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!

14 comments:

Elliott Butt said...

I strongly agree that anyone who puts the time in can indeed be a composer (or likewise an artist). One point that stood out was writing music that is impossible to play.

Back when I was about 15 or so I would write music for guitar all of the time. The only problem was that it was pretty much impossible to play (and not idiomatic at all, even though I the guitar was my instrument...). I would get feedback from listeners online as well as my own attempts at trying to play what I wrote. I would then take that advice and that knowledge that it was unplayable and apply that to my next piece/song that I worked on.

The only reason that I was able to later write music that made sense for the guitar was because I made these mistakes in the first place!

Mitchell wxhao said...

I've been a composer for as long as I've been a musician, and I also agree that creating art is something anyone can do. I basically hold the opinion that if I can do it, anyone can. Refining the craft of composing, to me, was even easier than refining the craft of my instrument. Not to say that I am "refined" in either respect, but making progress as a composer does not include being hyper-aware of obscure muscles of my body. I guess I could also say if I can play flute, anyone can compose. If you have the incentive to learn and a some people who are willing to give feedback who might catch that which you won't when you're starting off, you're golden (as they say).

Brad said...

Obviously there are certain things which you cannot teach. Though anyone who dedicates the hours and hours of practice will definitely improve and become better and better at what they practice. Some people seem to have a greater musicality than others, though maybe that is simply due to their approach and/or their immersion in their craft.

I struggled with the fear of failing. I still do from time to time. But if you avoid things just because they stress you out or freak you out, then you won't get anywhere. You get better at things by plugging away at them, and not by shying away from the opportunities that present themselves to you. That's something I've definitely learned in the past and it's definitely helped me out quite a bit!

Andrew Noseworthy said...

I definitely agree with this idea that anyone could be an artist! I actually somewhat dislike the term "talented" when I hear it from certain people. It's kind of the experience where a family member or friend hears you play or hears something you write for the first time and says "You're so talented! Where do you get it?" As if musical ability just comes to you from somewhere. Well it does, it comes from hours spent practising.

There's even often times where my parents still don't fully understand it, even after years of watching me play and spend time practising. Sometimes when I say I need to practice they will say "Don't worry you'll be fine!" Of course they are also my parents and definitely biased!

Either way, that's always my answer when someone gives this response of "you are talented" after a performance (or even sometimes after a guitar lesson I teach) as if talent is just something you have or don't. I believe the actual thing that people have or don't have, is drive. If you have the drive to practice, put time into music, and strive towards a goal, talent is just a bi-product of the work you put into that.

kathlene mayer said...

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Michelle said...

I adore this entry! It is humourous and inspiring and captivating. The first time I applied to MUN Music (shortly after, I withdrew my application, only to apply again the following year), I stated in my writing sample that I intended to compose. Over the course of that in-between year, I realized how ridiculous that was. I had never written anything, how could I possibly compose at a university level? Now, in my final semester, I have begun composing and have realized that it's not all mystery, it's not all divine intention, and it's not all so technical as those who follow the BS Generator would have us believe. I deeply regret my decision to refrain from composition until this point, and I am left with a conviction that all musicians (and non-musicians, if they are so inclined) should at the very least try their hand at composition. The process of composition is exciting and has the potential to be so rewarding! My little piano students start composing almost as soon as they begin lessons, and it is such a joy to watch them create their own music. It is rudimentary and uninspired but it is theirs, and they are proud in a way that only children can be. It is so refreshing to observe the utter lack of self-consciousness they possess; they don't have that fear of failure that holds back so many older would-be composers (yours truly included).

Shawn Bennett said...

I will totally agree with the point that anyone can be a composer. However simple, a G C D song with some obvious lyrics about how life is hard, DO constitute a composition! (See every country music song ever written).

And though I look down on it, the simplest of compositions are absolutely something that SOMEONE can be proud of. And I am definitely not so high and mighty that I can take that away from them. To compose is to express yourself the best you know how, and whether that be using complex set theory or drumming your fingers on your dashboard... Everyone is a composer.

