Listening

Recently, I have been playing a lot of archtop guitar, especially exploring single line melodies. Because I have been making physical modifications to the guitars I’ve been playing, I have been listening particularly carefully while playing. Also, the specific instruments I have been using are exceptional. The beauty of their tone has made it even more pleasurable to listen intensely to what I’m playing. What I have noticed is that through this careful listening, I make an especially strong identification between the mechanical action of my hands and the notes, melodies, and timbres that my hands are creating. That may seem an obvious thing for a musician to do, but musicians, especially inexperienced musicians, don’t necessarily listen the way I have been lately. I certainly didn’t listen that way early in my musical career. Musicians can just be thinking of patterns. They can be playing licks somewhat absently. They can be thinking about the idea of what they are playing, the name of the note or chord, or just that this note is the next one in the scale, or the right one for this place in the song. Worst of all, they can be passing judgement on their playing instead of taking in their playing.

As I’ve been experiencing this deeper form of listening, I’ve realized that had I always listened this intently while playing, that is, from the time I first began playing guitar, my ear and my hands would have grown much more quickly. The essential thing about this kind of listening is that it maximizes the integration of one’s hands and ear. That integration is what matters above all in music.

Again, isn’t this obvious? Not really. For years I played by rote, as do many musicians, especially early on. It is possible as a learning musician to play through the head rather than through the ear. More than once I have heard an inexperienced bass player play through an entire song a half step off from the other people in the band, because the bass player was thinking in terms of fingering pattern and not actually listening to the notes he was playing. If you aren’t a musician, playing a half step off from the rest of the band is about as out of key as one can get, and yet these amateur bass players didn’t notice.

Bear with me. I’ll get to drawing, but first another example from another art. This last weekend, I went to a dance performance. All the performers were good and quite experienced, but one dancer really stood out to me. While the other dancers seemed to just be going though the movements, albeit skillfully, he seemed to be experiencing each moment of the movement in full detail, as if he were discovering the beauty of it for the first time. I mentioned this to my wife, who was a professional dancer for twenty five years. She said that some dancers embody the movement while others just do the steps. Just doing the steps is moving by head, following directions. The dancer I was watching was not in his head at all. He was completely in his body. There was no conceptual distance between himself and the movement. He was the movement.

So what does this have to do with drawing and painting? Just as with music, early drawers and painters often stand far outside their work while they are doing it. Two examples. New drawers are often criticizing what they are making while they are making it. They are thinking of what they wish they could make rather than paying attention to what they are actually making. Early painters, as another example, often use color purely symbolically. They are not witnessing or responding to the colors they are actually making. For instance, a painter will notice that the model’s skin is flesh colored. The painter then mixes a whole bunch of paint from what they think are components of flesh tone and applies that mix wherever they see skin. Often the paint mix is miles from flesh tone but the painter just keeps using more and more of it wherever there is skin, just like the bass player who is off a half step. The new painter doesn’t study the color she did mix. She just sees it as a poor choice that reflects her inexperience.

The real question for a painter (drawer) is not what the painter hopes to do. Where there is the greatest potential for learning is in experiencing what the painter is actually doing. Imagine if the beginning painter were really watching the paint as it was being mixed. Regardless of whether the mix was what the artist intended, there would be so much to notice and experience in what is actually happening with the paint. If a painter is lost in paying attention to the paint, then every mix is a learning experience. Over time, mixing and seeing get integrated just as hearing and playing do for a musician who intensely listens.

New drawers often tell me that they don’t know what kind of marks to use to get such and such an effect. In the mean time, they are holding back, working tentatively in real time. Because they are focusing on what they wish would happen, they entirely miss the opportunity to make what they can make fully right now, and having held back, they can’t experience the successes of the present stage of their work. In recent years, I have been trying to explain to students that the ways drawings turn out early on are not mistakes at all, but rather are accurate reflections of how beginners see as makers. If the student can experience, study, and commit to the nuances of how they are making right now, they place themselves exactly where the most motivated and exploratory changes occur.

A few years ago, I had an intermediate student who felt her drawn faces were turning out as “cheesy” (her word). She wanted them to turn out differently. She wanted to know how to fix them. I eventually suggested that there was nothing to fix, that what she saw as “cheesy” was actually a stage in her seeing and making that she should indulge. I suspect one of the things that was happening was that she was beginning to emphasize certain characteristics that struck her as essential. Often, the early stages of emphasis are clumsy looking but very important. To emphasize something, one has to really understand it. Having mastered that understanding, one can later begin to finesse things so that the emphasis is more subtle and less obvious, if that’s what the artist desires. This year, I saw a show of new work by this same artist and it was truly stunning. The “cheesiness” had resolved itself. It wasn’t gone. It had simply evolved into a more subtle and complex balance of nuanced insights.

