Learning how to learn
Disclaimer: This post will not mention editing but I hope you will be able to see the ways in which it has relevance.
If you'd asked me at the age of 18 or so what I wanted to do with my life I would have answered without hesitation: professional clarinettist.
Some time thereafter I had a motorbike accident which smashed my right little finger. It didn't heal straight and it was painful for years. It was at that moment that I gave up the clarinet.
At that point I'd been playing for a fair few years and because of a lucky natural ability I'd progressed very fast. I could play many of the key pieces of the classical repertoire without too much difficulty. I'd played in orchestras, in opera pits, in chamber music and in solo recitals. I genuinely came to think I was pretty good.
But, boy, was I wrong.
A few years ago in a chance moment I opened up the clarinet case and took out my wonderful Buffet R13s and started to blow again.
Very quickly the muscle memory took over and after a few weeks of sore lips and poor breath support I was back in action.
And then the internet intervened. I listened to clarinet performances I'd never had access to before, I watched masterclasses from the world's greatest players, I subscribed to an amazing bulletin board, I watched tutorials by brilliant and generous teachers.
And I suddenly realised how little I actually knew about the playing the clarinet.
And most of all I realised that I needed to ... learn how to learn.
In my early phase of playing the instrument I'd always hated practising scales and returning scales and interrupted scales and arpeggios and thirds and fourths and fifths and sixths and sevenths and octaves and dominant sevenths and all the drudgery of Baermann. I'd been able to get away without it ... but I'd never understood how to learn.
Playing the clarinet isn't hacking through the notes and getting to the end and offering up a performance that's "good enough". It's an infinitely complex set of problems that takes a lifetime to master.
Some of those problems are of a basic technical nature - e.g. moving the fingers fast and smoothly and maintaining good breath support. Others are theoretical problems - an obvious one on the clarinet is transposition. Some are semi-creative - e.g. how to create a beautiful, liquid, singing legato. And others are purely creative - how to interpret the great music that has been written for the clarinet. And some are technical challenges that you may not often need but which it pays to master - double tonguing, circular breathing.
What I now appreciate is how important it is to know and appreciate all the things I don't yet know and haven't yet mastered - to try and understand fully what the challenges truly are.
Coming back to the point of this post, I would stress that ultimately the most crucial lesson is ... to learn how to learn.
You don't need a rigid method. What you need is to experience and evaluate strategies that may or may not be helpful at any one moment or on any given day or in any given phase of your development.
Learning how and when to use a metronome has been an astonishing revelation to me (along with a daily dose of the essential Baermann). When I was young I just didn't see the point. I was a free-spirited "artist" and I didn't want to be hemmed in by artificial discipline - and what I played was "good enough". But now I am starting to understand how accuracy and slowly acquired consistency are the fundamental underpinnings of good playing.
The great clarinettist Eddie Daniels compares it to parking the car in your garage. You need to absorb slowly and gradually the instinctive ability to remember exactly where everything is. "If you don't know where the landing pad is, and you haven't gotten accustomed to it, then you're going to be just moving your fingers all over the place, and you'll miss."
Playing the clarinet isn't about playing the notes. It's not about "good enough". It's not about getting away with it. It's about seeing how close you can get in this lifetime to the unattainable goal of perfection.
But most of all it's about discovering the many different paths to getting better and discovering which ones work for you at any given moment.
You don't get better by believing in your natural talent. You get better by playing more notes. A lot more notes. Decades worth of notes.
And even more important than that is that every single note you play must be played with thought and care and attention and self-scrutiny ... and a relentless refusal to accept "good enough".
Interestingly, given the context of this post, I left out one aspect of clarinet playing that has obvious importance, and that's the technological aspect.
What clarinet, what mouthpiece, what barrel, what bell, what reeds, what ligature to use ... all of these technological questions are as important to the clarinet player as the technological choices that face the editor.
For some players this often becomes the single question that most obsesses them. If they can just get their equipment choices right, they will become the player they want to be.
