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Perception: Sensibility vs. Technique

Cynthia has been sharing some interesting perceptions about the importance of artistic expression in her life. In A Day of Rest she provides a quote from "The Smile" by S.S. Curry published in 1915. The quote describes the importance of creativity in the development of perception...

He must have his instrument rightly attuned and have command of the technique of his art. As has already been said the technique must not be despised...One of the great difficulties with art schools has been that they give merely to technique. They say that is all they can do for the student. If he has art in his soul he will succeed. They do nothing to awaken the artistic or the spiritual instincts, or a love of nature and beauty. At times they even repress it. A student is compelled for months to draw from a cast. He is rarely sent out face to face with Nature to sketch, but the work of drawing should be combined with wider studies, to awaken interest and the artistic nature, otherwise the work will become drudgery. The art school kill more than they make.

Having One's Instrument Rightly Attuned

Having one's "instrument rightly attuned" refers, for me, to having our sense perception open wide. In developing this capability, the artist's perception will interact with thoughts and ideas in interesting ways. Many artists and authors have commented on the essential role that perceptual acuity has to play in the artistic process. In other words, an artist will penetrate deeper into sense impressions than a non-artist will. These sense impressions lead to the creation of different kinds of meaning for the artist, and therefore different kinds of life experiences.

Again, and this is a constant recurring theme in education, we see a contrast made to technique - an element that is recognized as being needed but often grossly over emphasized and examined. The reason for this, I suspect, is that technique is simply easier to teach and therefore to evaluate. Perceptual acuity, however, is more mercurial and intangible and even the very question of "teaching" or "evaluating" it is raised.

As a child I drew pictures and painted on canvasses because it was fun. It was exhilarating to make new colours and smell paint and draw pictures that would inevitably end up on the fridge. I amazed myself when I learned a new piece on the piano. I can remember feeling like Liberace (I loved him) and I would pretend I had huge capes on when I sat on the piano bench and act out the whole procedure of sitting. Cynthia

Of course, probably the most darkly humorous situation we can think of are students sitting in a classroom taking notes from a blackboard and listening to a lecture about the importance of perceptual acuity in art. It's a bizzare circumstance. While exploring the idea of perceptual acuity, they are in fact having their own sense perception limited to the two-dimensional stasis of print-based communication. In this way, their experience becomes needlessly intermediated and their authentic experience of perceptual acuity is heavily biased. In one way, we might see this as being able to talk about something we have little or no connection to. More simply, we learn to talk about things effectively, at least on the surface, yet have no mastery in.

Perceptual Acuity and the Teaching of Music

The art school kill more than they make.

From the quotation, I would assume that this is referring to the predominance of technique over sense impression and in my own experience as an educator I would have to agree. As I music teacher, my focus was to bring the student's own experiences in life directly into the composition, arranging, improvisation and performance of music. In other words, it is not the notes, technique and theory of music that feeds artistic expression, but it is the love, hate, happiness, sadness, challenges, opportunties, fears, and achievements that fuel musical expression. Technique, very simply, is brought into the equation on a needs basis in support to the creative expression.

In this context, the source of perceptual acuity is focused on the wonderful and sometimes mercurial nature of our own personal experience. The literal notes on a page that form a distant echo of that music are an after-thought. This means that the sounds a musician who is an artist produces sounds via their own musical compositions, arrangements, improvisation and performance that originate in their own experience, not in technique.

I would say that of all the 'art' I have done, 80% of it has never been heard, seen or experienced by anyone but me, and that's okay. Most of what I do, I do it for myself. The other 20% I share. That balance seems to work for me. I think at one time I shared more, but it didn't feel right. It was like I wasn't keeping enough for my own self and I was losing touch with 'why I do art'. Cynthia

While being awarded the Marshall McLuhan Distinguished Teacher Award for this approach, I most often found myself the target of criticism, most notably from the music consultants and coordinators in my own region. Their thoughts were shallow and simplistic to the point that it was quite difficult to communicate with them. Since I wasn't "following" the intended curriculum of technique and involving students in mindless and artless band and choral activities, I was not "preparing" students for "success" in the next levels of music education. Further, since I also held that "evaluation" of the performances my students gave were entirely irrelevant, and let this be known quite bluntly, I had no way of "reporting" to parents using an "objective" system of measurement.

