Musicality Book Club, Week 5: Technique, Expression, and How Things Blend

bookOver the past two weeks, we’ve read some of Mathieu’s thoughts on Music as Mind and Music as Heart. We’re now on Chapter 5, Feeling Mind, Thinking Heart, of Bridge of Waves: What Music Is and How Listening to It Changes the World. This chapter touches on one of the most heated ongoing debates in the world of dance, music, and probably every other art form, which is the (presence or lack of) relationship between technique and expression. Mathieu returns to the idea of name vs. nameless and develops it further through the concept of the ancient brain (more intuitive) and the new brain (more analytical). He argues for a balancing and uniting of the two:

As in any love relationship, learning to listen to music – even music you love – takes practice. Partners learn to compromise, negotiate, take turns and, eventually, cohabit in peace. Same with the partnering of intellect and intuition in every listener. Your mind and heart learn to be a nice old married couple, completing each other’s sentences and clipping each other’s toenails. [p. 95]

But Mathieu takes this even deeper than most by discussing the emotional investment behind our perspectives on this topic. Basically, he gets to the core of what this debate is really about, something I think we don’t do often enough:

In learning music, the parable of the snake and the apple has an eloquent manifestation: the fear of learning names. I teach music to adults at all levels, beginners as well as seasoned professionals, and about one-third of my students do not seem to be in the least troubled with naming anything their ears can hear. But most do have some difficulty, and more than a few have an active resistance to labeling even the most elemental sounds… One student in ten is so upset by the process of developing a musical lexicon that he or she feels resentful, depressed, discouraged, and defective. Some look down and bite their lips. Some weep.

I was recently teaching a seminar of about twenty-five students at various stages of musical development. To begin, I asked each person to define his or her musical wish list by completing the sentence, “How can I…?” in twenty-five words or less. One tall, thin, strong guy, very quiet, asked in a hushed tremble, “How can I get over my fear of music theory?” The room came alive. People nodded and sighed and made sounds empathetic with the intensity and sincerity of the questioner. [p. 92]

I believe quite a few of us have this fear of theory attacking feeling, expression, and joy. And I believe just as many of us have the opposite fear (not touched on by Mathieu) that our feeling and expression can’t or won’t reach into a form (theory/technique) that is acceptable and meaningful to others. In other words, some of us are afraid of our technique pleasing others but not ourselves, while some of us are afraid of our expression pleasing ourselves but not others.

Let’s read Mathieu’s answer to this dilemma:

“Your fear of theory is a good thing. It shows that you have something to protect that is still intact. Your fear is a functional, positive part of your immune system, and you should honor it, but you need to know what it is protecting. Fear protects love, in this case your love of music as a sacred part of yourself. For you and many lucky people, music comes from an innocent place. The altar inside you where pure music lives must not be defiled by names, analyses, and rules of right and wrong. Conventionally, music theory is taught didactically, often aggressively, and sometimes with more than a hint of arrogance: if you aren’t musically literate, you aren’t a good musician. There’s not much validation of subjective response in such teaching… To the extent that music theory is set up as the antagonist of your own pure, direct experience, you should fear it…”

There followed a long conversation, THE conversation, about the legitimacy of one’s feelings and the various strategies for integrating musical experience so that the altar of the heart is not raped and pillaged by the hungers of the mind. What came out of this conversation was a deeper understanding (for both of us) of the nature of the conflict between heart and mind, especially as far as music is concerned… We talked about how musical notation packages and crystallizes ideas, thereby turning flowing process into congealed product. [pp. 92-93]

While Mathieu acknowledges this fear, he doesn’t shift to the opposite extreme by devaluating theory. He sees technique and expression as being analogous to mind and heart, and believes that we often switch back and forth between the two with the goal of finding balance and, ultimately, unity. What I like about his perspective is that he allows room for both. In many dance discussions, technique is often viewed as irrelevant to expression and is therefore maligned as pointless and even harmful. But Mathieu advocates a more balanced view that puts technique in its proper place rather than throwing it out altogether:

During the very moment you give an unnamed tone a note-name, you can teach yourself to palpably feel the separation of your intuitive, direct experience from your cognizing self. This transfer of dominance from one kind of knowing to the other need not be permanent, nor involve any kind of loss. We learn to juggle these two modes of knowing in much the way that when we are speaking clearly we can be aware of our feelings and still frame our sentences. To assist us in this, our new brains come with a marvelous tool (sometimes called the preconscious) that allows us to access needed information immediately. So smooth and rapid is the transfer from storage to usage that you can talk, write, and play music without naming what you are doing unless you need to…

