Neuroscience sells. . .sells what?
So there I was in the Denver airport after doing some workshops for the Colorado ASTA Summer Conference, and The Atlantic magazine was on display in a gift shop. There was a cool rendering of an image of Paul McCartney and John Lennon circa 1966 with bold letters, “HOW GENIUS HAPPENS”, and below that, “The Neuroscience of Creativity.” The reason I chose music as a career at the age of 10 was because of the Beatles. Now they’re gonna help me with my neuroscience homework? Awesome!
The actual title of the article was, “John vs. Paul: The Power of Creative Tension.” The one on genius and neuroscience was another article. Of course the cover looked much sexier and marketable by combining a large image of the two and words like genius and neuroscience. Neurosell, sell, sell! (see my last blog post).
I think the article is very good. I have not studied up on the Beatles in any meaningful way in 20 years, though I did a good bit in the 16 years previous to that. Apparently the ‘new’ idea that some compositions credited to Lennon and McCartney were largely, and in rare cases, completely, done by one or the other has been taken to ridiculous extremes in recent years. I had read about this in the 1970’s, but was surprised to read some of the ‘scholarship’ that has been published since I stopped paying attention.
In any case the author shows how each prodded each other to become better. How their radically different personalities – Paul the charming diplomat and John the boorish rebel – created the fertile environment in which each other’s creativity flourished. Nice, I buy it, good rock journalism and sociological study. I’m glad I read it.
Do What They Did, Not What They Do
Here is where we can go wrong. I have seen again and again developing artists who want to look at the way accomplished professionals do things and then try to duplicate those things themselves thinking that, and it makes sense on the surface, they will get similar results. When they don’t it gets chalked up to something like the magical element of talent.
They may argue with their teacher who tells them differently, “Lennon and McCartney did it that way, are you better than them?” Of course the article only describes the creative process by two learned, motivated musicians who had spent thousands of hours over nine years playing, composing, listening, asking – learning.
When I was younger I read about a great guitarist who was so obsessed with the instrument when he was younger that he took it with him everywhere. So I, quite intelligently, thought if I strapped mine on while I walked around town I might be able to get better. Besides looking goofy (not the first, not the last) I do remember thinking, “Now, what do I do?” The reality, of course, is that the professional guitarist was taking his guitar with him as he developed because he had many ideas and questions he wanted to work out, and was anxious to do so. Just ‘living’ with the guitar without direction would be useless – and it was. Any wonder I wasn’t getting much better?
It would be the same if admirers of McCartney and Lennon tried to do it the way described in the article. The time in question is 1966. By that time John and Paul had been together for nine years. They had spent thousands of hours performing live and learning material. They played hours long stretches seven days a week in a port town in Germany. They had to learn a large amount of material including standards from many other styles at the time. They had to repeat playing these over and over thousands of times. They then toured the world – twice – and that was just part of the hundreds of live performances they played – hundreds more hours of playing thousands of songs. They familiarized themselves with all sorts of music from all sorts of cultures. They could, they were world travelers. They spent many more hours composing together. The 1963 hit, “From Me To You,” was composed in the back of a tour bus between shows. They were obsessed with getting better as composers for years. Of, “From Me To You,” Paul McCartney said, “That was a pivotal song. Our songwriting lifted a little with that song. It was very much co-written. We were starting to meet other musicians then and we’d start to see other people writing. After that, on another tour bus with Roy Orbison, we saw Roy sitting in the back of the bus, writing Pretty Woman. It was lovely. We could trade off with each other. This was our real start.” They partnered with a classically trained musician, George Martin, who could translate their ideas to orchestration. He also had significant input into the production of the music even at the compositional level influencing John and Paul, who had having met him in 1962, been working diligently and regularly in that relationship for four years. And this is just for starters.
Develop a relationship with a compositional partner and go through a long term learning crucible like that. You’ll get very good, I promise.
My teacher is not an international superstar like Joe Professional, is Joe Professional a better teacher than mine?
We see this in music education all of the time. Our students will ask some professional a question about, say, playing scales and they might respond that they don’t do so. You can be sure the teacher will hear about that. “Why should I play scales, so and so doesn’t, are you better than so and so?
So and so is not necessarily a teacher. Good teaching takes as much development as good performing. If the professional can teach then the wrong question was asked. Don’t ask what they do now; ask what they did when they had as many quality practice hours as you have right now. Perhaps describe the repertoire you are working on and note what is at your peak level of ability currently. What did the artist work on then? Don’t expect to be able to do what they do now by doing what they do now.
I think a potential response to a student who asks the above might be, “Who cares, I’m a lot farther along than you. Which one of us should be making judgements about what you need to do to get there?”
It benefits students to understand that they have not built the many, many, many basic skills that Joe Professional built when he was at their stage. You didn’t see that part. You only see the performances many years later. If you wanted to become a professional bodybuilder would you ask a pro how much they lift and try to do that? You’d hurt yourself. The same way you’re hurting yourself by wasting time on advice that you can’t use yet. You already have a great personal source for advice – if at first you don’t succeed. . .try doing what your teacher told you the first time.
And by the way if you think your teacher’s advice to you, the student, is inferior because it differs from a what a master performer currently does, then what do you think of all of your teacher’s advice that the master performer keeps repeating, over and over, in masterclasses that your teacher has been telling you for some time?
To become what they are
Do what they did, not what they do.
Go get ‘em.
Shenk, Joshua Wolf. “The Power of Two.” The Atlantic (July/Aug. 2014): 76. Print.