I guess it takes a great human being like Bob Ross to understand this. He clearly has the inherent ability to believe in everyone he meets, unconditionally. This fantastic ability is all too few these days. There aren't many Albus Dumbledore's or Gandalf's around anymore - and we perhaps should take it more upon ourselves to see the potential in people.

Evan Smith said...

I've never heard of this show by Bob Ross but it sounds fantastic. I've always been someone growing up who was absolutely garbage at drawing, painting, I'm not even a good colour-er. And yet so many other people in my class were just naturally good at it. I always thought," Oh well, I'm good at music. That's art. So that's okay. I'm just bad at visual art." But no one ever said the difference. I think shows, and ideas like this are very important for many individuals.

Of course, talent is definitely something that exists. Some people are naturally good at specific things, but this will only get them so far. You see it all the time with YouTube celebrities. People have raw-talent at something, and BECAUSE it is raw (untrained) talent, people are amazed, go wild, and then in a month or so you never hear from them again.

It is the motivation and love the art that drives to success. Instant success is not success at all really.

Sarah-Beth Cormier said...

My fear when it comes to failure is that I will not be taken seriously afterwards. It's one thing to be told that your skills need refining, but another to be essentially be told that your ideas are foolish and, worse, that your apparent inability to recognize this reflects on your artistry and musical intelligence. To overcome this, I try to remember that in music, there is no final word. No single individual's response determines the quality of a piece, every piece can be refined after initial completion, and no failed piece is a verdict on past or future work. I do prefer to make my mistakes in pieces that are not publicly performed, but it is inevitable that pieces of mine will be performed that do not represent a high level of artistry. I just hope to learn from my mistakes, and to maintain a confident, open-minded attitude to let the world know that I am always eager to improve, that I won't give up, and that my failures don't define me as an artist. Hopefully, they'll give me a second chance!

Jessica said...

Fear of failure is definitely a limiting factor in many decisions people make in all aspects of life. Some people have mastered this fear more than others, but failure is something everyone has worried about at some point. I almost didn't take this course as I had never composed anything before and had no idea what I was doing. Quite honestly, it really is scary doing something you have absolutely no idea how to do. However, I cannot think of any instance where I have thought to myself, "Wow, I really wish I hadn't done that thing I was really scared of doing" (that comes to mind, anyways). This is because things typically turn out better than we expect in instances such as this. I continue to have no idea what I am doing when it comes to composing, but I am increasingly glad I took this course, especially as my worst fears (public ridicule etc. ) have not come to pass.
I found the idea of demystifying the creative process very interesting as I have noticed there is sometimes an attitude of condescension among musicians towards non-musicians (or among very talented musicians towards those less so). Obviously, this is the kind of attitude had by many who are experts in their field when among those who are not experts and it is by no means limited to musicians. At any rate, this condescension puts even more space between a performer and their audience, which I think kind of defeats the whole purpose of music (at least, if one perceives the purpose to be sharing with others and expressing oneself in a meaningful way) This cannot be achieved if those we are trying to share with have no idea what we are trying to express. Granted, sometimes this does occur unintentionally. But the point is, for the most part, as performers and composers, we should be trying to communicate with our audiences as clearly as possible. Otherwise, if people enjoy our music, it will be by some fluke and not because they are genuinely moved by what they hear.

Robert Godin said...

It'd be a shame for any potential composer to be turned off by the idea of composing because they're lacking these mysterious qualities that some people talk about. Some kind of Bob Ross version of a show for music might help!

As for fear of failure, obviously this is something that anybody in almost every profession can struggle with. I really like the idea of embracing risk. Without people taking risks we wouldn't have the same kind of music we have now. I think encouraging people to take risks, with things like your last list, would go a long way to helping people approach risk.

Andre McEvenue said...

I would agree that the practice of composition could use some de-mystifying. Perhaps one of the reasons that composition is viewed in this way has to do with modernism. To a person who is unfamiliar with the unusual sonorities and range of possibility of modern music, it may sound alien and perhaps even jarring. This person may then assume that there is some special process of understanding that is far beyond their capacity to understand that makes this music enjoyable. Their next reaction would then be to feel anger that they are not included in this exclusive group of intellectuals who are pretending to like something that is obviously unlistenable.

