Official music page and soapbox of Matt Snell

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Dancing About Architecture, Reading About Music

As I was reflecting over the year that has passed (because I was hard up for something to post in the new one), I flattered myself it had been a good year for musical development. Most of that has to do with practicing, performing, recording, and playing with some fine musicians, but a little credit might be due to the books I read, too. They say talking about music is like dancing about architecture, but when the fit is on me I will find any way to relate my every activity to my current fixation. Books are one way to do that. This is unlikely to light a fire under anyone without an interest in making music, but since I'm not talking about method books here, it should at least relate to musicians on any instrument. So here I come screaming out of the gate to start 2012 with a note on a few books I read last year...

Kenny Werner's Effortless Mastery is particularly popular with the jazz crowd, partly because Werner is an accomplished jazz pianist himself and partly because his emphasis on mindset and improvisation lends itself well to the genre. Even so, it seems to me any open-minded musician stands to benefit from Werner's ideas. According to him, expression trumps technical wizardry every time, a view that will seem natural if you've ever found yourself tuning out halfway through a display of blazing guitar virtuosity. The ideal is not about naivety but shifting the focus away from bloodless perfection. If the thought of modes, augmented chords and post-tonal composition begins to seem terrifying, Kenny Werner's your balm. The book is inspiring as hell when Werner describes his own development or praises being in the now. That means it occasionally verges on New Age, and runs short on precise details on how to reach the state of grace it describes. Looking for precise details is probably beside the point in this case, though, so if you're looking to attain a rarefied musical headspace you could do a lot worse than read Kenny Werner's book.

I found a slightly more down-to-earth approach in Madeline Bruser's The Art of Practicing. It turned out to make an excellent match with Werner, since I was hot to trot from reading Effortless Mastery and willing to sink the time into drier matters of posture and breathing. Bruser's background is classical, but again there's enough here to appeal to musicians of all stripes. I found her ideas on three types of struggle - overstated passion, avoidance, and aggression - particularly interesting. The best performance dodges all three, and although this is the type of thing most musicians have probably already grasped intuitively, it's pleasing to give it a name and a description, in the interest of keeping a sharper eye out. Bruser's book might make the best overall package when it comes to blending inspiration with technique, and I'd recommend the Art of Practicing highly.

Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch often shows up in the same context as Effortless Mastery, but I didn't have the stomach for it. Maybe I'm just too hidebound, but the book's glowing descriptions of art-in-the-raw tend to exalt anyone who has every put pen to paper or strummed a chord, and occasionally seems downright masturbatory. I was vaguely uneasy when I saw the first sentence was "I am a musician," full stop, and the ensuing discussion of Sufism, Greeks, and William Blake seemed a bit of a mashup, so I stopped and read something else.

Unfortunately it was The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green and W. Timothy Gallwey. I didn't realize initially that "The Inner Game" was originally applied to tennis, and the three, eight, ten, or however many step methods it relentless counted off made me embarrassed to be reading self-help books in public. I put it down after three or four chapters, once I found that Green spent more time praising the wondrous efficacy of his method than explaining it.

I rallied with Psychology for Musicians by Lehmann, Sloboda, and Woody. It's unlikely to help a musician in their practice, but if you've ever wondered how musical aptitude develops in children, or how the minds of virtuosos analyze music compared to the layperson, it's a good read. The writing is textbook, but tidbits surface regularly to maintain interest. For instance, I was fascinated to read about a study done on music in movies. Participants in the study watched a short clip of a man and a woman leaving an apartment, and depending on the music applied, guessed that either they were lovers parting forever, or walking in opposite directions to work.

I preferred Psychology for Musicians to The World in Six Songs by Daniel J. Levitin. I remember enjoying Levitin's first book This Is Your Brain on Music for the same reasons I enjoyed Psychology for Musicians, but found that the followup's premise (that all songs serve one of six functions) was a rather tacked on way to muse about various aspects of music. Then again, I might've just been tired of reading about the subject by the time I got to it.

One more and then I'm done: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp seemed to promise something similar to Free Play in less melodramatic form, but although the book was enjoyable it was fairly slight. It too gave me the lurking suspicion I was reading self-help.

There you have it, my secrets laid bare and infinite musical prowess just a few books away. To recap, if you've got too much actual practicing to do and can't read everything on this list, I thought Effortless Mastery and The Art of Practicing made a fine pair. I wish you all the best in the new year, and since I'm assuming only musical types made it all the way to the bottom of this post, many and varied musical adventures in 2012!

1 comment:

  1. You have yourself some good reads here. Unlike what most people think, musicians sometimes do need to read books and other forms of literature to master their crafts. They wouldn't be as good as they are in live music venues if they didn't do their part and research.