Greatness in Music: How Is It Achieved?

This post was originally published in the season 2014-15 program book of the Millikin-Decatur Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Michael Luxner. While it was written to address Millikin University community specifically, I believe its message applies far more broadly, which is why I decided to post it here.

All musicians want to be great, but how one achieves greatness is still hotly debated. We are better at recognizing greatness once we’ve heard it: the perfectly placed note, in the well-crafted phrase, within a greater artistic vision, combining to move performers and listeners. Nevertheless, Millikin’s young musicians are charged with becoming great, and Millikin’s faculty are charged with guiding them on that path.

Historically, the scientific debate on greatness in any field has revolved around the question: Does greatness come from innate talent or deliberate practice? But a group of scientists go beyond this dualism in The Complexity of Greatness, a new book edited by Scott Barry Kaufman.

Source: Wikipedia. 

Source: Wikipedia

In the book’s chapter on music, Jane Davidson and Robert Faulkner introduce the concept of “syzygies” to explain how a number of important factors must converge for a musician to become great. The concept of syzygy comes from astronomy, and describes the momentary alignment of planets in orbit. When we explain a favorable outcome by saying that “all the planets aligned” to make it possible, we are drawing on the metaphor of syzygy.

Davidson and Faulkner argue that multiple traits influence a student’s training, including: physical characteristics, personality traits, and general intelligence, as well as environmental factors such as teachers, resources, and community support. Furthermore, this constellation of factors does not align by chance, but are drawn together by an almost gravitational pull. For example, if a musician has strong internal motivation (personality trait), she is more likely to attract a great teacher (environmental factor). Conversely, when a student has an excellent teacher, he is more likely to develop strong internal motivation. When all factors come together in a syzygy, Davidson and Faulkner argue, they tend to produce the following traits in a musician: “1) The freedom to play within the domain to develop creative thought, 2) the challenge to develop skills to solve problems, and 3) the social contacts to inspire, model, support, and celebrate change to the musical self.” 

The next time someone asks whether a great musician is born or made, perhaps an honest answer would be: “Both, and….” For the young musicians in the MDSO, and across campus, this means considering everyday factors beyond the practice room: classes, teachers, home life, physical health, social circles, sleep patterns, and fluctuating levels of motivation. All have the potential to contribute or detract from their quest for greatness in music.

For the greater Millikin and Decatur communities, it means that we have the ability to influence a young musician’s journey for the better. We can be planet-movers, perhaps even providing the modicum of gravitational pull that will align into a young musician’s syzygy of greatness.

Posted on December 2, 2014 .

Tech Teaching Tools

I'm attending the Experiential Classroom, a workshop on developing teaching strategies for entrepreneurship. One session is on teaching with technology. Here are the tools they recommend, posted here for attendees, or for teachers to check out on their own.

Teaching Tools:

Bitly: www.bitly.com

Biz model fiddle: www.bmfiddle.com

Jing: www.techsmith.com/jing.html

Mindomo: www.mindomo.com

Murally: www.mural.ly

Piazza: www.piazza.com

Slack: www.slack.com

Soundcloud: www.soundcloud.com

Storify: www.storify.com

Voicethread: www.voicethread.com

Have you used these tools? Tell me about your experience in the comments.

Posted on September 19, 2014 .

New Music From Friends and a Legend

September has been a month of exciting new music releases. Here are a few of my favorites:

My friends Brandon and Anne, better known as My Name Is You, have released their second album, Home Now

A couple of other friends from San Diego are a part of the community of musicians in The Tree Ring. This album marks the likely end of what has been a brilliantly hand-crafted music experience over the last several years and three albums.

And then there is Leonard Cohen, not a friend but a legend nonetheless. Hear his new album a week before it is released, via NPR First Listen (album will be unavailable after the release, so listen now!). 

What is your favorite release of September? Please share in the comments so that we don’t miss it.

Posted on September 17, 2014 and filed under Popular Music.

The Biggest Music Release of All Time?

Technically, when Tim Cook and Apple pushed the new U2 album for free to 500 million iTunes users, it instantly became the biggest music release of all time. But this world record will go down in the history books with a big asterisk. Like other partnerships between artists and tech companies—think Jay-Z and Nokia's Black Phone—this one will lead to a huge payoff for the artist at a time when album sales are no guarantee of revenue. But unlike the Jay-Z partnership, which came preloaded on newly bought phones, U2's album is supposedly just instantly "there" in your library. The truth of this statement will hopefully be tested in the weeks to come.