Maybe an important step to ensure the survival of this wonderful musical tradition would in fact be to develop a way to include the public (and educate them) in the composition process. Or simply to inform, as Dr. Ross mentioned, that it is in fact a developed skill, not an innate talent. I think most people can and would be turned on to modern classical music if they felt that appreciating it was within their capacity, which obviously it is!

Andre McEvenue said...

I would agree that the practice of composition could use some de-mystifying. Perhaps one of the reasons that composition is viewed in this way has to do with modernism. To a person who is unfamiliar with the unusual sonorities and range of possibility of modern music, it may sound alien and perhaps even jarring. This person may then assume that there is some special process of understanding that is far beyond their capacity to understand that makes this music enjoyable. Their next reaction would then be to feel anger that they are not included in this exclusive group of intellectuals who are pretending to like something that is obviously unlistenable.

Maybe an important step to ensure the survival of this wonderful musical tradition would in fact be to develop a way to include the public (and educate them) in the composition process. Or simply to inform, as Dr. Ross mentioned, that it is in fact a developed skill, not an innate talent. I think most people can and would be turned on to modern classical music if they felt that appreciating it was within their capacity, which obviously it is!

Flutiano said...

I'm interested in the Scientific American article mentioned here, "How You Learn More from Success than Failure." It is a remarkably short article, and lacks much in the way of detail. It also refers to monkeys and a "two-choice visual task." We are talking about humans and creative processes. Although monkeys are relatively similar to humans, they cannot follow instructions to learn from their failures, and they cannot tell us what they are thinking about when they either fail or succeed. However, I think the difference in the task is more important. Composition is not something with one right answer and any other possible answers are wrong. It is a creative process, where the outcome is largely subjective and many factors go in to whether or not it is a success.

We talked about failure this week in my Seminar in Performance Issues class, and there are a couple of things I gleaned from that which I think would be valuable here. The first is a Ted talk by Elizabeth Gilbert - http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_success_failure_and_the_drive_to_keep_creating#t-422348 - it is only about seven minutes long, and she talks about the impediments that can arise from both failure and success. She is an author, but her talk is equally significant for composers. She discusses how her passion is writing, and how it means more to her than her ego, and calls her writing (as in the act of creating) her home. Here is a quote from the talk: “The only trick is that you've got to identify the best, worthiest thing that you love most, and then build your house right on top of it and don't budge from it. And if you should someday, somehow get vaulted out of your home by either great failure or great success, then your job is to fight your way back to that home the only way that it has ever been done, by putting your head down and performing with diligence and devotion and respect and reverence whatever the task is that love is calling forth from you next. You just do that, and keep doing that again and again and again, and I can absolutely promise you, from long personal experience in every direction, I can assure you that it's all going to be okay.”

I think that challenge is a wonderful word. It is much better than "hard", and fundamentally different than "failure." There is an inherent risk of failure in anything that is hard or challenging, but the word challenging implies that it is not only hard, but also an opportunity. It is an opportunity to do something meaningful, as well as to learn and grow. It is connected to a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset, where people are more likely to learn from their mistakes because they believe that they can improve (I think I've heard about research that people with growth mindsets have more positive reactions to failure than people with fixed mindsets, but I'm having trouble finding that right now).

In relation to failure that famous people have faced, and harsh criticisms that have been wielded against famous composers, I have two recommendations. The first is a short video of examples of people who got harsh criticisms or major rejections before moving on to be extremely well thought of in the field that the failure was in - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ydeyl0vXdP0. The second is a book - The Lexicon of musical invective : critical assaults on composers since Beethoven's time by Nicolas Slonimsky. It is essentially the opposite of the quotes that you find on the back of a published book - it is the most negative critiques of famous composer's famous works. It is nice to look at these kinds of things every once in a while - it is a reminder that even these extremely successful people were not always so successful. They failed, too.