Unfortunately for those players, their obsession can easily become a distraction from the many other questions that need their attention.
The best editors tend, by a page margin, to also be musicians. Not hard to accept: timing, rhythm, these are talents in common to both endeavors.
My parents subjected me to a couple years of piano as a child in the 60's. I wanted to play, but all I was given were those fundamental scales, and some exceptionally dry classical pieces. Not yet being diagnosed with mild ADD, this stuff was really a struggle for me to get thru, and after I failed to progress rapidly to concert performance status, the parents dropped the lessons.
Only then, after a few years' hiatus, and once I got my own keyboard, did I get a chance to -enjoy- piano... when I could play what -I- wanted, for my own amusement.
They never let me learn pop or rock or boogie-woogie or blues piano. For them, it was only an instrument for playing classical music in recital.
If my teacher, who was really a very kind and patient guy, had let me learn just one pop song, my life might have been very, very different.
I still noodle around on the keyboard from time to time, put the cans on and just jam away for couple of hours; there's nothing like it for working out your emotions and troubles thru music. I'm not very good, but good enough to please myself. These days, I'm mostly about the ukulele, which I picked up about 3 years ago. I'm pretty much self-taught on that, still a middling beginner, but I'm in an actual band, (The Lei*Abouts) and having the time of my life, playing what I want to. You have to love it, to fuel the discipline to pursue it further. My progress is slow, I'm not that good yet, but unlike the childhood experience, I'm enjoying the journey every step this time, even the drudgery that eventually leads to mastery. And playing with others, in front of an appreciative audience, is an addictive, energizing experience. I feel like I'm my Best Self when we're all playing "in the pocket" and the audience is fully engaged.
These are me under a stage name...
[Mark Suszko] " I feel like I'm my Best Self when we're all playing "in the pocket" and the audience is fully engaged."
What a remarkable reply, Mark! And thanks so much for sharing your music! I always get a kick out of seeing you play wherever you post it, and am delighted to see your performances once again here in the COW!
Looking at this a bit more broadly, though, it's not just that one must BE a musician, or even be trained as one. It's that the lessons of musicians and how they learn can be directly applicable to editors, whether or not they are themselves musicians.
I say that as a rigorous non-musician who became a (if I may say) a pretty terrific editor, but I very much rooted my approach to editing in musical disciplines. That is, I briefly took lessons in piano and guitar, did choir in both church and school, plus the usual amount of musical-ing that comes with being a theater nerd, but I didn't especially enjoy any of it. I certainly didn't have much in the way of aptitude, and my lack of improvement after prolonged effort was in marked contrast to results in other areas of my life (book-learning, sport, photography, cooking, etc.) where I could easily see the improving fruits of my labor.
The reason why I bothered at all is because I love LISTENING to music, so I spent my energy attacking it with the same passion and verve that disciplined musicians do. I learned how it works on the consumption side, studied its structures and technologies, listened to masters talking about their craft, read everything I could, and was generally relentless in my quest to get better.
And I do think that that's on the way toward a plan for successful growth as an editor. Learn how to watch for and recognize good editing. Learn how it works. Understand the tools. Listen to experts. Train. Practice. Make getting BETTER the goal.
[Simon Ubsdell] "For some players [the technology ]often becomes the single question that most obsesses them. If they can just get their equipment choices right, they will become the player they want to be.
Unfortunately for those players, their obsession can easily become a distraction from the many other questions that need their attention."
I come at this slightly differently. My impression is that most people gravitate toward a choice that seems obvious to them, and argue relentlessly for the rightness of that choice without ever truly understanding why they gravitated toward it in the first place. They need to talk to their therapists a little more before trying to articulate their NLE arguments, because their lack of self-awareness is really the only thing they're communicating clearly.
As you've observed, I've seen this even more in music forums than in these parts. Guitarists are worse than clarinetists, because guitars can be customized in so many more ways. Even within, say, a Gibson forum, you can find people coming to blows on neck thickness or pickup placement, without even starting to get into the hostility between partisans in the Gibson and Fender camps.
