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 .