Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bob Ross, Empowering the Masses, and Fear of Failure

I recently watched a PBS documentary on Bob Ross (no relation), who gained fame as the creator and host of The Joy of Painting, a television program that ran for 12 years on PBS stations in the United States.  On the show, Ross would teach viewers how to create an oil painting from start to finish in just half an hour by following seemingly easy, step-by-step instructions.  The blank canvas with which he started would be gradually transformed into an impressive landscape painting by the end, rather like a cooking show that starts with a few ingredients and a stove and ends with a gourmet dish or meal.

According to the documentary, Bob Ross felt that one of his missions in life was to convince ordinary people that they could paint pictures skillfully, even if they had no background in art.  By following his (apparently) simple steps, viewers who had previously felt themselves to be unskilled as artists came to believe that they too could create art!

Mystery, Complexity, and Drudgery

It seems to me that composers and other creative artists often make the creative process sound far more mysterious or complicated than it really is.  The reality, at least from my perspective, is that developing into an accomplished and mature artist takes years of drudgery.

People who wish to become concert pianists or violinists understand that the process involves years of practicing scales, studies, and progressively more challenging compositions, as well as constantly trying to improve their sound, listening to other artists, studying music theory, history, and ear-training, all the while receiving frequent feedback from teachers and others.  Becoming a skilled composer is no different; you do all these things, plus spend thousands of hours composing music, until you reach a point where you kind of feel like you know what you are doing, although I admit that I never totally know what I'm doing.

When you reach this point, others might tell you, gee, I wish I had that kind of talent, when what they should be saying is, gee, I wish I had spent ten thousand hours developing my skills as a composer!
[Here's a link to another blog I wrote on this topic, in case it interests you: Talent? Skill? What's the difference?]
It can seem as though composers (and other artists) sometimes play up the mysteriousness or complexity of the creative process by offering explanations that are shrouded in mystery, or  seemingly designed to obfuscate. Here are silly examples of both:
Shrouded in Mystery:  This composition came to me fully-formed in a dream, and all I did was write it down when I woke up!
Designed to Obfuscate:  The prime form of [0 2 3] is, as even the simplest child knows, [0 1 3].  This aptly illustrates that, on a Babbittion plane, "major" and "minor" (I herewith mimic dormant terminology with both prudence and a dash of "pince-nez" impudence) trichords are indistinguishable from one another, at least aurally (visually, the difference is notoriously striking!).  I manipulated both of these sets employing a cunning derivation of neo-Riemannian theory that I authored while researching North-Indian proto-tablational reductions of integer-centric, sub-sonic impulses in the steppes of central Asia on prestigious Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Getty Grants, employing retrogrades, inversions, graduate students, and, of course, post-modernist regression, with the following results: [0130230203010333333333327(!)7], and so on (I refrain from revealing too many of my secrets here in the interests of protecting my intellectual property; all too often in the past others have marauded my ideas and created works that generated untold millions for their music. I speak here of Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Justin Bieber, among others). It was thus that I genetically engineered my latest chef-d'œuvre, "Mary Had a Little Lamb."  It is contradistinctive from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," Baa Baa Black Sheep," and "A B C D" in non-trivial ways that defy explanation (I refer readers capable of understanding über-high-level theoretical constructs to Edward Cone's seminal publication, "Beyond Analysis," which MUST be followed immediately by a close reading of David Lewin's "Beyond the Beyond," although it is unlikely that people who love music will be capable of understanding either article, or this erudite explanation, for that matter).
I made up both examples above, but if the second amused you, I highly recommend a visit to The Contemporary Classical Composer's Bullshit Generator, a clever Perl Script by composer Dominic Irving, that, as its name suggests, generates reams of random rubbish masquerading as composer's program notes.

But I digress… Bob Ross empowered ordinary people to create art by demystifying the process of artistic creation, and explaining his process in a way that made ordinary people feel that they too could paint.  And I think that was a tremendous accomplishment.

But can anyone compose music?

I believe the answer to this is yes, at least for anyone that is physically capable of doing so.  GarageBand, an Apple software application for Mac OS X and iOS, allows users with no musical background to to create music or podcasts.  You don't need much musical knowledge to use music sequencing and notation software either; all you need is a computer, the knowledge of how to use these programs, and the ability to distinguish the musical bits you like from those you don't.  Naturally, as with painting, the more you do it, the more your skills improve.

This is great news for people who love music but did not have instruction in musical instruments as they grew up.  It's also great news for people who did have musical instruction in an instrument, but not in composition.  A lot of classical musicians are trained with little or no instruction in composition, but, should they (or anyone else)  ever wish to try their hand at composing, there are ways to do this in privacy, in a risk-free environment.

Fear of Failure

A recurring theme of Bob Ross's television shows, according to the documentary, was don't fear failure, and this seems good advice for anything else in life as well, but particularly so for music.