In general, I find that the worst approach is to choose tools "because it's the one that So and So uses", because their use case and yours almost surely don't match precisely. Sure, if you listen artists talk about the WHY of THEIR tools, you can find insights related to what YOU need, but it almost never has anything to do with preference.
Pete Townshend is one of the people I follow on Instagram, although I'm lately finding him so cranky that I may stop -- but seeing him to respond to the idiots yapping at him, I'm surprised at how LITTLE crankiness he displays. Somebody very rudely and angrily told him to "stop effing around with these poopy Fenders" (my paraphrase LOL) and get back to using the Gibson SG, the only REAL guitar.
Pete said, again paraphrasing but not as much as I just did LOL, "Why on earth would I do that? That was the best choice in 1967, but would be the worst possible choice now." He pointed out that The Who was functionally a 3-piece band with an occassional vocalist, so he needed a sound as massive as the SG to fill the stage, whereas now, The Who is functionally a 10-piece band with three or more guitarists, a keyboardist, and a very active vocalist who's rarely not singing. One lonely guitar need not carry the weight of the sound across the upper two-thirds of the spectrum anymore. Quite the contrary. It needs NOT to.
Continuing the glaringly obvious metaphor, many guitarists find this sort of conversation astoundingly dunderheaded, as only a handful of the most limited guitarists would want to restrict themselves to a single guitar, or a single sound, or even the range of sounds that a single guitar and a multiplicity of pedals and amps can produce. They'll pick a handful of favorites, but they might be choosing from among a half-dozen or more in the course of a single evening. Not because they don't have favorites, but because they recognize the value of each for its best characteristics, they understand the limitations of each, and make the best choice in balancing those abstract characteristics in the particular application of a single song, room, solo, or needs of the ensemble as a whole.
I mean, there may be no more guitarist associated with a single instrument than Brian May and the Red Special he built with his father. He's played it since 1963, by FAR the longest stretch of any major musician with a single specimen (not just the same KIND of guitar, but the SAME ONE)...but on a song like "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" will use 3 different guitars, including a different one for the two main solos.
(Although, perhaps ironically or not, the most guitars I ever saw on a single stage was 30 or so during Elvis Costello's first solo tour in 1984. He didn't use all of them, but he used more than half of them, pointing out that he wanted to be able to play anything that popped into his head without thinking, "Yeah, but I won't do that because I don't have the right guitar." He wanted to always have the right guitar. Not out of an infinite number, but a rather specific number, based on what he was most likely to want to play on that tour.)
Which is a long way of saying that the best musicians I know truly ARE obsessed with tools, and they'll talk your ear off about them, and they'll come to blows with you if need be....but they WON'T be absolutist about saying that theirs is right for anyone else. They tend to choose more than one to have in their arsenal, and their favorites tend to change frequently over time.
They're open to what's new, but nothing new is exciting because it's new. It's only exciting when it makes possible something that's worth the trouble of the change. This limitation that the new thing is designed to work around, that you find so exciting? The practiced master may not have that problem at all, or found a satisfactory way to address it decades ago.
Their disinclination to follow you to the newest flavor isn't a reflection of their disinclination to change -- they wouldn't still be in the game if they were disinclined to change -- but a deeper awareness of the range of toolsets to address the range of challenges and opportunities that they encounter.
Needless to say, I do find THAT attitude reflected plentifully in these parts. ☺
I'm going to come back around to that fantastic Eddie Daniels video that you included. What jumped out at me in reading the YouTube comments (I know, generally a terrible idea) is the number of musicians who play other instruments who said that they'd be taking his advice. And you're right, Simon, I think that anyone who wants to get better at anything would do well to take a listen, which is why I'm sharing the video here too. ☺
[Tim Wilson] "I come at this slightly differently."
Of course I knew you'd make it all about guitars!
Actually the point you make is one I completely concur with. I was re-reading a classic book on the clarinet by the very great British player Jack Brymer (who was actually my teacher's teacher) and he said something very similar about the equipment.