Even if you have never studied music, music does much of the work for you; intrinsically it is a teacher of integration between the cognitive and the intuitive. For instance, when you are listening to a piece of music, you can concentrate either on your intuitive responses to sheer sound – your bodily responses to the pulses and rhythms – or you can concentration on the “what happens next” aspect of the music, its narrative. In the first way of hearing, our ancient brain is listening innocently, so to speak, with its eyes wide; it is drinking in the vibrations. In the second way, you are constantly storing, remembering, and comparing numerous events, just as you would with any story, extracting coherent meaning. If you find a piece of music you enjoy, and practice listening to it first one way, then the other, you’ll find that with amazing ease you can toggle between the two: puresound, then meaningful events, then back to pure sound again, and so on, until Eureka! – the two ways become one way and the full globe is lit. By its own nature, music teaches us the integration of heart and mind. It knows how to be feelingful sounds, and how to be pure architecture, and how to be the sublime marriage of the two. [pp. 105-106]

This recurring theme – the unity of seeming opposites – always gives me a great feeling of peace in what is tempting to view as an unsolvable frustration. I love knowing that my mind and my heart – my technique and my expression – are not two competing entities but rather two parts of a whole, a yin and a yang, that are designed to work together like a happy old married couple. I am really starting to settle into Mathieu’s book, and the slow reading and meditating on one chapter each week is reinforcing to me that it’s a process and a journey, not a product and a destination. It also reminds me that it is the nuance and the depth, not the definition and the description, that give true meaning. As Mathieu quotes the mystic poet Rumi (on page 103): “Why are you so busy with this or that? Pay attention to how things blend.”

Post Script: While Mathieu does an excellent job discussing the personal issues, what I also find fascinating are the interpersonal (“political”) issues: how we judge and value each other as dancers based on both our actual technique and our perspective on technique, how a community forms and acts/reacts based on energies from various individuals and groups (including instructors and other community leaders) relating to technique and expression. Just one more thing to ponder…

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Here’s the next post in this series:
Musicality Book Club, Week 6: The Complexity of Goodness

1 comment on Musicality Book Club, Week 5: Technique, Expression, and How Things Blend

  1. LadyLeader
    April 2, 2011 at 7:36 pm (13 years ago)

    I was most struck by his loss of the intuitive way to experience music. His story of how he during his first piano lesson stayed in the intellect without any support or training for the other side of the musical experience. (P81-82)

    “My brain simply got ahead of my ear, and who was to know the danger of that? I had to wait a quarter century before I knew once again how to enter the musical realm of the nameless.”

    This has been a central issue for me since last spring when I found a way to work with the intellectual side of music.

    For some reason I had never understood the basic rhythm of tango but I was leading to the melody and other structures that I could find in the songs. All this was totally beyond my intellect. My dance was magic to me, my feet were fantastic when they found their way in the music.

    When my followers praised my phrasing and musicality, I looked at my feet and commended them! During last two years, I understood that others heard something more, they were dancing to something I did not recognized but I could not get it and no one managed to explain me what they heard!

    Last spring, I got hold on Joaquín Amenabars tutorial book on music for tango dancers and began intensive reading and practicing. After only two weeks I finally started to discern the tango’s characteristic four bars. I was like others!

    At the same time I began to wonder how this would affect my dancing?

    With Mathieu terms, I started to leave the innocent / intuitive way to relate to the music.
    Two of my DJ friends told me that their experience became stronger when they know more about the music. A professional musician however, said he was disturbed to know the musical structure during his dance.

    For me, the biggest fear was/is to start perceive music as a clock that ticks. Just like looking at a painting and only see and analyze the brush strokes but not experience the painting itself. (*)

    Mathieu confirmed my fears – if you are careless you can get out of mind/heart balance.
    Therefore, I am now definitely more eager to think and seek opportunities to train the intuitive side also.
    * Mathieu talks about singing – it helped him to get back to a nameless experience.
    * I remember an article about a Russian violinist who played every day until the music started to sound inside her. I think her intuitive/heart had been activated then.
    * At a Saturday dance I tried to be totally unfocused – as in a type of meditation – when I danced. To stop my intellect – it can be an opportunity
    * To keep on intellectual/theoretical work just for a period and then stopp. During the pause you let it become part of you, integrate it with your earlier skills. Worth of a test I think.

    Another question is How do we find balance and exercises in teaching so that participants understand the difference and importance to practice both parts.

    (*) The feeling of cold, technical dance I have now COULD be that I am unfamiliar with the new way of hearing and can get back to my experinece again when accustomed to this level of hearing.


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