Happiness and Technique

September 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

A while ago I found this video on YouTube of Joshua Bell, professional violinist, as a kid taking a class from a famous and much, much older teacher, Ivan Galamian. The video is pretty awkward — it’s not easy to watch this shy young kid being continually chided by an older master with a quaintly patrician bearing. But there’s a point where Galamian gives an aberrantly simple piece of advice: “Everything that looks pretty is good. Everything that looks ugly is bad.”.

When I practice my viola I find it’s roughly true — that by following my own simple impulses for what looks or sounds better, I arrive at “the truth”, i.e. a technical adjustment that is more fluid and more easy, that improves my sound at its core. To abuse the term, it’s more “natural”. It could be finding the right pitch instead of a slightly sharp one, or learning not to clamp down with my fingers, or keeping my bow far enough away from me, or one of a billion little things yet to be learned.

When I hit on an adjustment like this, there’s a sense of relief that’s rooted in pleasure. It sounds better and it feels better, so practice is a process of continually perturbing my playing and trying to find what makes me happier.

In my experience of classes, lessons, or advice-getting of any kind (thinking back, I give so little advice outside this blog but I’ve heard so much), there’s always a dire tenor in the teaching. That a very serious truth is being communicated by the teacher and I need to take exact notes.

Unfortunately, that’s not how learning really works (in my experience). The real learning has always been in the time I have to myself, to explore this or that, to nudge this finger in that direction and see what happens.

Becoming a better reader and writer is like that too, of course. I pick up a book because of its potential to excite me, as best I can tell. I want a challenge. I want to see what happens when I read this. Likewise with my writing, what happens when I try this?

Understanding the art form is predicated on happiness for me. I’m not trying to pick up a book’s social messages, I’m trying to understand what’s amazing in it, to deepen my happiness. Now and then I stop myself when I’ve passed unaffected through an ordinary-looking passage, and I go back, and I ask myself, what might be amazing in this passage?

Almost all the writing advice I’ve ever heard takes the certain form, the approach that’s oblivious to exploration. It says “this is the way to write, write like this”. For example when someone tells you to introduce your character with a perfect capsule representation of who they are — something fundamentally revealing about their personality, e.g. a cheapskate’s counting his dimes before he sets his wallet down. Why don’t you just sit down and wrestle with different ways of introducing your character, and see what sparks? You’ll arrive at “the right answer” whether or not you, incidentally, follow someone’s advice or rebuke it.

Take a look through a writing advice book or a writing advice webpage. How many of the ideas are prescriptive, and certain? Now, how many profess that there’s no way to know for sure but to try out your imagination? I’d love to be pleasantly surprised by an easy portion of truth some day, but when I sit down for the real task of learning something deep, I’ve finally got nothing to go on but my own sense of pleasure.

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