Of course there are some great players who swear that their one set-up is perfect for anything and nothing can make them change their minds. But the majority of players use different set-ups for different music because it not only makes it easier to play, it is better adapted to the style.
A wonderfully dark sounding mouthpiece that's perfect for Brahms' chamber pieces masterpieces for the clarinet, is all wrong for playing the brilliant French style of the Poulenc sonata. A solo recital in a small space requires something markedly different from what's needed to project from the back of a huge orchestra.
In other words, "the right equipment" turns out to be what's right for the job in hand and the "one size fits all" theory can work but it's not really ideal. What's ideal is to have a range of trusted options that you can turn to as the occasion requires. As you say, too many options leads you down the opposite wrong path because you never focus on getting the best out of anything and many clarinettists end up there, never discovering the sound they really want.
This is only tenuously related to this discussion but I really wanted to share it.
Steinberg have just released the new version of Cubase and here is Hans Zimmer talking about what Cubase has meant for him as a composer. There are so many fascinating insights into what software contributes to the creative process, how a software company works with an artist, as well as just how composers create. And again I think there's a very interesting crossover in terms of our world as editors.
Simon: Of course I knew you'd make it all about guitars!
(Grrr, "quote" script busted again. I'll report it to the IT whizzes.)
Not because I vastly prefer guitars to clarinets or know much more about them, but because I DO know about guitarists. There are very active forums for guitarists that I sometimes find myself passing through for the pictures more than anything else, but I've always been struck by how fiercely argumentative they are.
What made me think about this is a too-frequently falsehood repeated in the Debates forum as if it were true, that the people in the COW forum who have the temerity to engage in any sort of debate (it's there in the forum title, lad: if you don't want to debate, you shouldn't be there) are whackadoodles of a sort not found in any other area of artistry.
One such poster posited that surely nobody in the world of GUITARS or ART debates technique and the specificity of tools in the way that people in the COW's debates forum do. Quite right: those people debate much, much more fiercely, and especially in the world of art, some of these debates have gone on literally for centuries.
Interestingly enough, one area of those debates in the art world involving how Vermeer could possibly have created art that was literally impossible to create at the time, yet literally WAS possible because he actually did it, made its way into the COW when I wrote about the documentary, Tim's Vermeer. The "Tim" is Tim Jenison, who invented the NewTek Video Toaster among many other things, who set out to recreate one of Vermeer's paintings.
It's an amazing documentary, but even more than that, Tim is a wild man who attacked the problem with a ferocity I can't even imagine. The painting had a harpsichord in it, so he taught himself to build THAT EXACT HARPSICHORD, scouring the planet for an artist who could show him the pattern painted on it. I could go on and on, but it's one of my favorite interviews ever. He's a fantastic storyteller, and goes deep into artistic passion, software development, and the nature of creativity.
The Toaster And Tim's Vermeer
But the comments, have mercy, they get super intense into the details of the art history debate, pulling up various camps of critics on multiple sides of this. I'm delighted to have any excuse to discuss David Hockney in the COW, but boy howdy were tempers flaring.
Not that we need to debate the validity of artistic debates, because I think that those were well-established not just centuries, but millenia ago. But I think a lot about how artists tick, including myself. I'm no Vermeer, no Tim Jenison, but I think of my creativity at the heart of my identity, and have come to understand that creative drive as part of my broader psycho-spiritual superstructure, so to speak. My creativity IS me, so it makes no sense to think about creative processes and decision making apart from the context of my own needs, desires, and my general approach to life and the world. Trying to abstract these discussions from internal dynamics and establish some kind of "truth" -- like trying to create an "objective" project that will test render speed, or to count keystrokes to "prove" the "superior" efficiency of one NLE or the other: those ultimately have NOTHING to do with actual utility, and whether one or the other or a combination of them is a good fit for the way my mind works, and what my soul needs for comfort. LOL
I think of Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in this context, which the author was quick to note will teach you nothing about Zen and even less about motorcycles, apart from the notion that "paying attention to the details" reverberates in many different directions, not least of which are concepts like practice, repetition, finesse, the drive to improve performance, etc.
