Music, like life, is absurd.

      Comments Off on Music, like life, is absurd.

And the sooner we accept this, the sooner we’ll be able to fully enjoy both of them.

Last weekend I came across Adam Gopnik’s article in the Observer about his attempts to learn to paint and to drive. It’s full of wisdom about how the process of learning new skills brings its own rewards, especially later in life. For your reference, here’s the full article:

Having spent many years now teaching various musical instruments to adults and kids, a few points he made really struck me as sagely advice for students:

We live in an achievement-driven society in which kids of all kinds and classes are perpetually being pushed toward the next evanescent achievement instead of the next enduring accomplishment. Yet anyone who is a parent of any sensitivity at all recognises that what really stirs and moves children isn’t the “A” you get in the test. No, what really moves and stirs us is accomplishment, that moment of mastery when suddenly we feel that something profoundly difficult, tenaciously thorny, has given way and we are now the Master of It…

I’ve always said to children and their parents that if they have their heart set on working towards their guitar grade 2 or their singing grade 5 then I’m happy to support them in this. And the instrumental grade system has its merits : for teachers it provides a crystal clear framework of progressively difficult pieces and exercises that we can set for pupils who, in turn, are rewarded with learning way markers, milestones and qualifications that (beyond grade 5) can contribute to their UCAS university applications. They can help some students with their sense of confidence and achievement, and give their practise a ‘raison d’etre’.

But pursuing music exams also comes with various costs. To get over the pass mark, students need to be very secure and fluent in just three or four pieces, which for most means spending months and months learning and mastering the same piece. These pieces are usually close to the limit of the student’s technical abilities, so that work can be very time consuming and occasionally tedious. It’s certainly very repetitive and has the sole purpose of becoming sufficiently competent at performing those few pieces that it can be done once in a closed room in front of an examiner. This can, at best, be something of an anti-climax and is often just a blessed relief for the student. And, of course, there’s also always the risk that the exam itself doesn’t go the students way on the day. As I can testify personally having narrowly failed to pass ABRSM Grade 7 Piano as a teenager, this can have a profound and lasting impact on a person’s self confidence.

So, I agree with Gopnik that working for months and months toward ‘the next evanescent achievement’ rather defeats the point of learning an artistic skill. As I often hear myself saying to my students: in the end there’s only really one reason for learning to play and that’s to enjoy it. I strongly believe that the speediest and most worthwhile progression comes from the enjoyment of playing, rather than from the collection of certificates that, when all is said and done, prove only that a person was able to play x, y or z to a specified standard on a particular day. And I see this in action: the teenagers I teach who spend every break and lunchtime at school in the music department playing songs with their friends are the ones who progress most quickly with their technical abilities, get the most out of their musical activities on a day to day basis, and who are developing a lifelong love affair with their instruments.

Repetition and perseverance and a comical degree of commitment – simply the commitment both to recognise the absurdity of your effort and the sincerity of its goal – are disproportionately rewarded in the real world of the real work.

Scientists who have cared to study such things tend to reckon that 10,000 is the golden number of hours required for someone to go from being total beginner to ‘accomplished’ at technically difficult skills such as playing a musical instrument. I think on any measure, spending that much time on a pursuit that has no practical purpose is irrational and absurd. But, absurdity is exactly where the beauty and value of music resides. Working on guitar scales or piano fingering exercises, for example, can be seen simply as necessary challenges – a means to the end that is being able to conquer certain technical skills. But viewed another way, they can be whimsical and beautiful in and of themselves, and they then take on an even greater degree of profundity when they appear in the context of pieces of music. The reward that Gopnik speaks of is in the participation of playing, practising, performing or simply messing around with a musical instrument. Every moment spent enjoying being with music is a worthwhile moment that is its own reward.

Share this page: