also need to do this for ourselves.
3. The art might already be there…
Are we sometimes so busy being ‘clever’ or ‘interesting’ or ‘original’ that we fail to notice that which is already there, and already compelling all on its own? I like the story of Michaelangelo’s approach to sculpture (that I first read in Benjamin Zander’s book The Art of Possibility), which tells of the great sculptor trusting – no, believing – that the artwork was already present and existing, just hidden within the block of marble. His job of sculptor was to simply reveal it, to gradually work away the layers, until it was there for all to see.
Sometimes we might feel the urge to add to it further, leave our own mark…
Which leads me to another fire-building story. Sometimes Tiny found that a roaring fire was just one twitch of a twig away. Adjust a single log, and suddenly the problem has gone. It can be like this when playing an instrument, or composing a piece, or writing a thesis. A single small idea (often not even new material, but a slight different perspective) can be a catalyst for big breakthroughs. Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies work along similar principals. The original set of Oblique Strategies (as described in his book A Year – With Swollen Appendices) was a set of cards that one consulted as a way of gaining a new perspective on a problem under discussion, or creative endeavour, or similar.”Honour thy error as a hidden intention” is one of them. This website generates new ones with each click. Do check it out. You might want to start to make your own deck of your favourites.
Sometimes it is out of our hands anyway. Music is ephemeral. We can’t always control how long it exists for.
4. Slow dedication and consistency creates its own beauty… and motivation grows with understanding
On one of our long beach walks I decided to create an ephemeral sculpture. Every white cuttlefish shell I found, I stuck upright in the sand, exactly where I found it. The walk lasted 2 hours. Every time I looked back I could squint and see a tiny, haphazard ‘trail of breadcrumbs’, of these white dots zig-zagged along the beach, dotting in and out of the mounds of seaweed. I started to feel very proud – I thought it looked beautiful – and my motivation grew stronger and stronger. I didn’t want to miss a single cuttlefish. I took many steps to the left or right of our path to reach a cuttlefish I had spied and place it upright in the sand. Here is a photo of one section of the sculpture:
They are hard to see, I know. As I took the photo, the sun was glaring on the back of the camera. Tiny tells me that the two white dots to the right on this image are in fact seagulls, not cuttlefish shells. This is a bit disappointing for me (my eyesight is not very good for this kind of thing). Still, I hope you get the impression.
When I first began this endeavour, I perhaps wasn’t taking it very seriously. It was just a small bit of entertainment, something to look out for as we walked and talked. But as I continued, my intention grew stronger. I think that creative efforts sometimes work like this. At first, we may not always be able to see exactly where we are heading with an idea. It reveals itself as we stick at it. Perhaps this is an argument for making things fun for our students, because if they are having fun, they will be motivated to stay with something. Then, as the intention or shape or structure of the endeavour begins to reveal itself, our motivation shifts, as we have a stronger sense of our goal, and its possibility.