Friday, March 30, 2012

Virtue and Virtuosity

In the last 100 years, playing musical instruments with a degree of facility has fallen out of favor. Knowledge of how to play music was once considered part of a proper education, and part of how one was social. The invention of recorded music changed all that.

In our time, instrumental virtuosity has been raised to a professional sport, like so many other things. There is either the "shredder" or virtuoso who is "the best", and then there's everybody else. The virtuoso is packaged and marketed and sold. The music is just product to validate the brand.

Check this out. It's a wonderful video of someone covering "Rolling In The Deep" by Adele on the guzheng, which is a kind of Chinese zither (I used samples of a guzheng extensively on Reflection):

That is virtuosity. They make it look and sound effortless, fun, and compelling. It's not gratuitously flashy (that stuttering pluck is one of the guzheng's idiomatic techniques). That's music. See also: Eddie Van Halen.

Much modern music is content to focus on the false punk rock ethos of "we don't know how to play, we just fumble around". I have no problem with that. There are plenty of artists who worked chance or "naïve" techniques into their work. But most of those artists made good work, and they started from a place of deep understanding of art.

I have a problem with those who somehow think not being trained or schooled or practiced somehow makes them more creative or better than those who are more studied.

Another band I followed once said they had started out not knowing how to play, and that was fine for their first album. But over time they said they just turned into people who couldn't play very well, and they buckled down and learned about music, their instruments, and so forth.

Nadia Boulanger famously said "To study music, we must learn the rules. To create music, we must break them." She meant these things to be done in order.

A bit of research, study, and practice goes a long way in any endeavor. It helps you accelerate to creativity, saving you the trouble of re-inventing many things. More importantly, it shows you ideas you may not have thought of and provides a framework.

Practicing your craft, whether it is guzheng or fretless bass or drawing or making websites or baking pies is the best way to get better. You want to get good at something? Do it a lot!

Don't fall into the trap of assuming you must either be an unschooled accidental genius or a complete virtuoso. The majority of the productive and creative world falls smack in the middle of those two extremes, and manages to create wonderful and compelling work.


Brad said...

+1, well said Anu

alysha said...

Love the video, Anu, and the post.