All of which is to say that part of learning how to learn includes learning some about oneself. It's hard to navigate much in life without knowing your own internal landscape.
Hey, and thanks for that Hans Zimmer/Cubase link! What a fanastic ride! I'd actually come across something similar (albeit a bit more product-focused) for Jeff Wayne using Avid's Sibelius software on the live production of The War of the Worlds. Old prog nerds like me and presumably some of you will remember Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds very fondly as a two-record set from 1978 featuring Justin Lodge (The Moody Blues), David Essex ("Rock On"), and Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy), along with Richard Burton narrating.
I couldn't imagine a more analog project, so I was fascinated to see how he used Sibelius to re-score the project for a combination of live and virtual instruments (with many of the live musicians PLAYING virtual instruments), with sizes of the ensemble scaling up and down depending on the venue. None of the old dualities hold, and certainly no thought that old dogs are less inclined to learn new tricks. St. Walter of Murch should have been enough to disabuse anyone of such a notion, but Jeff here, much like Hans with Cubase, goes much, much farther than I would have imagined.
So true! My daughter is learning piano and after a year or more the teacher is still teaching these same old classic stuff and holiday repertoire. We don't have a piano but I have a midi keyboard plugged into garage band and the steinway setting sounds just the same. Plus I can record when she plays. I tend to pull up YouTube and get her to learn a few licks of Bohemian Rhapsody or Motley Crue Home Sweet Home. Maybe it's just some teachers, but I think she's going through the same disconnect you had. Hopefully I can nip it in the bud. She's very naturally talented, which can be a gift and a curse.
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Brett: may I suggest you try Chordify.net: it has settings for piano, guitar, and uke, and what it does is it takes ANY youtube song clip you can think of (use artist name or song title) and turns it into an on-the-fly playing tutorial, adjustable for speed and transposable in key. Even offers "simplified" versions for some songs. Then points you to five or so new songs that have similar characteristics to what you just played.
Let the kid learn licks they like from favorite songs to stay intrigued and build a love for music-making, and then the necessary but boring fundamentals can be squeezed in, in-between just learning to jam. But you have to activate the love first, which will drive the learning.
[Mark Suszko] "And playing with others, in front of an appreciative audience, is an addictive, energizing experience. I feel like I'm my Best Self when we're all playing "in the pocket" and the audience is fully engaged."
Very enjoyable performances, thanks for sharing.
Very gratifying, coming from you, sir. And Tim, thanks for mentioning Elvis Costello: he's my spirit animal:-)
[Mark Suszko] "thanks for mentioning Elvis Costello: he's my spirit animal:-)"
How did I not know that? Do you have any clips of you and/or your ensemble playing his tunes?
That particular show was remarkable, for reasons I'm sure you can imagine. Nobody knew what to expect from a solo Elvis, and he blew us all away.
Through a series of circumstances too long to recount here, I was a nodding acquaintance of Elvis's opener, T-Bone Burnett, and a work colleague of the head of security at Boston's Orpheum Theatre where the show took place. I saw him near the stage after T-Bone's set, before Elvis started, and asked him if T-Bone was open to receiving guests backstage. Turns out he was, so my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I headed upstairs to the green room.
He told us that we were the first people who'd ever asked to visit him backstage, and he couldn't have been nicer about it. We'd been chatting for a few minutes when Elvis stuck his head in to tell T-Bone how great he thought his set was (and indeed it was), and while he was clearly surprised to see us, he gave a quick nod as he headed downstairs for his own set. The green room had a huge cutout in the wall looking onto the stage from the wings, a balcony window kind of thing, and T-Bone invited us to stay and watch Elvis's first few songs from there. (Accidents Will Happen and Stranger In The House -- unforgettable.)
The whole night was breathtaking. His solo version of "Shipbuilding" (he played keyboard for this, but it was mostly acapella) might still be the most emotionally intense performance I've ever seen, one of 33 tracks that he completely reinvented.