In attempting to have discussions wth people such as these, I realized I had been introduced to the abundantly populated world of the artistic somnabulist. The artistic somnabulist is the person who has mastered, in this context, the techniques associated with musical expression, but has nothing of importance or meaning to communicate by way of that technique. More simply, they talk about art without having any real connection to it. After they realized they had no foundation to challenge my own experiences via technique (I have played in orchestras, jazz bands, rock bands, choirs), they realized that I knew at least as much about technique as they did. This is a typical and trite vicitimization tactic that attempts to attack the credibility of the innovator.

At the same time, I decided to ask them question such as, "What kinds of personal life experiences have you shared and communicated through the art of music?" The question, of course, was a foreign one which they had no answer for. I further pushed the discussion by asking, "Did the famous masters we enjoy such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart base their own expression on technique?" What I was surprised to find out here was precisely how little these music curriculum coordinators and consultants knew about the lives of famous musicians and how their life experiences would flow quite naturally into their musical expression. Finally, music is vibrant, alive and well in cultures around the world, and each of these cultures have a unique connection to musical expression and art. If we live in a connected "global" world, should be not be inviting, even demanding, cultural experiences in music other than our own?

Of course, the people that were my detractors were acting in what they thought were the best interests of students and community. The problem is that their thought patterns were so extremely myopic and their past musical experiences narrow, that they were unable to think beyond themselves. Their instrument was not rightly attuned.

Reality in the Pleasant Guise of Illusion

There is, it seems to me, a misguided if not idiotic assumption that students bring nothing to the musical experience. That is, until they are "equipped" with the requisite technique, knowledge and skills they are not "ready" to create and express themselves through music. The assumption is stupid and there is absolutely no "research" to support it. Besides this, however it is a horrific assumption and one that damages the artistic sensibility as well as perceptual acuity. Technique becomes the interface with music, and in doing so we remove the soul, the spirit, our identity, our experiences, our opportunities to express ourselves freely through art.

But is this not the case with most educational experiences?

Technique is often a comrade to "skill." Skill is part of the holy educational trinity known as knowledge-skills-attitudes. Knowledge-skills-attitudes are the foundation for time and content sequencing - and more dramatically, evaluation. When standardized, evaluation becomes the basis for loss of identity, loss of expression, loss of perceptual acuity, and a loss of art. It is no wonder that people seek artistic experiences outside of their schooling for they are exposed to little if any of it throughout their schooling.

But can we not say much the same thing about other subject disciplines. It is not only art that has been intermediated to the point where it has lost its identity. For example, language and the ensuing onslaught of spelling, puncutation, grammar, syntax, form, and so on. In my son's high school education, he was made to write essays in something called a "five-paragraph format." I am familiar with what this structure is, but cannot see a useful purpose. A comparable activity in music might be to compose a musical piece in binary form in a major key using common time. Both activities are trite and in the end ineffective.

The Essential Need For Artistic Sensibility

We have so amputated our sense perception from the experience of living that we almost seem to be encouraging split personalities in people. The dominance of technique at the expense of personal expression causes a massive psychological shift in our individual and connected sensibilities. We know something is missing, but we are too busy to do anything about it, that is, until it demands or attention - and it always will eventually. This, to me, is one of the core questions underlying much of the discussion surrounding issues of lifestyle.

It may be that the busy-ness of the day can in fact occupy enough of our time that we lead a life of robotics and repetitive lifestyle routines and give reality the pleasant guise of illusion. But there will also come a time, and I believe this is inevitable, that the soul will coming knocking and you will ask yourself:

- What am I doing with my life?
- Is it the right thing to do?
- What am I missing in life?
- How do I try to retirieve or reclaim it?
- Where should I be going in life?
- Why do I feel pulled between the reality that presents itself to me, and the reality I wish to have?
- Just where am "I" in all of this?

In this place, technique will abandon you, but art will welcome you home with open arms. It is here that the nature of people's lives, their successes and their failures, will come into the forefront and we realize that much of our knowledge and skill painfully acquired over years of education have thankfully relented.

