Random finds (2017, week 21) — On excellence, practice, and improvisation (and jazz)

“I have gathered a posy of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.” — Michel de Montaigne

Random finds is a weekly curation of my tweets, and reflection of my curiosity.

Excellence and our cult of achievement

Is our cult of achievement crushing the genius out of people, economist and mathematician Eric Weinstein wonders.

“I think that very few people see the words ‘excellence’ or ‘consensus’ as anything other than the most positive of words. These are the habits that most people seek to cultivate. They wish to be part of the consensus. They wish to be excellent in both their behavior and hope for excellent outcomes. I think the problem is that, we didn’t realize that excellence so far as it goes is fine but it’s involved in a trade-off. And that trade-off has to do with the fact that excellence is really about quality control. It’s about the fact that if I’m going to go for, let’s say, a classical music concert, I want to assume that the piece will be played flawlessly and I will concentrate only on the interpretive aspects of the piece above that. But, in fact, quality control can be deadly. For example, if in a jazz date where an improviser takes few risks the music may be pleasant enough as background music but it’s scarcely the sort of thing that would have animated the bebop generation who played live dates under open-mic conditions never knowing what would happen next. Perhaps the most famous jazz album of all time was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, and if you look at the sheet music for that date almost nothing was written down. It was just a question of bringing the most amazing minds together. And you can even hear a few flaws on that album which make it so exciting.”

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Miles Davis during the legendary recordings of Kind of Blue (1959).

“So, I think that the problem is that, we have to realize that excellence is about hill climbing. It’s about the fabled 10,000 hours. It’s about practice making perfect. And this is something that, to the credit of excellence, it’s something we do know how to teach. Perhaps we don’t know how to teach everyone how to achieve it but there’s always a class of people who through dedicated repetition will be able to bring their variance under extraordinary pressure so that they are reliable members of our society.”

We have figured out how to teach excellence, but at a cost, says Weinstein. We, including our education institutions, have become hyper-focused on cutting variant individuals to an ideal shape, pushing them into a mold so they can passably imitate ‘excellence,’ without actually being able to really perform. We have absorbed the concept of excellence into the very fabric of our society so that all those who don’t function within that idiom feel that they are somehow abhorrent and less. But what we don’t seem to realize is that real genius is about adaptive valley crossing.

“It’s about taking on risk, taking on cost, doing things that make almost no sense to anyone else and can only be shown to have been sensible after the fact […] Jim Watson said this beautifully, he said if you’re really going to do anything big you are by definition unqualified to do it. […] And so, what I’m really interested in is not being blinded by excellence to the prospects for other modalities, in particular genius.”

Practice and the art of mastery

Practicing for countless hours seems burdensome and boring. Maybe that’s why we are drawn to stories of ‘instant achievement.’ But as jazz musician Wynton Marsalis writes in Wynton’s Twelve Ways to Practice: From Music to Schoolwork, “practice is essential to learning music — and anything else, for that matter.”

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Wynton Marsalis

For jazz musicians, the time spent learning theory and refining technique finds eloquent expression in the concept of woodshedding, a “humbling but necessary chore, like chopping wood before you can start the fire,” says Paul Klemperer in Woodshedding & The Jazz Tradition. However, retiring to the woodshed “means more than just practicing. […] You have to dig deep into yourself, discipline yourself, become focused on both the music and your instrument.” As beginners, we tend to look at practice only as a chore. The best jazz musicians however, know there’s also “something philosophical, almost religious” about it. John Coltrane, for example, practiced ceaselessly, consciously defining his music as a spiritual and contemplative discipline.

Also Marsalis implies a religious aspect, but his twelve ways to practice are mostly as pragmatic as they come. He promises they “will work for almost every activity — from music to schoolwork to sports.”

For a look at how practice changes our brains, creating what we colloquially call “muscle memory,” see the TED-Ed video below.

Annie Bosler and Don Greene explain how practice affects the inner workings of our brains. (Animation by Martina Meštrović for TED-Ed)

Improvisation and ‘practical reason’

In We could all do with learning how to improvise a little better, professor of philosophy and the author of The Evolution of Imagination (2017) Stephen T Asma argues that anyone who has played improvisational music with others is familiar with the virtuoso who has great skill and expertise but bad social sensitivity. “In performance, he tears into melodic acrobatics, but never listens enough to know when to stop, or hand it over to another player, or modify and adapt to the aural environment. His narcissism undoes his own musicality.” But it can also go the other way, since the overly shy improviser never gets courage enough to assert his musical ideas. A balance of humility and hubris facilitates good improvisation, not just in music but also in art, science and business.

The single greatest predictor of quality improvisation is simply experience. But there’s nothing simple about experience, Asma writes. “A great jazz improviser such as Miles Davis had thousands of hours of practice and problem-solving underneath every one of his improvisational flights. This kind of experience makes good improvisation highly intuitive in a biological sense, not a mystical sense. It taps into the subtle systems of animal awareness, mostly unconscious, that we all possess, such as body-awareness (proprioception), personal space (proxemics), and arousal states such as fight or flight. Muscle memory is loaded with this kind of intuitive wisdom.”

But improvisation is also highly adaptive because “it seeks to fit (adapt) to an environment, to fit a structure to a function, a part to a whole. Primates and other mammals improvise occasionally (e.g., piling boxes to reach food, etc), but humans are masters of repurposing materials to new functions — turning reading-glasses into fire starters, dental-floss into fishing line, and duct tape into everything else. We are the improvising apes.”

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Well improvised — Dizzy Gillespie at Deauville, France in 1991.

According to Asma, this kind of decision-making is particularly valuable in situations of resource deficiency. “The perfectly provisioned kitchen or tool shed has an implement for every task. But the improviser does not have such optimal resources. And this paucity of resources is the very condition of creativity because it forces a kind of lateral thinking.”

Failing is a major aspect of improvisation. It’s what we learn from, and the cornerstone of productive experience. Aristotle “described improvisational decision-making as ‘practical reason,’ distinct from rule-following logic.” Aristotle believed young people can become experts, but we don’t usually consider a young person to have good improvisational skills. “The reason is that [practical reason] includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which the young do not possess; for experience is the fruit of years,” he argued.

“Ultimately, improvising is a form of receptivity to experience, and also a behavioural style based upon that experience. It evolved as part of our cognitive operating system to make good use of available resources,” Asma believes. “It is a fundamental inheritance, emerging out of our primate evolution. But the narcissistic improviser and the inexperienced improviser — so popular these days in politics and celebrity culture — leaps tragically into delicate situations with no plans, practice, tact or ability to read the room. That is an improvising ape of an altogether different kind.”

And this …

Sticking with jazz, Wynton Marsalis said about the twenty-seven-year-old Cécile McLorin Salvant, “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” And in The New Yorker, Fred Kaplan writes, “Only a few years into her career, the singer has absorbed the music’s history and made it her own.”

Here she is performing Nobody, from her 2013 album WomanChild (available on Amazon or iTunes).

Nobody by Cecile McLorin Salvant (from her 2013 album WomanChild).
Don’t blame me by Thelonious Monk (1966)

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