“The world is in the work.” —Dina Maccabee
I have a couple of college degrees in music education, but that’s not what makes me a teacher. I have zero degrees in fine arts, but I managed to become a published poet. Credentials aren’t meaningless, but they are contingent. We’re born with certain aptitudes, we develop others, and luck has a lot to do with it. What determines the nature and quality of our work? I’m a pianist by training; a linguist by birthright; and a finicky son of a gun because I said so. If the goal in any craft is constant improvement, then we need to figure out what works, and try to repeat that. As far as I can discern from my thirty years of playing and writing, craft comes down to three things. They are (in order, I believe):
- Attention to detail
- Technique toward expression, and finally
- A transported state
Before we get too abstruse, here’s a picture of me playing the piano around the age of eight. I had recently started lessons and my parents had purchased a little spinet for me to practice with.
That expression on my face, of total concentration and happiness? Still a good indicator of how I feel while playing. Not all the time. There are moments of strong concentration without the happiness tincture, and there are moments of happiness or freedom, noodling about, without serious concentration. There are also moments of getting stuck and frustrated. But the combination of engagement and love of the activity with which one is engaged forms, to me, the condition for performance that I call transported state. It’s like what Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, though his model has an important time component, which I don’t discuss here because it’s a separate (and pretty elusive) concept. I do agree with him, though, that time seems to pass differently when one is engaged in work-play.
So how did I arrive at that state, or how does one arrive there in general? Why does transported state end the list above, not start it? Actually, it does, implicitly, start the list of conditions for good performance, whether written or musical. First, we hear, listen and read. We have to hear good stories to know that they can be told. I had to hear and see someone playing the piano to know that that was a human activity. I have an early memory, from around the age of three, of watching and listening as a woman played the piano in my nursery school. The children were lying down on the colorful rug for a rest, and she played the haunting Southern song “All the Pretty Horses.” I learned recently that the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax thought it originated with enslaved African Americans. Being a toddler, I had no frame of reference, so all I could grasp was the sound itself. Kids love novel sounds, especially minor and modal tonalities, which we don’t hear much in ambient American music. I’ve found, teaching young students, that the first time they hear minor, they all perk up and want to try it. That day in preschool I certainly perked up; I remember not lying down. It wasn’t an impulse to disobey the teachers, I simply had to hear that music sitting up. That was my first moment of piano craving. I still remember that the name of the woman playing was Lyudmila, I remember the layout of the room and where I was in relation to the piano, and I remember feeling that there was no taking a nap while that song was going on. You could say I was inspired.
In order to get from a wholly innocent attraction to the piano, to being able to play that song, or any song, for myself, I needed to learn a host of facts and skills. Among them: fingers have numbers, certain ways of curving the fingers are best for making sound, the black keys are arrayed in groups of two and three, except at the lowest end of the piano, low means left and high means right, although I’m right-handed I play with both hands, separately and together, unlike most things it’s easier to play the piano with only one hand at a time, in lessons you learn but in practice you learn more, there are sharps and flats, each key has a basic hand position for the first five notes, when you play every other one it is called a triad.
And that’s leaving out music notation entirely.
People are drawn to their instruments for various reasons. I think I was drawn to music in general, and the piano in particular, because I love dwelling in details. (I also work well with my hands; I learned to sew and knit very young.) It was clear enough to me, by the time I reached adolescence, that I would never exhaust all there was to learn about the piano, never be able, or have time, to play even a small fraction of the standard piano literature. It was clear enough that, when I came across a garage sale copy of an old piano method book whose cover boasted that this method would “lead to mastery of the instrument,” I smirked visibly and thought about the patriarchy of the 1960s. Except for a few exceptional humans, no one masters the piano. It masters us. And that’s the point. The worth of studying is to devote oneself to detail, to serve some musical end, which might be as abstract as making music for its own ephemeral sake or as concrete as accompanying a soloist to earn rent money. In any case, the idea is to deepen and broaden experience. What once was novel and difficult becomes routine, in order that we build complex skills from simple ones and complex understanding from early apprehension.
If we have decent teachers, and decent instruments, and decent time, and decent self-discipline, and encouragement, we can begin. Imagine how much depends upon just this. Then we start to build what is known as technique. Any practitioner of any art form, visual or aural, written or material, will tell you that certain fundamentals must be entirely within a student’s grasp before free expression can take place. That doesn’t mean that utter beginners cannot explore, improvise freely (or “babble,” a term used in music learning theory to describe the sorts of unstructured musical utterances all musicians blurt out before learning guidelines). It also does not mean that artists can’t be self-taught. But imagine a student wanting to create something original and beautiful, lacking the vocabulary—of words, of sounds, of gestures, whatever—to convey the inner idea to an audience. It’s part of why toddlers have tantrums, why young writers compose in strings of clichés, and beginning musicians have no phrasing. They may know what they want to say, but lack the physical and mental experience or finesse to do so meaningfully.
All technique starts with imitation. The legendary music pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki grasped this intuitively as he developed his methods for young children in postwar Japan. Today, Suzuki music is a thriving industry. Teachers are specially trained to gift children their songs and exercises by rote, in a compassionate way, beginning with actions that are easy to do and easy to remember. Eventually, the students learn to read music. From the beginning, parents must practice with their children, so in effect, the teacher teaches the parent as well as the child, and the parent continues teaching the child at home. There are many music teaching methods besides Suzuki, and many unofficial offshoots that teachers create on their own. Any one of them worth its salt relies, at least in part, on imitation. Whether consciously or not, as we learn to speak and then, later, to read and write, we are imitating the elders and peers all around us. And so, when we begin to write in a purposeful way, we, like music students composing for the first time, are drawing on what we have already learned by rote, and what we have already learned to hear and to make sense of.
Around the same time that I started piano lessons at the age of seven, I was getting interested in poetry. I wrote short rhyming couplets about my favorite colors. It was the verbal equivalent of picking out a basic folk song on the piano (which I also did, although it was not part of my teacher’s lesson plans). I was calling on some cultural knowledge I’d been given about how sound is organized and trying to do it myself. I wasn’t doing it for any reason I could name. When we discover our interests, it often happens in that way: I didn’t go to the piano or make up a poem because someone told me to, although they were happy that I did. I wanted it; that was all and that was enough.
Since I had parents with the means to provide me with music lessons, and since they were great readers and language-lovers, I got to have my start. I got to have what I wanted. No learning process is perfect, and I missed plenty along the way. But as I acquired a basic technique, greater fluency and range came along. If you imitate good art enough, eventually you may produce some good art. Or some not-too-bad art. And when you gaze at the details, practice toward proficiency, and eventually succeed? Presto, transported state. The elation of creation. Recycle, replicate, repeat.
How we learn is clearly connected with how we express ourselves. And how we understand and use what we’re taught makes the difference between merely repeating the songs and verses we know, and creating something entirely new. In the next section we’ll look at music and poetry as linked art forms.