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Hi Pearl,

I like the phrase, "the soul comes knocking in season and out of season." The idea of learning to move about while developing mechanics is appealing to. One activity I enjoyed doing, and also taught to my students, was to develop their own technical exercises to support they way in which they were trying to learn to perform. Some of these exercises took on an air of improvisation, and I found this approach to learning technique more helpful than endlessly running up and down scales, arpeggios, and so on. It's a little like freefalling into writing one is interested in.

I will remember your excellent question, "Is there a better way for me today?"

Hi Brian,
Interesting post and sparks some thoughts from the jumping off point of "much of our knowledge and skill painfully acquired over years of education have thankfully relented"

It seems to me to be because it has become internalized the way a constant weight or scent does and the brain filters it out. And in part because the skill and the cognitive habits it imposes become such a familiar tool that our use of it is automatic; the awkward imposingness of it is no longer there, the mental muscles are stronger.

As when we drive a car at first there is a lot that needs our conscious attention, and the phyical muscles ache. That subsides, but it doesn't mean that we as skilled drivers can suddenly zoom down the road carless on our own two feet as good drivers. It is not that we are free to move beyond the tool, but only beyond the difficulty so we can spend our attention on other things and be more loose and creative. Creative enough to then say, do I really need to drive, or is there a better way for me today? Dexterity of skill provides options if we choose to exercise them. While we are in the learning stage of mechanics we still need to move about.

In my experience, the soul comes knocking like Jehovah's Witnesses, in season and out of season. Which reminds me that it is easy to get caught up in the letter of the law and lose sight of the deeper, larger purpose, whether you are skilled or apprenticing.

Here's another education link you may find interesting.

I think when we make connections to the souls of the artists we have cpatured art's intention. When I sit at the piano flipping through sheet music trying to decide what to play, my natural instint is to go to Beethoven. Even if I'm cranky or out of sorts, I am drawn to the raw emotion in his music and how it makes me feel when I'm playing and listening.

When an artist shares as much as someone like Beethoven has, so many people are touched. So many people are changed by the power of simple beauty and incredible generosity.

Hi Cyn,

How wonderful:-) There are many things I like about this. I like the idea of "awakening" in that it implies that there is a unique artist in each of us.

Beethoven was in the habit of going for walks through nature and these walks were clearly an important part of his creative process. I would suspect that this, at least in part, had an important role to play in awakening and caring for his own inidividual power. Interesting you would mention Beethoven as I find myself having a close affinity with his music.

This phrase "own individual power" also captures for me an essential role for Art (of any kind). Through Art we learn about our own individual and unique powers of creativity while at the same time building a greater appreciation for the creative expression of others. It seems to me that this is an essential balance in learning and life in general - awakening our individual powers in full appreciation and awareness of others.

Imitation, it seems to me, is in some ways an opposite to developing our own inidivdual power. At a performance level we see a musical world that has a preoccupation with the interpretation of the masters. Of course, it listening to a master performer is an enjoyable experience, but I wonder where improvisation and composition have gone. The idea of separating improvisation, performing and composition out into discrete activities would have been quite foreign to Beethoven. I suspect he would look upon us with confusion and bewilderment.

This awakening of our own inidividual power in full appreciation of other artistic endeavors connects us with the eternal and pervasive nature of The Muse. We are awakened to it. We work to retrieve it from within our own heart, mind and soul, and learn to appreciate its unique presence in others. Art, in this respect, is an invitation to happily join in the journey and mystery of life. In Joseph Campbell's terms, it is one way of, "saying a hearty 'yes' to your [i.e. - our] adventure."

If I may Brian...
Elaborate with more from "The Smile":

"A musician must have music in his soul. Poets, musicians, artists of all kinds, need one another. not that they may imitate but that they stimulate and inspire one another. The music in man must be awakened by music; the right awakening of the imagination by the study of literature, by a more sympathetic obsevation of Nature, by listening to the winds among the trees, the murmuring of the brooks and the singing of the birds.

He must be awakened also by the great musical interpretations of these things by the masters. He needs the musicians of other ages that his own individual power may be awakened. To love Beethoven does not necessarily mean the imitation of that master. The musician must have power in himself to repond to the music in Nature and to appreciate the artistic endeavors of others."

In short he must have a love of music in his own being as the basis of all of his education. He must have an instrument in tune and must know how to play.

Thank you for your kind words:-)

I just found your blog through another feed. Your writing and perspective is powerful. Thanks for sharing with us. I look forward to being a subscriber.

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