Fear of failure can hold us back from achieving our goals.  Some awareness of the potential pitfalls associated with any endeavour seems wise — we all know what can happen if you cross a road without looking — but what can go wrong if you compose music?

This calls for a list!

Things that could go wrong if you write music:
  1. It might not be good.
  2. It might cause a riot when it is premiered.
  3. The audience might boo lustily, or shout, "For SHAME!" during the premiere.
  4. It might result in your becoming the biggest laughing stock in the history of the human race.
  5. It might get bad reviews.
  6. The musicians might tell you that the music is unplayable.  
  7. The musicians might not play the right notes. Or they might play the right notes, but at the wrong times. Or they might totally disregard dynamics, articulations, and slurs.
  8. The musicians, accustomed as they are to playing music by dead people, might resent having to perform music of some upstart composer with the unmitigated gall of being alive.  
  9. The musicians might say, "You didn't really want that F sharp in bar 41, did you?" Or worse.
  10. Your parents/friends/pets might not like it.
  11. You may be branded a formalist, and be called before the Union of Soviet Composers to explain yourself.
  12. You might get hit by a bus on the way to the premiere.
Yes; all of the unfortunate events in the above list could happen to composers, but some are not very likely (numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 [because concerts don't get reviewed much these days, and many reviews don't express particularly strong approval or disapproval], 11, and 12), and others are just things you deal with as they arise.

Perhaps the most likely of the above possibilities is the first: It might not be as good as you'd like it to be, at least in the early stages of your development as a composer.

But so what?  If our composition isn't as good as we would wish it to be, then we try again, and keep trying again until we can eventually write music we feel good about.  Sure, the premiere of  Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring caused a riot, but (a) music premieres generally don't, and (b) if your premiere causes a riot, count your blessings (while taking cover), because, as the old show business saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

All great composers have had bad reviews, been harshly received by members of the public and/or their family, and many have been told been told their music is unplayable; they went on to achieve greatness in spite of this. If technical issues in your music are causing problems for performers, look closely at them to see if there is a compromise that serves your goals as the composer and makes the music more "user-friendly" for the performers. It's all "stuff" that you can deal with, and, to quote a book I have never read, "Don't sweat the small stuff."

It can sting when your music does not turn out as you had hoped, but, generally, if you work at developing your craft for long enough, you will write music you can feel proud of, and that is the only factor within your control. And if you believe in your music, others are likely to believe in it as well.

Compare the things in the above list that actually have some likelihood of going wrong to the things that can go wrong for air traffic controllers, surgeons, or police officers; if they make mistakes, people can die. If we make mistakes, we feel disappointed or even frustrated, but no one dies.  

"Failure" is all relative. If a composer goofs and writes notes that are out of range for a particular instrument, we fix it, and,  in the great scheme of things, nothing particularly bad has happened. If a composer tries some crazy new thing that does not end up working very well, the composer may feel unhappy or even embarrassed at the premiere, but there's an good chance that someone will come up to the composer afterwards and say something like, "Dude, that was my favourite part of the whole piece! I really loved that section!"

A composer can (and, I believe must) take chances and try new things, and if they don't work out satisfactorily, we either attempt a fix (go back and keep trying things until we arrive at a solution that satisfies us), or chalk it up to experience and move on to the next piece somewhat wiser, assuming we have understood why it didn't work.

Fear of failure can be paralyzing for an artist; I believe, having experienced it, that it is the primary cause of "writer's block."  Embrace the risks inherent in writing every new composition, with the knowledge that:
  1. Risks are an essential part of the process;
  2. If risks "fail" — if something you try does not succeed — the consequences are usually minimal;
  3. There is a solution for every compositional problem;
  4. The more you solve compositional problems, the more you learn;
  5. The solutions to compositional problems can end up being among the strongest sections of a composition; and
  6. There is a saying that you learn more from failure than you do from success.   I don't know how true this is — I think there is much to be learned from both, frankly, and here's a link to a Scientific American article that challenges this saying — but I do believe that challenges (a nicer word than "failures," don't you think?) provide opportunities to both (i) learn and grow as artists, and (ii) improve our compositions, so, looking at it this way, they are not to be feared, but embraced!

And so, to summarize a ridiculously long blog…

I am not suggesting we embrace failure, despite any appearance to the contrary in my last point above! ;)  I am suggesting that fear of failure can hold a person back from accomplishing goals, and every composition brings challenges that, if negotiated skillfully, can result in some very fine music!

To return to the point of the first section of this blog, the creative process is sometimes described in mysterious language or perplexing techno-babble/jargon, and this can serve as a kind of barrier between practitioners (e.g., composers, artists) and those interested in developing skills as composers and artists (e.g., students, amateurs).  Like the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall (answer: Practice), becoming a good composer is not very mysterious at all: You just practice, a lot, and try to get lots of feedback along the way.  And yes, anyone can be an artist!