Another weird little sideline to this story. This was in Boston, where I'd very much gotten into the local music scene when I arrived in 1982. My favorite local band was Til Tuesday, who would make a huge splash when they released their first album in 1985, and especially after their video for "Voices Carry", which led them to win the Best New Artist at MTV, back when that meant something (which you'll recall it very much did).
While the band had only released a single at this point (a primitive version of "Love In A Vaccuum"), they were gigging like mad, and I'd seen them easily two dozen times by this point, many of them with my aforementioned then-girlfriend/now-wife.
I was gobsmacked when I saw their lead singer/songwriter Aimee Mann walking down the aisle past our seats, dressed in a leopard-skin print suit-dress exactly like Jackie Kennedy's famous pink number, complete with a LEOPARD SKIN PILL BOX HAT. (Dylan nerds fall out of your chairs.) I remember it like it was yesterday.
Turns out that she spoke about that show with The Telegraph in 2008, to say that it changed her life, and her approach to music. Indeed, up until then, Til Tuesday had been a spiky post-punk dance band (think New Order or Depeche Mode, only groovier), and their first album was produced by Nile Rodgers (dance writ large) and engineered by the fellow who'd brought Wire's first 3 albums to life, including the legendary Pink Flag (spiky post punk chops galore). After that, Aimee started writing more and more on acoustic guitar, and really dug deeper into wordplay and nuanced vocal interpretation rather than just "singing the words." I confess that I still miss the spiky postpunk dance band, but she very much became one of America's finest singer-songwriters after that.
At the time of this 1984 show, Aimee had just gotten out of college (Berklee, where she also fronted a post-punk prog band called Young Snakes that I dug) and was still working at a record store waiting for the band to take off. A few years later, she wound up collaborating with Elvis -- she wrote and sang "The Other End of the Telescope" with him for Til Tuesday's third and final album in 1988.
Depending on how far down the rabbit hole you'd like to go with this, Mark, there's a stellar audience recording of Elvis's 1984 Orpheum show floating around. Elvis afficianados tell me it was the highlight of the tour, which I have no way of evaluating, but find easy to believe. Here's a link to the files, which also includes the setlist. I think you'll be blown away by just the list of songs he played.
I'm missing his show in Chicago tonight, darn it. Stuck 200 miles away working. I've seen him live maybe 6-7 times over the years, large venues and mid-sized, indoors and out... he fascinates me, and I'd never pass up a chance to see him again. I also enjoyed his short-lived talk show.
I was a huge fan during his early "angry young man" phase, and really dug the shows he did with Nick Lowe. But even as he mellowed a bit and started trying more eclectic genre's I stuck with him over the years, album after album, because he's such an excellent lyricist, his material keeps expanding in subject matter, and he has such an emotional, evocative style. I wish he'd do another collaboration with Sir Paul.
And his songs stay pertinent. "Night Rally" has never been more relevant... hm... I should cover that one...
I did a cover of "Alison" once for uke, on a dare, and I've got wobbly footage of me fronting a live band for "What's So Funny", one time a decade ago, but I don't think I wanna share it here, hit my e-mail and mayyyybe....
I'll check out the link you sent this weekend!
Current work mantra: "I used to be disgusted; now I try to be amused"
[Mark Suszko] "Current work mantra: "I used to be disgusted; now I try to be amused""
Genuinely words to live by!
My favorites are his first 5 (through Trust, which is my favorite in some ways) plus Imperial Bedroom and Punch The Clock, but he's one of the guys I'm always paying attention to, for sure. I loved his talk show, too! He also did a fine job filling in as guest host for David Letterman in 2003, which I've always thought contributed to him getting a show of his own.
I haven't seen him since 2003 or so (a not-great outdoor show on a wet, blustery night that I don't blame on him of course), but I'd definitely love to again....
This entire thread is fantastic. It's this type of dialogue that keeps the Creative Cow relevant. The conceptualization and execution of the craft of storytelling is priceless information that isn't found in many places. By and large, the technical info can be found in a variety of locations on the web.