Monday, September 15, 2014

Self-Flagellation


No, I’m not confessing my secret life in S &M. Nor am I shamelessly trying to attract more readers (though it will be interesting to see who might end up at my blog after entering the title on Google!). The source of the title will soon be apparent— but you have to read on!

After teaching the World Music Course in Toronto this past August, I got this thought-provoking evaluation from one of the teachers in the course:

During this week, I've mentioned to a few people that this has been the best course I've taken in the past six years.  Which means, that I'm more receptive to learning now than I've ever been before, and I'm so grateful.  In a few of our sessions, my entire curriculum over several years has appeared before me in my mind.  I've felt like I've just seen the answer sheet to a six question final exam and everything makes sense and I see the solutions for each problem and I know I understand the practice.  But then that sheet is taken away and I'm left with the task of reconstructing each answer to show my understanding.  I am willing to the work, and I believe I can do this job better now, thanks to you.  

 Of course, I appreciate the affirmations, but what really intrigued me is his perception that revelation of the “way it ‘spozed to be’ alone is not enough. Now the student in the workshop has to bring it all into their own bones and muscles and brain synapses, has to do a lot of work to properly digest it all and re-imagine it on their own terms and in their own way. And in teaching, make it all come alive with their own students.

Many people come to workshop hoping to be spoon-fed a lesson that will make their life easier on Monday, but a workshop worth its salt should both make you feel good and kick your butt, have you walking out smiling and also cursing about how much work awaits you just when you were ready to catch up on the last ten episodes of Madmen.

That’s how I felt leaving jazz pianist Taylor Eigstei’s workshop at the Berkeley Jazz Conservatory titled Cooler Chords. I thought I’d leave with sheets filled with cool voicings that I could read and plug into my next jazz tune and instead he revealed a practice of finding your own that was a blend of exacting discipline and free exploration. The details of that two-hour workshop are worth a blog (or ten) in itself, but since I just spent three hours following his suggestions at the piano, I have neither the time nor energy to do so.

I spent another two hours this morning trying to polish and re-polish a 10-page article comparing Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us with Orff Schulwerk, particularly as I have practiced is all these years. Another blogworthy theme, but the gist is that the best motivation is intrinsic, comes from our innate desire to master things, our need to find our own autonomous way to do it and some clearly defined sense of purpose, either articulated out loud as a kind of personal mission statement or just felt viscerally in the gut. The old tired practice of motivating people with punishment or threats of punishment—from Hell to time-outs—or rewards or promises of rewards—from Heaven to ice cream—is limited in its scope. The real deal is one’s own ambition and willingness to whip oneself through the hard spots, the boring moments, the crisises of self-doubt and the world’s lack of response.

So if you are going to choose some work or feel chosen by work, make sure its noble and grand and worthy of Herculean effort. As Rilke said:

“when we win, it’s with small things
And the winning itself makes us small”

Here’s Truman Capote reflecting on his origins as a writer. I agree with the whip reference, but it’s not all welts on one’s back and wincing pain. Sometimes it’s a gentle massage and even a lover’s embrace, those moments when one’s persistent knocking allows the gates to open and one is welcomed in and romping about in the playground of free self-expression. That’s how it felt today on the piano and at the computer keyboard shaping the article. I didn’t have to whip myself or the notes or words too much, they simply starting falling into place of their own accord and isn’t that a pleasure!

Okay, here’s Truman, from the preface to his book Music for Chameleons:

“I started writing when I was eight— out of the blue, uninspired by any example. I’d never known anyone who wrote; indeed, I knew very few who read. But the fact was, the only four things that interested me were; reading books, going to the movies, tap dancing and drawing pictures. Then one day I started writing, not knowing that I had chained myself for life to a noble but merciless master. When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and that whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.”

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