The essence of what I am talking about is that there is the greatest potential for learning exactly where the artist is in real time, because that is the place that the artist best understands at the moment. That’s the place that truly expresses the artist’s present experience base as a maker. That’s the place where the artist can make incremental adjustments and motivated experiments that can be witnessed intensely. The artist’s long term ideals are called long term for a reason. Those ideals will necessarily be inaccessible for many years. The most direct path to that future is created by committing fully to what can be made today. Any sense in which a choice works can be appreciated and allowed to register. Choices that seem to make things worse can just as powerfully be witnessed as a sources of experience, in the same way that paint mixes that didn’t come out as expected can be. Judging the mix accomplishes nothing. Experiencing the mix…now that’s another matter. Every mix contributes to one’s base of experience, if witnessed. 

When I was in my forties, I took lots of yoga classes. The teacher recommended that we not try to do the asanas as she was doing them. She encouraged us to explore simpler, less advanced versions where we could feel change happening in our own bodies and actively explore our own experience. At the time, I couldn’t get there. I just insisted on trying to do what the teacher was doing. Many years later, I returned to yoga with the ambition simply to slow the natural freezing up that comes with aging. With my ambition scaled way down, I did find the place where I could experience change in my body. It was a very primitive place compared to what the teacher was doing, but it was a very real and exciting place once I allowed myself to value it.

So, for beginning students, actually for anyone who is still learning, I’m suggesting that they not see where they are as a place of failure that should be fixed, but rather as the very place that matters most, the place, if intensely experienced, that is the locus of greatest growth. That choice of paying intense attention to, actually savoring, where you are at the moment needn’t be the purview of the experienced. It is just as accessible to the beginner, and is, in fact, where the most happens. The way I am listening to my playing these days is a way that I could have listened from day one. I had some close musician friends who did just that. I assumed they had better ears than I did. In fact, they were just paying more attention to their ears. My mistakes in the beginning were twofold. First, I thought I should be thinking about things rather than experiencing them, and second, I thought that what I could do was not good enough to be worthy of attention. By treating what I was doing early on as something of little value, I missed much of the extraordinary value it actually had.

I’d like to close with two examples. When I watch my wife, Joan, paint, she seems to really pay attention to every moment. She watches what happens when she mixes two or three colors together. She notices what she gets. She finds places to put the mix on the painting and watches the behavior of the brush and how the paint flows onto the canvas. She experiences the different ways that color reads as it lands next to different colors. She doesn’t try to intellectually categorize what is happening. She is far too busy with her senses for that. The result of this attention is, number one, that she absolutely loves painting and, number two, that she has a huge experience base regarding mixing, color relationships, brush behavior, etc. because she has been paying attention to what has been happening all along. The second example is from my own experience as a drawer. I have no idea why I have always drawn this way. Maybe it’s because my first drawing teacher said that he would rather see a pile of motivated failures by our tables than a few conservative successes. Maybe it’s because I didn’t expect much of my drawing in the beginning. Whatever the reason, from day one, once I decided to learn to draw as an adult, I have always drawn full out. Somehow I got hooked on finding where I am, rather than worrying about success or failure. As with my wife’s experience with paint, every drawing is a learning experience, whether it turns out well or crashes in flames. I know in my bones that my greatest successes result from discoveries forged in the previous failures, so while I am working, I don’t think about success or failure. I’m simply too busy making to waste time judging things. It’s not that my early drawings were great. But they were frank. They were what they were, or rather they reveal where I was at the time they were made. And just as with Joan and painting, I have always loved drawing. I love the struggles. I love the discoveries. I love how unpredictable it is. For me, drawing is like food. I can’t live without it and it gives me the opportunity to indulge in whatever I most enjoy at the moment. Also, as with food, I enjoy what I enjoy. It doesn’t matter whether others like what I like, and I can’t be talked into liking what I don’t like. Drawing is a sensory, exploratory experience that is all consuming.

I suspect that many beginning drawers feel that the attitude I assumed early in my drawing must be earned, that otherwise it would be arrogant. I disagree. The attitude I am encouraging is to simply treat what you are doing and your potential with the respect. If you assume that what you do doesn’t merit respect, then you get trapped in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat your own work as being unworthy of your intense attention, you will limit the ability to witness your own experience and, in turn, limit the growth that will allow you to express your potential.

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One Response to Listening

  1. Diane says:

    An excellent observance of creativity. Even in times whenI do not actually make something, as when i was sick with flu this winter or traveling with no time, I find myself mentally drawing for the future. Every part of the process from thumbnail to color is an exploration, a dance with the eye the head and the hand. While previsualizing may be a way to get to the final piece it is the journey that matters most. Thank you.

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