This move is sure to spark other such partnerships, but those partnerships will be in the minority. The rest of us need to find other ways to deliver amazing music to our listeners, while also making a living doing it. The old ways—make a song; sell it—can only remain insofar as it is one of a series of revenue streams for artists. The answer? Do what we musicians do best:

Be creative.

Posted on September 10, 2014 .

The secret syllabus I wish I had written. [Link]

Sonya Huber jettisoned the rules of typical syllabi, and wrote the unseen subtext of learning that lies behind them. It reads like a secret syllabus for any college class, and I wish I had written it. Read it here. It’s worth the five minutes, especially as another academic year begins. Here are my favorite lines. There are many more.

1. I’ll tell you exactly how to get an A, but you’ll have a hard time hearing me.

2. I could hardly hear my own professors when I was in college over the din and roar of my own fear.

3. Those who aim for A’s don’t get as many A’s as those who abandon the quest for A’s and seek knowledge or at least curiosity.

22. Students are surprised by this fact: I really really really want you to learn. Like, that’s my THING. Really really a lot.

33. Secret: I have to plan first and THEN abandon the plan while still remembering its outline.

Hat tip to Amanda Sewell (Twitter: @amjsew) for sharing this, which is how I found it. 

Posted on August 21, 2014 .

What Is Your Favorite New Teaching Trick?

It’s course prep time again. That means it’s time to review all of the harebrained pedagogical ideas I’ve had over the last year, and start making the decisions as to what’s in and what’s out. 

But one person can only have so many ideas, and they are certainly not all good, or at least not as great as they could be. That’s where community comes in. So tell me, what are your ideas for teaching music history (or other courses, music or otherwise) this year? Have a brilliant idea? Have a half-baked one? Share them in the comments, get ideas from others too, and let’s have our best year of teaching yet. Picture comments supported!

Posted on August 14, 2014 and filed under Teaching.

Yoda Would Never Say This to Young Musicians (On Arts and Entrepreneurship)

Yoda would never say this to a young musician apprentice:

“Are you an artist or an entrepreneur? Choose you must.”

He also wouldn’t say: 

“Anger, fear, entrepreneurship. The dark side of the Force are they.”

But he might say: 

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

When I was growing up, practicing my Bach and Chopin...

From ASAPP to ASAP: Is Business Correspondence Becoming Less Polite?

Just a short note today from the archives of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. While researching this week, I’ve been reading hundreds of pages of inter-office memos, letters, press releases, and shipping orders from record executives. Many of the shipping orders were sent out as promotion to key people in the recording industry, and the ones I was looking at were from the desk of Mo Ostin, President of Warner Bros. Records. 

On these shipping orders, in the comment box, I saw a note: “ASAPP.” At first I thought it was a typo, but then after seeing it on multiple other sheets, it hit me: the extra “P” is for “please.” It seems like a small but important letter. Even when rushing, and there's a lot of money on the line, it pays to be kind.

Where did that last “P” go in today's business acronymicon?

Posted on August 6, 2014 and filed under Arts and Entrepreneurship, Music and Branding.

A Trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, In Pictures

I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio. Here are a few pictures from the trip. Click on the image to move to the next.

Scott Barry Kaufmann Says the Talent vs. Practice Debate is Flawed

Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufmann thinks its silly for us to hold on to the "or" in the "Talent or Practice" debate. His article on The Creativity Post will surely be of interest to musicians, as will his recent book, The Complexity of Greatness (OUP, 2013). Read an excerpt from the preface here.

Posted on July 30, 2014 and filed under Linked Stories, Scholarship.

Twitter as a Research Tool?

In the summer of 2014, my Twitter feed was peppered with images of old and interesting books. Drawings of leaves by Ben Franklin, philosophical marginalia, Massachusetts psalters... They were all being posted by a friend of mine, whom I assumed was on a research trip at an archive and was posting all of her interesting finds. That turned out not to be the case.

Posted on June 28, 2014 and filed under Scholarship.